My city of ruins - Shawn Loughlin editorial
Remember the concept of the bustling city, full of activity, excitement and noise? Of course you do. I certainly do. Growing up in two Toronto suburbs (Pickering and Scarborough), I spent much of my teenage years and early 20s in the heart of Toronto and now, it seems, that experience may be dying.
An article in Fortune magazine, quoting a study commissioned by the University of Toronto, states that many of North America’s great downtowns are “dead, dying or on life support” in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not to posit that I’m smarter than the average bear, but I’ve been having this conversation with more than a few people in the last year or two. As people have continued to work from home and overhead costs rise on everything from energy to food to heat, I’ve been wondering what cities like Toronto, New York, Chicago, etc., will look like in a decade.
Think about it. A city like Toronto is built with a certain critical mass in mind that makes it viable. And, as a result, it makes all of its satellite businesses viable at the same time.
The story quotes a number of facts and figures. Office vacancy rates in New York City, for example, have risen by more than 70 per cent since 2019, and Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, which is a stretch of stores and restaurants known the world over, had a vacancy rate of 26 per cent in the spring, meaning that one in four storefronts on that portion of Michigan Avenue was sitting empty.
John Rennie Short, the author of the article and a professor of geography and public policy at the University of Maryland, says the writing of this decline has been on the wall for decades due to overbuilding of commercial space in big cities. The pandemic finally burst the bubble.
So, what will these cities look like in, say, 10 years. As I mentioned before, all of these office buildings are just the beginning. Coffee shops, lunch spots, bars, dry cleaners, corner stores, small supermarkets and more were all built with the promise that a set number of people would be making their way into these cities from bedroom communities every day. Now, without those people to support these businesses, they would then be in jeopardy as well, putting more people’s jobs at risk.
And that’s not even it. You think of public transit, transportation services like taxis and Uber - if they don’t have enough people paying to ride, they too will suffer. Toronto has seen that with its famed TTC lines. An article published about a year ago by Global News said that TTC ridership was at 61 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels. Businesses can’t just lose half of their customers overnight and be expected to survive, regardless of the service they provide.
Housing is greatly needed all over the country, as we know, so a reasonable answer to this question should be converting office buildings into housing for people. However, those communities will then be destined to look different and really never go back to the way they were before the pandemic.
Casually talking with friends of mine, they say that being in Toronto just isn’t the same as it used to be. They have told me that it feels weird. A big city, full of buildings towering over you, but without all of the people running around, is destined to feel a bit odd.
People are flocking back to concerts and sporting events, filling restaurants and bars, but, they’re then returning to their homes.
The delicate ecosystem of a city during the day is a fragile balancing act and every piece of it needs to make sense. The pandemic, it seems, has thrown a wrench into that dream.