A new vision for our towns and cities

Our small mountain towns are joining the ranks of world-class cities in pedestrianizing streets in the downtown core.  The Towns of Banff and Canmore are mirroring actions in big cities like Paris, New York and Milan to make more space on downtown streets for people to maintain social distance while enjoying the commercial and recreational activities that our towns have to offer.

Whether this should be a short-term reaction to an immediate problem or an enduring solution towards addressing deep-rooted challenges in our towns is worth considering.

Across the world, measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic have yielded inadvertent but welcome environmental benefits:  cleaner air, decreased carbon dioxide emissions, decreased pressures on wildlife.  People and policymakers have seen what their cities can look like without traffic congestion and air pollution.  Liking what they are seeing, and feeling that it was a state worth preserving, they are taking bold action now. 

Milan has accelerated its Strade Aperte (Open Streets) plan by a decade from 2030 to 2020 to transform 35km of inner-city streets, prioritizing pedestrian and cyclists over motor vehicles. Likewise, Paris is reserving 30 streets and 50km of car lanes for pedestrians and cyclists, respectively, and Mayor Hidalgo has predicted that some of these changes could become permanent.  

In Canada, several large cities are seizing the window of opportunity presented by post-COVID-19 recovery to accelerate changes to make cities more sustainable, equitable and livable.  The 2020 Declaration for Resilience in Cities, signed by Mayors and Chief City Planners from Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Victoria among others, calls for responsible use of land, decarbonization of transportation systems and sustainability in built and natural environments. 

Let’s demonstrate that when our house is on fire, we can and will act quickly, decisively and effectively. 

In the Bow Valley we do not have big cities with big city problems.  However, we have small towns with significant visitation that gives rise to traffic congestion, parking problems, and reduced enjoyment for visitors and locals alike. 

What can we learn from the experience of other urban centres who experience similar problems? 

Reducing vehicle dominance and replacing car-oriented urban spaces with people-oriented spaces have economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits.  Bars, restaurants, retailers and artists all benefit from the increased foot traffic, liveliness and sociability of pedestrianized spaces.   

Our towns also have good intentions for environmental sustainability and written plans for decarbonization, waste diversion and ecosystem preservation. Dates for achieving key targets have been set out to 2050. 

But what we saw in the COVID-19 crisis is that when we are faced with a potentially devastating public health emergency, we can act swiftly and collaboratively in days to weeks to make sure people’s health, lives and livelihoods are protected.  Why don’t we leverage this success to treat climate change like the public health emergency it is? Let’s demonstrate that when our house is on fire, we can and will act quickly, decisively and effectively. 

Finally, we need to reinvent our towns so they do not perpetuate the inequities that currently exist. Built environments such as sidewalks, public buildings and parks need to be accessible to all residents throughout their life.  Children, seniors and people with different physical abilities should feel safe moving about towns during winter and summer. 

Decent, affordable housing is needed to create mixed-income neighbourhoods that reflect the wider population and bridge people from different walks of life.  Food security and high-quality public transportation benefits everyone, but are essential for people with low incomes to ensure that they have access to good nutrition, employment and recreational opportunities. 

In the Bow Valley we don’t have the cachet of urban centres like Toronto, Paris and New York.  But we can learn from them and we too can seize the window of opportunity in the post-pandemic recovery period to re-imagine and re-invent our communities. 

Vamini Selvanandan © 2020. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on June 18, 2020. Photo credit: Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

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