Jordan: You know, sometimes I sit back and think about what my work life will be like when things eventually finally get back to normal. And Claire, we worked together pretty closely every day, and I don’t know if that will ever be the same, really.
Claire: Yeah. It’s hard to imagine what that’ll be like. I mean, you can’t really practice physical distancing in an office.
Jordan: And all the public health experts that we see online or that we talked to for this show seem to think that it’ll be a very gradual return. And that we’ll only do it when we can be sure that we can work in an office with minimal contact. And I just don’t know how that actually works. Like I can’t picture it.
Claire: Especially when you have an open concept, like we do with our studios, right? And it’s not just the office spaces, it’s sidewalks as well. I mean, I don’t know about you, but every time I go outside now, the sidewalk seems so tiny when I’m trying to walk past someone while maintaining that six feet. I find I have to walk on the road most of the time.
Jordan: Yeah, and the road is empty now, most of the time, because there’s no traffic, and some cities have begun designating parts of roads for pedestrians because there’s more of them and fewer cars. So clearly some of the changes we’ve made have been hard, but there are positives in there. I mean, you know, we’ve done an episode on the environmental benefits we’re seeing without so much commuting. Before this ever started, we’ve done episodes on cyclist and pedestrian deaths in big cities, and Claire, it won’t shock you to realize that those have fallen off a cliff. And so it’s clear that we can take some lessons from this, whenever things get to be normal again.
Claire: That’s the one thing I’m trying to stay positive about throughout all of this. I think that when this is all over, I think we’re going to make some good changes. I mean, I hope we’re going to make some good changes.
Jordan: Well, all we can do right now is try things that help us in the short term and see what sticks. And so today we’re going to look at the profound short term impact that COVID-19 is having on cities and homes and offices. And we’ll also ask some questions about which of those changes could become permanent and what it would take to make them stick around. Because you’re right, it would be nice, after all this if there were some longterm benefits. But I mean, I just don’t know. So I thought we would ask somebody who might, and we will do that, Claire, right after you catch us up. On Monday, where are we with COVID-19 in Canada?
Claire: Well, I’m actually going to start with some non-COVID-19 related news. Because that’s what the country has been talking about for weeks now. But today there is another story. Unfortunately, a tragic one. At least 13 people in Nova Scotia have been killed by a gunman who went on a rampage Saturday night, and one of the victims has been identified as an RCMP officer. This is still a developing story with a lot of questions, so just want our listeners to know that we are following this story and we’ll have more on it in the days to come. Well, some countries, including Australia, have said that they’re calling for an investigation into China’s handling of the Coronavirus. Here at home, though, Justin Trudeau says Canada is not currently doing that. He did say, however, that we are following the lead of other countries in closely watching foreign takeover bids of Canadian firms at this vulnerable time to protect Canada’s economy and national security. In British Columbia, some tougher regulations are being put in place. Anyone found responsible for price gouging or anyone reselling medical equipment now faces a fine of $2,000. And this comes after over 800 complaints of price gouging. The province also says that same $2,000 fine applies to people who fail to self-quarantine when they return from travel. A curfew has been put in place in La Loshe, Saskatchewan after the province’s first case of COVID-19 in a longterm care home was discovered in La Loshe. This is a small community in the province’s Northwest. The curfew means people are required to be in their homes between the hours of 10:00 PM and 7:00 AM, and anyone who is not faces a fine between $100 and $150. And lastly, starting today, anyone taking an airplane in Canada has to wear a non-medical mask during the trip. You have to prove you have a mask when you board, and if you don’t have a mask, you could be turned away. There are exceptions for children under two and people with disabilities. As of Sunday evening, over 35,000 cases of COVID-19 in Canada with 1,647 deaths.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Toon Dreessen is the president of Architects DCA, formerly the president of the Ontario Association of Architects. Hi Toon.
Jordan: I wanted to talk to you because I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about what our homes and offices and everything up to cities will look like, and you’ve been trying to picture that.
Toon: I have. It’s really interesting seeing what’s happening in the world and seeing what’s happening in our cities today as a result of everything that we’re experiencing. And for me, the interesting question is, is this temporary? And when this is over, as it inevitably will be, do we go back to the way things always were? Or do we take this as an opportunity to see how our cities, our lives, our work lives, our home lives could be different?
Jordan: When you say there are opportunities here, what are you seeing? What are you thinking about when you look out your window at what’s going on? You’re in Ottawa. What do you see when you look out your window and you think, Hmm, this could be better?
