Reallocating Main Street Space to Support Community Wellbeing


Please note that our BIA is currently in the process of applying for the CafeTO program on behalf of many of our members.




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Across the country in Vancouver, we have seen the city trying to help find ways for residents and businesses to adapt work and life during the pandemic. This has included the expansion of outdoor patios, to allow for safe distancing, along streets in the city’s core.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ A similar initiative dubbed “CafeTO” is being discussed at City Hall in Toronto. ⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ Like in Vancouver, this would mean repurposing road space for expanded sidewalks, patios, and small parks.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ The polar opposite of the harsh, urban grind, the “soft city” is one that supports relationships between people and the places around them by breaking down traditional silos.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ City staff will need to work with BIA’s to identify potential areas of interest and implementation of the plan.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ We don’t have all of the details just yet, or any kind of concrete timeline. However, it’s something the BIA and councilor Paula Fletcher are actively and carefully looking into together.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ “The goal is to create comfortable space for both people to move and businesses to operate in ways that meet physical distancing guidelines,” said a report from staff.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ Watch for announcements from the city, as the program may begin to shape up in the coming weeks. ⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ Read more about the #softcity concept here⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ #CafeTO #ActiveTO #CurbTO #YYZ #SoftCity⁠⠀ #locallove #inthistogether #resilientcities #innovation #love #shoplocal #supportsmallbusiness #eastendtoronto #littleindiatoronto #leslieville #gerrardindiabazaar

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Image credit: Mitchell Reardon

By: Mitchell Reardon and Emma Clayton Jones, Happy City

COVID-19 has radically altered the way humans gather, interact and even walk down the street. In response to physical distancing measures, people have found creative ways to use the main streets around them. Canadians are using streets that typically prioritize cars to access essential jobs and services by foot and bike, meet friends and neighbours, and to share messages of hope and gratitude. Importantly, they are taking up main street space to grieve and protest the racist treatment of Black and Indigenous peoples within communities and by police.

Reallocating main street space – from parking or traffic to people and local businesses –  is an essential part of holistic pandemic recovery. And in order to support businesses on the brink of closure and help people make the most of warm summer months, we need to act quickly. Now is the time for municipalities, business improvement areas and other city builders to support public health, economic recovery and people’s desires to take up space.

Below, we outline the case for reallocating main streets, and offer practical tools for Canadian cities and towns to do it.

Carving Out Safe Spaces for People

Restrictions have begun to relax across the country. People are starting to gather in small groups and some businesses are reopening. But this is not a return to normal. Two metre (6 foot) physical distancing requirements are still in place, and people are limited in entering shops and restaurants. Until a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed, the only way to flatten the curve while also enabling many people to earn a living is by opening up space for all people – workers, customers, street-involved people and those who want to re-experience main streets.

Image credit: Mitchell Reardon

Image credit: Mitchell Reardon

Beyond physical health and the health of the economy, access to space is also critical for mental health. The stress that many people feel while running formerly mundane errands is countered by the devastating effects of social isolation. Re-allocating street space cannot remedy these critical challenges alone, but in cities and towns across Canada, it is a vital step to alleviating the stress and isolation that many people are feeling every day.

While the pandemic has resulted in many changes to human lifestyles, we remain social creatures. Removing some parking spaces or a lane of traffic is a low cost for fulfilling the basic human need for sociability.

Image credit: Cheri Hessami

Image credit: Cheri Hessami

Bringing Business Back to the Street

More than half of Canadian companies have lost at least 20% of their revenue due to COVID-19, according to a Statistics Canada survey of more than 12,600 companies. Further, over 80% of surveyed businesses have experienced a “medium to high” drop in demand for products and services. The kinds of businesses that sit on main streets of cities and towns – like food services, entertainment, and retail – are some of the hardest hit.

Many small businesses have shuttered, and thousands more are grappling with an uncertain future. Meanwhile, online megastores are capitalizing on the need to stay home and flatten the curve: Amazon, for example, saw 26% revenue growth in the first quarter of 2020.

