Cities at a Crossroads: U of T experts set the course for equitable post pandemic recovery

June 23, 2020 by By Emily Mathieu

Cities have an opportunity to enact positive and lasting change as COVID-19 forces a reimagining of how we work, learn, and travel. Ultimately, ideally, cities will emerge as more equitable places to live. 

The question posed by the co-authors of a new report is, do municipal governments have the flexibility and political will to get there? 

“The urban world is facing an era of great change. Cities must regulate more flexibility and nimbly to adapt to their new environment,” stated the authors of Governance Innovation, a new report from the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, School of Cities, and the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society, released last week. 

Among the proposed solutions: Finding new ways to apply existing and at times stagnant policy, forging public-private partnerships with communities to fill gaps in social infrastructure, examining how to refinance and expand public space, and ensuring transparent and substantial data collection to measure outcomes.  

“And they must achieve all these goals while turning back the tide of inequality and social exclusion,” the authors wrote. “That is the fundamental challenge facing cities today.” 

How to best tackle those issues was put to a panel of U of T experts, including a study co-author, through an online panel co-sponsored by the Innovation Policy Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, Massey College, and the School of Cities

“We have watched the stories of injustice and racial inequality unfold. Some of us have burst onto the streets in protest asking for change,” said moderator Marcia Young, host of World Report on CBC Radio, launching “Cities After COVID.” 

“So how do we seize the day?” 

That question kicked off a roughly 90 minute conversation on systemic racism, public space, affordable housing, gentrification, transit, data collection and consent, social inequality, poverty, climate change, and police brutality. 

Toronto must confront the complex and interconnected roles that density and social inequalities play in disease transmission, said Anita McGahan, University Professor at the Rotman School of Management and Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. 

“We know that poverty is one of the greatest indicators for the potential for ill health, and here we see how the mechanism works in real time,” said McGahan. 

McGahan said COVID-19 has made many critical issues impossible to ignore, noting the profound reduction in air pollution documented after social isolation and the pandemic’s disproportionate and well-documented impact on minority communities. 

Faced with those greater truths, federal, provincial, and city governments need to consider trade-offs between what they want to fund, she said, and what they must support.  

During the panel, study co-author Shauna Brail, associate director at the School of Cities and associate professor and director of the Urban Studies Program, acknowledged the “devastating” impact on vulnerable communities and said one priority must be centralized and affordable homes, with built-in supports. 

“If we can’t provide housing for the people we need to work in our city, then what we see is this kind of an exodus,” said Brail. “We know that ideally a vibrant, functioning city actually includes people from a range of income groups and a range of backgrounds.”

The panelists also discussed another urgent issue: the historical mistreatment Black and Indigenous peoples have experienced at the hands of law enforcement. 

“There is a real need to reimagine police,” said Nathalie Des Rosiers, Principal of Massey College. If governments pull any funding from police budgets, said Des Rosiers, those dollars must be reallocated to the right services, particularly training for police officers and mental health support for people in crisis.

Des Rosiers, former General Counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, reflected on Toronto’s “own history with police violence,” during the 2010 G20, and civilian deaths after interactions with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. 

Richard Florida, University Professor at the Rotman School of Management and the School of Cities, said the public outcry against violence, racism, and inequity gives him hope for change. 

The Black Lives Matter movement, coupled with the pandemic, has shone the “brightest light” on “systemic racist and class injustice” that he’s seen in four decades of studying cities, said Florida. Toronto can get there, he said, but it will take a great deal of work, careful study, and political will. 

“We are at a moment where it is possible to envision a more inclusive, a more just, and more equitable, a more vibrant and more resilient city.”