Toon: I think there’s a couple of things that I see. One, from a personal perspective or a human resources perspective, you know, we’ve always anticipated that people would have a home, they would get in a car or a bike or a bus, and they would get to work and they would do their job and go home. And there was this sort of expectation of, your job is a Monday to Friday, eight to five sitting in an office. If that’s what your job is. And what we’re seeing now is that maybe that needs to be more flexible. Whether that’s giving people the flexibility to do, you know, a seven to eleven and then go for a walk or go have lunch or go take their dog for a walk and then finish their work day in the afternoon. Or if we have a flexibility of saying, you know, people are going to work from six until noon, and then they’re going to spend the afternoon with their kids because they get off the bus, you know, they go to kindergarten or something, they get off the bus, and then they finish their work day in the evening. That’s a flexibility that we haven’t really fully embraced because we’ve sort of resisted it from a workplace employer kind of a relationship. You know, for the most part. And I think what we’re seeing now is that employees can be trusted to do their job. They can work, they can work efficiently, and they can work remotely. And I think one of the biggest ways we’re going to see this have an impact is in accessibility. The accessibility community that’s looked for ways to have that kind of flexibility and be able to participate fully in an office environment or in a work environment, we’re now seeing that that’s actually a lot more possible than it was in the past. And I think we’re going to start to embrace that.
Jordan: As an architect, then, when you look at a city, and let’s assume that we do start to embrace these things and we do become more flexible, what does that open up for design and structure of our cities?
Toon: Well, for one thing, I think that it would change how we would imagine our cities functioning. So if we think about something like transit, if everybody spent even just 20% of their workday, one day a week, working remotely and everybody was given, say every office job was given a number and 20% of the entire workforce stayed home one day every day of the week, we would change the way we plan our transit because we’d only have 80% of the people using it every day. Or we would change how we would conceptually look at the way we design our office environments. Instead of having, say, an office meeting and somebody brings in donuts. And everybody at the table is having donuts, but one person who couldn’t come in that day because they’re, I don’t know, maybe their kid was sick and they’re working from home or something like that, they don’t get to participate in the social atmosphere of the office and everyone says, Oh, these donuts are so good and they’re so tasty, they’re so wonderful and that one person is excluded. We now start to think of ways we can be more inclusive. And we might say, Hey, we’re going to have a meeting, and I want in the meeting everybody to get yourself your favourite donut, and you put it in your expense report, and everybody sits there and says, we’re all having our donuts together. We’re all having our coffee together, and we’re sharing in the social aspects of our work life in a really positive and engaging kind of a way.
Jordan: And I mean, those meetings that we’re having now were probably the best part of my day, cause the rest of it is spent in the basement. But I’ve talked before on this show about losing a feeling of social connection to my neighbourhood, but I don’t think I’ve lost it in terms of my connection with the office. And that kind of leads me to my next question, which is, if that impacts our transit policies, does it also impact our offices?
Toon: I think that it really does. I think it starts to change how we imagine our office environments working. You know, if we have an office environment in which, you know, there’s desk hoteling where people might come into work and they have no assigned desks and everyday you show up at work and you hang up your coat and a locker, you grab your laptop, and you find a seat that’s comfortable for you, and you might choose a different seat depending on the day, or depending on who you have to work with or what work you need to get done, and you might move your seat around in the course of the day, depending on the sunlight or something else. Well, suddenly that becomes a very different environment if you’re sitting in a spot that someone’s just vacated. Is that person carrying the virus? Have they been sick? Do they have a cold? Are you compromising yourself and your health based on that environment? You know, the first thing that gets cut typically is maintenance budgets. You know, immediately after this current crisis is over, everyone’s going to be very, very concerned about making sure we have good cleaning and disinfectants and so on in the workplace. But in a few years, people will forget and they’ll say, Oh, we’ll cut the maintenance budget. We’ll only do cleaning once a week or once every two days or it won’t be as effective. And then the next thing will happen. So I think it’s gonna change how we think about our workspace. People are going to want to have enough space that they can be physically distant, but socially cohesive with their work colleagues when they’re in a physical setting at an office.
Jordan: Let’s move that to neighbourhoods. You wrote in one of the pieces I read about the idea of spacing within density. Can you kind of explain that and what that would look like in a big city?