Keeping main streets vibrant means ensuring shopping can be a safe, in-person experience. By allowing local companies to bring patios, stalls and popups onto the streets, we will enable even more Canadian businesses to stay afloat.

Main Streets for Whom?

We shouldn’t redistribute street space without asking who the change will benefit and who it could potentially harm. To be successful, street reallocation needs to advance equity and inclusion, in main streets and in communities as a whole.

For example, letting businesses use sidewalk space will boost the local economy and create an enjoyable outdoor experience for those who can afford to participate. But privatizing the public realm requires careful consideration. Ask:

  • Who will be welcome in this reallocated space?

  • Will this project reduce space for homeless or other low-income populations who can’t afford the block’s food or services?

  • Could bringing more eyes to the street affect the dynamics of surveillance on the street, in ways that could harm racialized or other marginalized populations?

An Open Streets Toolkit

The need to rapidly respond to the COVID-19 crisis means cities are testing solutions and coming up with best practices fast. Here are a few emerging, and broadly applicable, good practices to help make sure space reallocation projects are well-designed and equitable:

  • Expand patio space for all businesses: The City of Toronto recently announced a new program called CaféTO. It aims to make it easier for restaurants to open and expand patio space, by identifying available spaces to expand and speeding up the parklet and sidewalk café permitting process. Rotterdam has rolled out an even wider initiative. Between June and November, the City is encouraging entrepreneurs to bring their offerings to parking spaces adjacent to their buildings. By waiving permit requirements and offering free delivery and installation of pre-made decks, the municipality has made it easy for all kinds of businesses to pop up outside. Outdoor haircut, anyone?

  • Pedestrianize main streets: Opening streets to people, while relegating non-essential vehicles to nearby parking lots enables more space for people to stay physically distanced while walking, enjoying patios, and more. In doing so, traffic noise drops, air quality improves and the human senses are allowed to come alive. Every summer, many people make the “trip of a lifetime” to enjoy the car-calmed streets of Amsterdam, Barcelona and elsewhere. This summer, let’s bring those feelings home to our main streets.

  • Provide small grants for community activations: Businesses shouldn’t be the only organizations taking up space when main streets are opened up. Cities can promote equitable street access by funding cashless activations by community organizations or resident groups. Activations might include parklets, art installations, free food, or outdoor religious or cultural gathering spaces.

  • Seek out partnerships with social impact organizations: Relying on large companies to handle things like programming and waste management can be convenient, but partnering with social impact organizations to manage recycling programs or repurpose street banners can ensure that key investments benefit main street businesses and the people who live on or around them.

  • Engage underrepresented communities: Ensuring that streets welcome and reflect everyone who uses them – or would like to use them – requires nuanced engagement and openness to distinct approaches. Take a look at Oakland, the city that pioneered “Slow Streets” in April. When the initiative first rolled out, it seemed like Oakland’s communities of colour were skeptical. But the City’s engagement team conducted another round of dialogue with groups that had been underrepresented the first time. The team realized that these residents wanted to ensure the mobility strategy prioritized safe access to essential services, rather than just prioritizing leisure. Oakland responded by rolling out the Essential Places program, which slows down streets that improve access to grocery stores, food distribution sites and COVID-19 testing sites.

Image credit: Mitchell Reardon

Image credit: Mitchell Reardon

More Tools Coming Soon

Our main streets are the hearts of our communities. They are pathways to take us where we need to go, places to meet friends and strangers, spots to work, shop, eat and drink, and sites to protest, grieve and have our voices heard. As we recover from COVID-19, it is important for cities and municipalities to create space for these human uses to coexist while we work to flatten the curve.

Stay tuned: Soon we will be sharing a visual toolkit that provides more ideas and strategies to help decision-makers plan COVID-19 recovery interventions that improve public health, the local economy, and collective wellbeing.

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