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Coronavirus will change cities but offers chance to fix chronic inequities: expert

Coronavirus an opportunity to make cities more equal and inclusive
WATCH: Coronavirus an opportunity to make cities more equal and inclusive

The coronavirus pandemic is causing lasting changes to Canadian cities, exposing chronic inequities and barriers to essential services that can differ dramatically across racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

But in an interview with The West Block guest host Farah Nasser, one urban development expert says he hopes leaders recognize the pandemic presents a major opportunity to develop creative new ideas to address those inequities and make cities more livable for all.

“I think it’s the most important moment of my life for cities,” said Richard Florida, an urban studies research and professor of economics at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

“The COVID crisis focused attention on the inequities with regard to how much visible minorities were exposed to the virus in their communities. And now a wave of protests is saying, ‘We’re not going to stand for racial and social and economic injustice, police brutality. We want a better way of living.'”

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How coronavirus could shape future urban life in Canadian cities
How coronavirus could shape future urban life in Canadian cities

Roughly 112,997 Canadians have been infected with the virus and some 8,878 have died from it.

Public officials across the country have grappled with the spread of the outbreaks.

But they have also acknowledged the disproportionate impact the disease is having in communities where people may live in closer quarters, work in more vulnerable jobs, have less access to health care and often have poorer baseline health.

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READ MORE: Across the world, coronavirus hits poor neighbourhoods harder. Here’s why

Data from around the world has underscored the scope of the challenge, prompting public health and government data agencies like Statistics Canada to heed demands for them to start collecting race-based data.

The goal is to better understand and address the inequalities in how the coronavirus pandemic, and all of its cascading impacts, are impacting vulnerable communities.

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Coronavirus: The impact of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable in our society
Coronavirus: The impact of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable in our society

In Toronto, for example, case data shows Black neighbourhoods are hit harder in terms of the number of coronavirus cases. That mirrors similar data showing a harder hit on communities in cities like New York and Montreal with larger concentrations of Black and Hispanic Americans, or more immigrants, refugees and low-income Canadians, respectively.

READ MORE: Black neighbourhoods in Toronto are hit hardest by COVID-19 — and it’s ‘anchored in racism’: experts

Florida said the societal reckoning over the disproportionate barriers and discrimination that racialized communities face in urban areas makes this a moment when leaders need to seize the chance to make big, bold changes.

“That movement is a movement, not just of visible minorities and frontline workers. It is a movement of knowledge workers, professional workers, white Canadians, multicultural Canadians. It is multicultural and multi-class people standing up and saying, ‘We want better cities,'” he said.

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“So the opportunity we have now is to make our cities better, to build them back better in ways that are more inclusive, that create more opportunity and more justice for all Canadians.”

READ MORE: Canada’s lack of race-based COVID-19 data hurting Black Canadians: experts

Making those kinds of changes will require significant cooperation and coordination between officials at the municipal, provincial and federal levels, noted Alfred Bergusson, a member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Youth Advisory Council.

Bergusson told Nasser he doesn’t believe the federal government is doing enough to combat racism in Canada despite pledges from the prime minister to do more.

“We’ve been vocal. I’m just not sure this is a priority for our current government,” he said. “I guess time will tell and so we’re hopeful that progress will be made on that front.”

PM Youth Council Leader says dealing with systemic racism has not been a priority for Justin Trudeau’s government
PM Youth Council Leader says dealing with systemic racism has not been a priority for Justin Trudeau’s government

He urged community leaders to come up with clear, specific demands for their representatives in order to be able to push for more meaningful and concrete change.

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“I think we, as citizens, need to demand the changes. We can march and we can call for change but nothing will happen if we don’t have specific calls to action,” he said.

“We really need the public and others across Canada to put pressure on our government.

Trudeau says not all premiers agreed to condemn systemic racism in declaration
Trudeau says not all premiers agreed to condemn systemic racism in declaration