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COVID-19 is inspiring healthier street design in Canadian cities

As communities adjust to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, a vibrant global discussion is taking place about how cities should provide more street space to facilitate safer physical distancing. Even with staged re-openings, the expectation of a second wave has planners thinking about how to design streets to anticipate a new normal over the coming months.


Paul Shaker


As communities adjust to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, a vibrant global discussion is taking place about how cities should provide more street space to facilitate safer physical distancing.

Even with staged re-openings, the expectation of a second wave has planners thinking about how to design streets to anticipate a new normal over the coming months.

In Canada, cities across the country have engaged in this discussion, with varying outcomes for local governments, city residents, and advocacy groups.

Sometimes the municipality takes the lead and implements changes based on their own information. In other scenarios, grassroots engagement is helping to identify the needs on the ground.

At Civicplan, we have worked with a variety of local organizations to help advance this important discussion. We created an online engagement tool, called PlanLocal Street Space, to gather spatial information about the locations and types of interventions needed around cities.


What we have found is that there are four types of interventions cities are undertaking:

1. Widening existing sidewalks to create more room for pedestrians to safely walk while maintaining physical distancing;

2. Designating more bike lanes to create more connected and protected routes for cyclists to get around;

3. Creating new sidewalks on roads that currently do not have any safe pedestrian infrastructure;

4. Creating pedestrian-priority zones that limit car traffic. These zones allow for restaurants to have enough space to create safe outdoor dining areas and for businesses to create outdoor commercial storefronts.

Looking across the country, a mix of these interventions is at work.


In Victoria, the city is restricting on-street parking to create designated pedestrian zones near important services. This can relieve pinch points at busy areas.

The City of Vancouver is creating Slow Streets, where vehicle access is limited to local traffic only. It’s creating routes for walking and cycling that make it easier to exercise and access businesses.

In Calgary, the city closed some of the busiest roadways to vehicles to give Calgarians ample space to walk, enjoy the outdoors, and to observe the required two-metre distance from each other.

The City of Edmonton has implemented Shared Streets in higher density neighbourhoods that do not have transit service. The streets are open to those who are walking, cycling, or driving.

The advocacy group Bike Regina is using the Regina Street Space tool to gather information and ideas about improving walkability and cycling around its city.

The City of Winnipeg expanded its annual bicycle and active transportation routes schedule, which limits vehicle traffic on designated routes.

The City of London has implemented road closures and one-way sidewalks in areas that could be difficult to maintain a two-metre distance when meeting another pedestrian.

The Guelph Coalition for Active Transportation is promoting the Guelph Street Space tool to gather resident input on interventions and the City of Guelph has temporarily expanded sidewalks in areas where physical constraints make it hard to keep space between people.

In Hamilton, residents used the Hamilton Street Space tool to identify a variety of interventions dealing with cycling, walkability, and the creation of pedestrian zones. The outcomes have helped inform a community mobility plan that the city has developed.

The City of Brampton has implemented temporary bike lanes by reallocating vehicle lanes along select roads and redesignating them for cycling.

In Toronto, the city has initiated the ActiveTO plan, which includes quiet streets, closing major roads for active transportation, and expanding the cycling network.

The City of Kingston closed down some streets to motor vehicles in order to give pedestrians and businesses more room. Closed parking spaces are provided to businesses to expand outdoors, including setting up retail displays, patios, and space for customer lineups.

The local advocacy group Ecology Ottawa promoted the Ottawa Street Space tool to get residents to submit their ideas for improving the active transportation environment on a number of local roads.

Hundreds of kilometres of roads in the City of Montreal are being altered to become more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. While some streets will be entirely closed to car traffic, others will still be open to cars, but with reduced lanes, as sidewalks and bike paths are introduced or expanded.

In Halifax, the city initiated a Mobility Response Plan, widening sidewalks in high traffic areas and traffic signal modification. The plan has expanded to include Slow Streets, which will be open to local traffic only, to reduce traffic and to create a space for residents to walk, roll, and cycle while adhering to physical distancing guidelines.

While this is not a complete list of interventions across Canada, it gives a good sense of the variety of changes occurring on the ground.

What is even more impressive is the speed at which cities have adopted these changes. Progressive planners have advocated for a redesign of streets for decades, with limited success.

As we move toward the next phases of recovery, there will be increasing pressure to make some of these changes permanent as more Canadians start to experience their streets in healthier and sustainable ways.

Paul Shaker is a member of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a registered professional planner in Ontario. He is co-founder and principal of Civicplan.



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