Toon: Sure. So thinking about something like, say, Ottawa’s Glebe community, which is, you know, sort of a nice traditional main street in the center of town and it has lots of walkable shops and stores, and there’s grocery stores and pharmacies, and, and the Rideau canal goes by and there’s a large bridge that crosses that canal and connects it to the old Ottawa South community. This part of the city, that street, is four lanes wide. It was recently rebuilt, and it maintained four lanes for vehicles, and it kept sidewalks that were sort of about, say, six feet wide. Well, that six foot wide sidewalk, part of it is taken up with, you know, telephone poles and garbage cans and fire hydrants and other stuff. So the effective width of the sidewalk is less. It’s probably about five feet and some places, four feet. So that’s quite a narrow space. But we have four lanes of space for cars. A lane of traffic in each direction, plus a row of parking. We don’t have the kind of vehicle traffic today that we did a month ago. We also don’t have people going to this street and parking. Now, we don’t have people going to the street and parking because some of these businesses are closed, because restaurants and cafes and so forth have closed. But we could imagine that these cafes and restaurants could reopen and could reopen and provide the physical distancing that’s necessary. But the only way they could do that and remain viable is if there’s enough place for people. And it makes so much more sense to imagine taking away those lanes of parking, maintaining a lane for traffic in each direction, maybe there’s a bump in for buses or transit or something like that, but you eliminate the parking on the street. And suddenly you have at least 10 feet of additional space on either side that can become spaces for cycling, spaces for people to walk, nice weather comes out, there’s a place for a small patio, some seating, bigger landscape, trees. There’s a nicer physical environment that allows people to move in the city. And the key point to this is that a community like the Glebe and Ottawa South, they have this a great network of stores and grocery stores and pharmacies and so on, that people want to get to. In their daily needs, they need to be able to get to the store, but they don’t have the physical space to do so. And I think that’s really key, is we’ve had some success in being able to take away some lanes of traffic on that bridge, but that’s it. It’s pretty limited.
Jordan: One thing I just wanted an architect’s opinion on is I’ve had a couple of really fascinating conversations with friends and colleagues about, how does this change houses and apartments. You know, if you’re designing, let’s say you’re designing just a regular old semi-detached house in a residential neighbourhood. What are you doing to it now that we know that this is something that could be with us for years and, you know, there could be other viruses, that you wouldn’t before?
Toon: Well, I think that one of the things that this will change in housing is how we imagine the ability to use space in multiple ways. In the same way that creating a destination for a city, you know, if you build a shopping mall, and, and the only thing that, that shopping mall is a store that sells bowling pins. Well, if you don’t need a bowling pin, you don’t go there. But when you need a bowling pin, that’s the store you go to. It becomes a single point of destination. In the same way in our house, if the only thing you can do in your kitchen is make a meal, but there’s nothing else that you can do there, then it becomes a single destination for activity. I think what we’re going to want to see in houses going forward is an ability to use more spaces in the house for multiple purposes. So your dining room might serve as your dining room, but maybe there’s a way that it needs to also be a place that can be a home office during the work day. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. You know, rearranging all the furniture and some sort of modular moving dining room table that, you know, somehow flips upside down and conceals the computer. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated. It just has to be designed in a way that it can function in that way so that it could have, for example, a door that could close off from the rest of the room, so that if you do have to have a video call or a conference call or the work, you have a place that is your work. Maybe it means that when we design apartments, for example, we specifically design apartments so that there is a balcony and the balcony is big enough that people can go outside, they can sit on the balcony, they can enjoy the sunshine, they can be part of their social community, without feeling like they’re just trapped behind, you know patio doors and a French balcony where they can’t go outside, or they can’t go outside at all. I think about some of the, the housing, apartment housing. Where, you know, the only sort of real outdoor space you have is a common roof terrace. Well, if you’re restricted from interacting with your neighbours and the roof terrace is only really big enough for a dozen or half a dozen people at a time, who’s controlling access to that? How does it become overcrowded? What are the challenges associated with your physical and mental health if you can’t go outside, if you have nowhere to go to enjoy the sunshine?
Jordan: One of the things you kind of touched on there is the open concept apartment and the open concept floors of houses. They might be like multi-use points, but they’re not very effective ones. Do you know what I mean? And when you mentioned, like, you might need to incorporate an office with a door, like that’s the one thing that I’ve wondered about, is will this change like the super duper completely open floor plans?
