Robert Barrs and his wife and their three-year-old son live next to a park in Vancouver.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the young boy liked to go out and play with other kids at the playground in the park.
Now there’s a caution tape wrapped around the recreation area. The city has closed playgrounds to promote social distancing and stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“He finds that quite frustrating, and we have to explain it to him; and it’s funny: he’s able to absorb it and get it,” Barrs told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
When Barrs looks at the empty playground and other deserted public spaces, he sees it not only with the eyes of a parent but also those of an urbanist.
Barrs is a principal with the Vancouver-based Modus, an urban-planning and public-engagement company.
He is a former president of Smart Growth B.C., a nonprofit dedicated to environmentally responsible land use and development.
According to Barrs, it is unfortunate that the pandemic is happening at a time when cities like Vancouver have been making progress in designing urban areas.
Barrs said that there had been advances in building cities for “high-quality density and livability and for mobility as well as active transportation”.
“The images, and just kind of driving around, you see these fairly desolate open spaces now, and the first thing that goes through my mind is that it’s a shame that we may lose some of that momentum that we’ve been building up over the last 20 or so years and done so well in the city and in this region,” he said.
Barrs explained that as part of urbanism, planners have been encouraging people to congregate and develop a “collective human experience” as they live in compact cities.
“I guess social distancing is really the antithesis of urbanism, in a way,” Barrs said.
A big question is whether the effects of the pandemic on how cities are thought about will be long lasting or just temporary, until the development of a vaccine or immunity in the population.
Barrs wondered if public-health risks posed by pandemics will shake fundamental premises about the value of dense and amenity-rich communities.
“We build complete communities, in part, because it improves the efficiency and viability of public transit and transportation of all kinds,” he said. “It cuts down on the number of cars.”
Now that a lot of people are working at home, which Barrs thinks will last in the short term, there is less need to travel at all.
According to Barrs, the need for transit-oriented developments might be “diminished”, although it will not be gone completely.
Barrs has some suggestions on how cities can build resilience to pandemics. One of them is improved Internet infrastructure.
Barrs and his colleagues at Modus have been working at home, and he noted that their video conferences are sometimes breaking up, probably because of the sudden strain on the Internet system.
“We’re craving for interactions, and we are able to get quite a sense of interaction through online video conferences,” he said. “It doesn’t completely replace being in a room with somebody and interacting with somebody, but it does partially replace it.”
In light of empty grocery shelves, Barrs also suggested that cities should think about ensuring supply of commodities, especially food.
“I think we’re going to be rethinking basic local manufacturing and local supply chains as much as we can, or at least building some more resilience into those supply chains to make sure that if one place or port goes down, if a particular trading route is blocked or choked, then we’ve got alternatives that are readily available,” Barrs said.
Barrs added that this may require having to “localize and regionalize some manufacturing and distribution”.
“That would increase our resilience as a region and as a city,” he said.
Another suggestion from Barrs is developing contingency plans to support emergency service workers during crises like pandemics.
Such plans will allow frontline workers to have access to basic needs “so that they can keep doing that work”.
“If the stores are empty when they go into a store, they have very little time to go a second time,” Barrs said.
Barrs thinks that cities will be able to move beyond the immediate crisis posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In part, it will be temporary, because I don’t think we have a lot of choice,” he said.
Barrs noted that one option could be decentralizing cities into “smaller communities” or even building “more suburbia”.
“But even within those kind of communities, you’re still coming into contact with people,” Barrs said. “And so it’s not really a solution for pandemics and contagion generally.”
Barrs is confident that cities will be able to weather the crisis and become stronger and more resilient to pandemics.
“We’ll come back, and cities will remain viable,” he said.