Wed. May 25th, 2022

On May 1, Toronto announced that 40 percent of the city’s adult population had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. This positive public health milestone – signaling progress in vaccinations after a slow and bungling start – offers hope for the notion that Toronto city life will rise again as current pandemic restrictions are eventually allowed to fall.

At the beginning of the pandemic 13 months ago, I first wrote about the role cities played in the front line of coronavirus response. By April 2020, cities were focused on preparing for an immediate response to both COVID-19 and pandemic-induced lockdowns.

Toronto’s local government was tasked not only with leading a comprehensive public health response, but also with steering a set of rapid policy changes on challenges such as homelessness, public areas, public transport and tax relief.

Last fall, I launched an initiative called Toronto After the First Wave. It was intended as a data visualization project and was inspired by the availability of public health information on COVID-19, e.g. City of Toronto dashboard.

Toronto After the First Wave focuses on quantifying the effects of COVID-19 on the city as a vibrant city center. This work has helped highlight the urban patterns that became visible in the midst of the chaos of the pandemic.

The debate over the effects of COVID-19 on cities continues. On the one hand, there has been story after story of the ongoing urban exodus from big cities to more pastoral housing, decline in the declines, and the improbability of returning to work as we knew it.

Conversely, we have also learned that data often tells us something else: cities remain living places, and evidence suggests that concentration remains attractive.

The end of cities?

This urgent work was surrounded by broader debates about whether COVID-19 was the last provocation that would lead to the downfall of cities. First, the argument about urban death was inspired by incomplete information about the role of cities as disease vectors.

Cities — like places with close concentrations of people and activities — actually seemed to be at the core of the spread of COVID-19 and the centers of a disproportionate number of cases and deaths. However, data show otherwise.

What we know now is that urban inequalities are at the heart of the problem. This takes the form of overcrowded living arrangements and precarious working conditions, including lack of paid sick days, and is exacerbated by poor public policy decisions.

A homeless camp
Precision for homes in Toronto – seen in this homeless camp – has become more and more visible during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

What we have learned can also be divided into two additional categories: results we should have expected and those that surprised us.

Expected consequences

First, COVID-19 is an accelerator. In the early days of the pandemic, anecdotal evidence leaned toward allegations of a city walk. Interest in real estate in rural and small and medium-sized cities grew, holiday home brokers could not meet the demand for real estate and home sales in Toronto fell sharply.

Read more: Corona pandemic pushes Canadians out of cities and into the countryside

Although data are still being collected, preliminary evidence suggests that there is no urban emigration.

Instead, COVID-19 is credited for speeding up household relocations outside the city center for affordable reasons. Pandemic lockdowns accelerated the process for those with stable or growing incomes and a desire for more space and often a private farm.

At the same time, fees paid by applicants to cover the cost of processing development applications in the city of Toronto increased by over 25 percent by 2020.

In retrospect, it also seems obvious that COVID-19 would exacerbate inequality. Our case study in Toronto highlights the uneven impact of job loss for women. The pandemic also triggered the collection of race-based data showing greater job losses, lower wages and more precision for racist individuals.

Toronto data shows that racist people and low-income households are far more likely to contract COVID-19 than others. We now understand well that the K-shaped economic recovery has benefited some sectors, while continuing to create difficulties in others.

Surprising innovation

At the same time, COVID-19 forced innovative thinking. Our restaurant dashboard shows that more restaurants opened than closed in Toronto (based on data from Yelp) between May and November 2020. This finding is far from previous claims that the restaurant sector would be destroyed as a result of the closure of indoor and outdoor dining for most of the last year.

Job losses in food services are large and job creation is slowly returning. However, the industry has demonstrated remarkable resilience and innovation that can revolve around takeaway menus, digital ordering systems and high reliance on delivery.

Another area where the results have been unexpected is in real estate and rental markets. Our report highlights unusual divergence in these two areas, although Toronto’s divergence is very much in line with the experience of other global cities.

Rental markets in almost every neighborhood of the city have experienced declining rents. The largest declines are in neighborhoods in the center. Of the four neighborhoods that experienced rent growth, all are outside the core on the city’s eastern and western edges.

Conversely, home sales – with the exception of owner-occupied flats – have seen price increases across the board. Following an initial fall in prices in April 2020, Toronto property prices rose by more than 13 percent in 2020.

It’s too early to reach a conclusion while the story of COVID-19 and cities is still going on. Yes, Toronto has suffered. But it is still a vibrant, thriving city with a lasting future.

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