Toon: I think it will. You know, the advantage of the open floor plan is that you can have a flexibility of space. So, you know, family A has a bigger living room and a smaller dining room, and family B has the reverse. Size of the room doesn’t restrict the activity within it. And so that’s great and that’s flexible. But on the other hand, when you have all that open space, you know, if you’re sitting there trying to work and you’re concentrating, you know, you’ve got a job to do and you need to pay the bills and you’re trying to focus, but you’re at home, you’ve got your kids at home, and kids are kids. They want to watch TV, or they’re playing, or there’s something happening. And so you’re in the same room, and there’s noise and there’s activity and there’s no ability to separate work from home. When I think about life as sort of trying to put things in boxes, when you go home, you’re at home. And you want to have a home life. Whether that’s, you know, making dinner or hanging out with your kids or whatever, there’s that home life. But when you’re at work, you have a work life and you behave differently, you dress differently, you talk differently, you live differently because you’re at work. You have a professional persona, so to speak. But when the work life and the home life overlap, how do you meld those two? And it’s kind of fun right now because it’s temporary, right? Today we have a conference call and we see inside each other’s homes. And you know, I saw an interview the other day and I looked at the back of the bookcase behind Malcolm Gladwell or the bookcase behind Alex Bozikovic and I look at their books and think, that’s neat. But you know, if that’s sort of every day, that’s one thing. That’s a very different kind of an expectation. And not is going to have a nice, fun background of beautiful crafted books. Some people are going to have a background and it’s, you know, do they want to share what that background is? And yes, you know, in Zoom and in MS teams and things, you can change your background and put balloons and bubbles and things like that. But is that a professional setting? If you’re having a very serious interview, say you’re defending your thesis. Do you want to have a background that shows your sort of, you know, whatever low rent apartment you have behind you? Is that a professional setting? Is that the kind of professional dignity that you want to give to people if the rest of the people on the call are, for example, in a nice office setting? What kind of a setting do you want to create and kind of an image do you want to portray based on the background of your Zoom call?
Jordan: In terms of the things you spoke about, in terms of our roads and you know, cities and how we organize sidewalks, I see some of that changing now, but I don’t have– I don’t know, I don’t have any faith that we won’t just go back to normal. You know? And I wonder what you think about how you can sort of make the case for like, maybe this is a better way? How do we do that?
Toon: One of the things that I think we’re seeing as a result of this is that, you know, collective action across the globe can have a significant impact. And we’ve all taken that action around the world. And climate change is, is the other big challenge on the horizon. Now, I think the challenge is that we’ve been able to respond to the COVID-19 epidemic– or pandemic– because it’s immediate and it’s right in our faces and we’ve done so at enormous cost to the environment. I think the risk is that people will say, Oh, well, we’ve done this for COVID-19, we’re going to do it for climate change next, and that’s going to kill the economy. And that’s not the case. I think what we need to see is that collective action like we’ve done for this, can have a massive impact on the world, on climate change, without the economic impact. We can change how we want to look at the world and the world we want to create for our children and our grandchildren, by taking this kind of concerted international effort to change how we live our lives. And a good example of that are, and this isn’t gonna sound, you know, a little off topic, but a good example of that are the official plans for cities. Ottawa’s new official plan talks about being climate responsive and creating walkable environments where most people in Ottawa use transit or bike or walk to get to work. Well, these are very admirable and aspirational goals. If we want those goals to actually work, if we want to actually implement them, all we have to do is take a look at our city today and say, if we have a 90% drop in vehicle commuting, we have fewer people out and about in cars, we have all of this extra space that’s being taken up by parking, that’s not being used, well, let’s convert that. Let’s imagine the city we we aspire to in 20 years. Let’s picture that today. Let’s take away that street parking. Let’s make protected bicycle lanes. Let’s make walkable spaces. Let’s put down trees and planters. If this pandemic, you know what people are saying is going to go on for another year or a year and a half, that’s a year and a half that we could be experimenting. We could go get planters and temporary ballers and we could put them down on streets. And we could test what the kind of physical environment we want our cities to look like. We could test that today for a fraction of the cost than doing it permanently over the next 20 years.
Jordan: Well, I hope we can make some progress while we’re stuck in this. Thank you so much for chatting with us today.
Toon: Thank you.
Jordan: Toon Dreessen is president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA, formerly the president of the Ontario Association of Architects. That was The Big Story. You know where to go to find more, in your favourite podcast player, or all of them going as far back as you would like, at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also talk to us at anytime on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. You can also drop us a line, like an actual recording using the voice memo on your phone or a video, and you can email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you however you want to do it. And of course we would love your support in the form of a rating or a review if your podcast player allows them, but only if they’re positive. Please, we’ve got enough negativity around here right now. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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