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Has COVID-19 Given New Life to Tactical Urbanism?

While many temporary changes have been made to our cities with COVID-19 in mind, their benefits could outlast the pandemic.

A car-free street in Montreal

Published on April 14, 2021

While many of these temporary programs have been made with COVID-19 in mind, their benefits could outlast the pandemic. 

Since the onset of the pandemic last spring, cities and their residents were forced to reconsider countless aspects of their everyday lives. 

In an effort to increase active transporatation, bike lanes were installed in cities across the country with unprecedented speed. Needing more space for residents to socially distance on crowded sidewalks, roads were shut down for pedestrian use. And seemingly everywhere you looked, people and businesses were finding new ways to use outdoor space, from pop-up ice rinks to sidewalk cafes. 

This reconfiguring is referred to as “tactical urbanism,” a term used to describe any low-cost, temporary interventions to public space. As cities around the world have tried to make their residents safer and more comfortable during the pandemic, there’s been a wave of pilot projects aiming to make city streets more open, inviting places to move and gather. 

And while pilot projects have long been a way to test ideas and gather feedback, will these temporary changes to our cities remain once the pandemic is behind us? 

We’ve taken a closer look at spread of tactical urbanism across Canada during this unprecedented time.  

 

Bars and restaurants on Ottawa's Clarence St. with tents and patios stretching into the street for safe dining.
Bars and restaurants on Ottawa's Clarence St. with tents and patios stretching into the street for safe dining.

The Beginnings of Tactical Urbanism  

Tactical urbanism began in the 1970s, as local activists in San Fransisco sought to reclaim public space that had been designed for cars. 

They organized one-off grassroots events, blocking off streets and declaring them car-free on certain days. This type of resident-led, temporary action still exists today, and includes DIY gardening projects, partitioning certain areas of public space with tape, chalk or paint, or even the creation of street art. 

As time has gone on, the term tactical urbanism has evolved to include government-led pilots, which employ innovative ideas on a temporary basis.

Pedestrian lanes added to the streets of Montreal.
Pedestrian lanes added to the streets of Montreal.

New Projects Across the Country 

During COVD-19, cities around the world adopted short-term changes to their public spaces to help slow the spread of disease and keep residents safe.  

Canada was no exception. Municipal governments worked quickly to expand and improve their cycling infrastructure, so residents could move around the city in active ways.

Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Kitchener, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton all expanded their cycling networks in the last year, with many planning to make the changes permanent. 

Cities also embraced an increase in “pedestrian days,” turning over roadways to cyclists and pedestrians so they could enjoy outdoor space safely. 

Last spring, Winnipeg devoted several streets to “active transportation” only during designated hours, while Vancouver closed its popular Stanley Park to vehicle traffic entirely.

 

Streets in Victoria, BC closed off for pedestrian use and sidewalk cafes.
Streets in Victoria, BC closed off for pedestrian use and sidewalk cafes.

City streets didn’t just see an increase in walking and cycling. Parking spaces and sidewalks were transformed into expanded outdoor patios, to allow residents to safely dine outdoors in the warmer months. 

Toronto’s CafeTO program allowed 897 restaurants to create expanded outdoor spaces last year, while the Winnipeg’s temporary patio program has been extended into the fall of 2021. 

While it’s too soon to say if we can expect these temporary programs to become permanent, their popularity has raised the question of how to design our city streets — should our public spaces become less car-centric in a post-COVID world? And how quickly could we make those changes?

Montreal's
Montreal's "safe transportation circuit" lets pedestrians make their way through the downtown core without vehicle traffic.

What Comes Next?  

While many of these temporary programs have been made with COVID-19 in mind, their benefits could outlast the pandemic. Less traffic in downtown cores would improve air quality, reduce noise levels, encourage physical activity and reduce the risk of accidents. 

The expansion of bike lanes and pedestrian streets offers residents opportunities to enjoy their cities in healthy, sustainable ways. Many may decide these are things they want more of in the future. 

This, and the fact cities may wish to keep some changes in place to be prepared for a future health crisis, means that we could see these temporary changes become permanent. As for the public’s appetite for more changes to the fabric of their city, the popularity of many of the projects could signal a new embrace of tactical urbanism in the months and years to come.