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City Building through Social Inclusion

broken chain link fence in focus with the background of a city at sunset

Published on June 09, 2020

The work of city building is redistribution, and COVID-19 is proof. 

By: Ayana Webb, Program Manager at Evergreen 

COVID-19 itself is not a problem. Equity is.  

Yes, COVID-19 has a higher reproduction and mortality rate than many other viruses we’ve experienced, and true, its danger is further complicated by the absence of typical prevention strategies like vaccines. But more than anything, its emergence has highlighted and amplified global and local inequities some have managed to sidestep and ignore for centuries. The devastation we have seen across the globe is as a result of a deadly virus interacting with social systems - invisible to some - that systematically and predictably dismantle the defences of some populations more than others.

Since the virus has reached North America, it has become clear that people of colour and lower socio- economic statuses are disproportionately affected by the virus and far more likely to die as a result of infection. In New York state, we’ve learned that the portion of BIPOC individuals represented within the COVID-19 mortality rate is twice as high as their proportion of the population. So, Black Americans are twice as likely to die from COVID-19. By comparison, Canada’s approach is not to collect race-based COVID-19 data at all, stating that it is not yet needed. We do know, however, that newcomers to Canada and those who earn less are at higher risk.

Many are rationalizing the disproportionate infection rates and death tolls in racialized communities in one or more of the following ways:

Early work to understand the virus’ life cycle has positioned Vitamin D as an essential defence against COVID-19.  

Why is this a systemic issue? People of colour, disproportionately affected by Vitamin D deficiencies, are also not well-researched enough to justify global or national guidelines for subpopulations, guidelines which are all too common for national food guides when health issues affect dominant populations. These same guidelines address specific dosages to meet the needs of seniors, but not similarly underrepresented racial groups.

Access to reliable health information and health resources is essential to supporting adequate personal precautions like social distancing, early detection of infection, and comprehensive treatment.

Why is this a systemic issue? Our sources of reliable health information are costly and largely, digital. Remote and under-resourced communities, often more racialized communities, face real and tangible barriers to accessing digital infrastructure.

BIPOC communities have higher rates of what have been problematically termed preventable diseases. These underlying conditions increase people’s vulnerability to COVID-19.

Why is this a systemic issue? The Social Determinants of Health tell us that those who face barriers to social inclusion (based on race, gender, income, age) are far more likely to develop preventable diseases, not due to inherent qualities, but because of barriers to access.

Social/physical distancing is our first defence against the spread of COVID-19, a defense that many of us cannot mount.

Why is this a systemic issue? Those without significant independent wealth and monetary assets, especially those employed in service industries (which are disproportionately racialized) are deemed essential and put in danger, also quickening the spread of the virus in their communities. Bike couriers deliver junk food to rich people and construction workers choose between endangering themselves and refusing work, foregoing access to federal relief programs. All the while, senior leadership in all industries stay home and protect their own health and that of their communities.

COVID-19 is teaching us what universal access could look like.
Ayana Webb

COVID-19 has made obvious that whiteness and wealth are actually the first lines of defence in the fight against COVID-19, and that many of the virus’ issues are simply amplifications of long-standing social structures that disadvantage and oppress specific communities.

Of course, there are other factors at play here. Some have named urban density and slow-moving action by some global leaders. There is a lot of debate as to what or who is to blame for where we find ourselves, but in all that debate, we have not sufficiently blamed inequality. You see, by and large, we have come to accept that winners and losers are a core part of the societies we live in. That for some to thrive, some must suffer.

As we consider equalizers, we inevitably encounter the question of buy-in, power, and appetite for change. These considerations are nods to oppressive social structures that we invariably uphold. But as governments attempt to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, we are seeing growing support for promising strategies that prioritize need. Suddenly, the “flattening the curve” for-the-good-of-the-herd, collectivist discourse has come to include many historically overlooked populations.

We’re seeing the removal of barriers for many to healthcare, housing security, employment security. We’re experiencing new approaches to transit and internet access. All of this is out of necessity. COVID-19 is teaching us what universal access could look like.

Recent unprecedented government bailouts and social safety nets are clearly behind many of the equalizing forces we have seen in response to COVID-19. But we can’t stand to lose this traction once we’ve recovered. We need to throw out our comfortable notions of ‘doing our part’ with side-of-desk committees tasked with the work of understanding and distilling the complex and critical barriers to social inclusion, equity and justice. We need to start positioning this work at the core of our missions.

The work of city building is not dreaming up the next big idea in flourishing cities for those of us who are “lucky” (it’s not luck) enough to be able to access it. The work of city building is nothing more and nothing less than the work of redistribution. We need to build our future cities with and for those who cannot access the cities of today.


The work of city building is nothing more and nothing less than the work of redistribution. We need to build our future cities with and for those who cannot access the cities of today.
Ayana Webb


At Evergreen, our work focuses on bringing people together to develop bolder visions for the future of Canadian communities and collaboratively working towards them. Our organization has been doing this work for almost 30 years, from greening public spaces, to driving affordable housing initiatives, to helping local governments develop the competencies and connections to adopt data-driven community solutions. As we continue to effect change in this sphere, we must also work to truly understand the harmful systems that we reinforce through our work. We must unpack the privilege we demonstrate in our approaches to our work, use it to uplift and include those oppressed by our systems, and earn a reputation of solidarity. We will continuously strive to practice stronger allyship, to do more, and to learn and grow. We can, and will, do better.