A worksite is seen Friday May 8, 2020 in Montreal. As Quebec’s construction sector reopens Monday following weeks of shutdown to slow the spread of the virus, the main players behind the city’s building boom in neighbourhoods such as Griffintown say it’s “business as usual” and are confident the market remains robust. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

A worksite is seen Friday May 8, 2020 in Montreal. As Quebec’s construction sector reopens Monday following weeks of shutdown to slow the spread of the virus, the main players behind the city’s building boom in neighbourhoods such as Griffintown say it’s “business as usual” and are confident the market remains robust. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

COVID-19 pandemic prompts urbanites to rethink ‘grand bargain’ of dense city living

The current pandemic will change cities, some planners predict

The densely populated slums of Montreal’s Griffintown were the subject of a famous 1897 study by businessman and philanthropist Herbert Ames, whose work on the disease-ridden tenements influenced generations of urban planners on how to develop healthy cities.

Ames’s study, “The City Below the Hill,” is just one example, say academics in urban planning, of how the development of cities has been closely tied to the management of pandemics and other outbreaks of infectious disease.

More than 120 years after its publication, Montreal’s Griffintown is now prosperous, gentrified and full of condo towers catering to an urban elite. But in Griffintown and other urban areas in Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic is putting stress on city life and exacerbating existing inequalities.

As Quebec’s construction sector reopens Monday following weeks of shutdown to slow the spread of the virus, the main players behind the city’s building boom in neighbourhoods such as Griffintown say it’s “business as usual” and are confident the market remains robust.

Some urban planners, however, aren’t so sure. The current pandemic will change cities, they predict, the way infectious disease outbreaks influenced the development of urban centres in decades past.

READ MORE: Easing COVID-19 restrictions too soon could jeopardize vulnerable communities

How cities will change is still unclear, but Vancouver-based urban planner Andy Yan, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, said COVID-19 is making people reconsider their decisions to move into small condos and apartments.

Yan cited data from Statistics Canada revealing that between 1991 and 2017, the median living area of condos in Toronto and Vancouver shrunk by 32 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively.

“The grand bargain was: ‘I will have a small place, but I will have a big public life,’” he said in a recent interview. Urbanites moved into cramped studios but had access to cities full of vibrant culture and gastronomic delights.

But as COVID-19 has forced urban denizens indoors, condos and apartments have become substitute offices, restaurants, schools and daycares. And it’s far from clear when the bistros, cafes and music venues that provided the public life will reopen.

McGill University urban planning professor David Wachsmuth said cities have historically gone through cycles of densification and what he called “spaceification” — for example, after the Second World War when the federal government encouraged people to move from city centres to the “healthier” suburbs.

But Wachsmuth doesn’t predict a flight from cities this time. “I think we are, broadly speaking, in a period where the density of cities has been understood as a positive thing, and I don’t think that’s going to change,” he said in a recent interview.

City life could get cheaper, however, Wachsmuth explained. If the pandemic triggers a longer-term economic decline, property prices will take a major hit, he said, making room for lower-income people and families to return to the space they were pushed out of as gentrification took hold.

But Phil Soper, CEO of Royal LePage, says younger and lower-income people might be disappointed if they think the pandemic is going to trigger a correction in the housing market.

Home sales across the country were certainly down in April — according to Soper, they fell by 70 per cent in Quebec — but fewer homes are being listed, easing downward pressure on prices, he explained.

“The pandemic isn’t providing a magic answer to our housing shortage problems and, therefore, it is not a magic wand that is going to cure housing affordability issues,” Soper said in a recent interview.

“The only thing that will provide more affordable housing in our big cities is additional supply — and there certainly aren’t more homes being built in the pandemic — there are fewer. If anything it exacerbates the problem.”

The main players who are building that supply in Montreal have all told The Canadian Press that come Monday, when the province’s construction sector fully reopens, every site they had operating before the shutdown will be up and running again.

Condos have been selling during the pandemic, they say, with buyers 3D-viewing their units on computer screens rather than in showrooms and using applications to sign documents.

Before the pandemic hit, one sign of Montreal’s booming market was developers competing to build the city’s tallest condo tower.

In April 2019, development company Broccolini broke ground on its 58-story tower in downtown Montreal, called Victoria sur le Parc, which it said would be the tallest residential tower in the city. Chief operating officer Anthony Broccolini said no one during the pandemic has walked away from their down payment.

His construction sites have been modified to comply with provincial rules on physical distancing and hygiene in order to protect workers, but apart from that, on Monday it will be “business as usual,” he said in a recent interview.

Devimco, the company that launched Griffintown’s renewal, boasts the 61-story tower of its Maestria condo project, announced after Victoria sur le Parc, will be city’s tallest residential tower when it’s completed. Vice-president Marco Fontaine said he sold another 20 units of the project last month ”without negotiation” on price.

“It’s not in our plan at all right now to drop prices,” he said in a recent interview. While he expects some kind of pandemic-induced market slowdown, by the time Maestria is completed in a few years, he said, he expects the market will be back.

Fontaine said he appreciates, however, that many of the residents in his buildings’ smaller units are working from home and will continue to do so for a while. “They are in a space that wasn’t made for that,” he said.

To adapt to changing urban behaviours, Devimco has begun discussions aimed at equipping condos with modular furniture that can turn into workspaces.

While Wachsmuth says he doesn’t share the optimism of Montreal’s big builders, he is still betting on cities and the sense of liberation they provide. “There is a lot happening — but also, you can kind of be anonymous if you want to,” he said.

They ”aren’t universally appealing to all humans, but they are, I think, pretty durable to a lot of people,” he said.

Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Police tape is shown in Toronto Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press)
CRIME STOPPERS: ‘Most wanted’ for the week of Jan. 24

Crime Stoppers’ weekly list based on information provided by police investigators

Dale Nordal photographed a frosty scene in late 2020. (Special to the Langley Advance Times)
SHARE: Frosty vista of Mount Baker by Langley City man

Send us your photo showing how you view Langley, and it could be featured in a future edition

On Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, the Township approved a rainbow crosswalk between the school district and RCMP buildings in Murrayville, but did not earmark funds for the project. (Langley Advance Times file)
Out On Patrol police group backs rainbow crosswalk in Langley

Urges supporters to donate to cover cost of $12,000 crossing near main RCMP detachment

Chris Wejr, principal of Aldergrove’s Shortreed Elementary, made U.S. senator Bernie Sanders a playground monitor (Twitter image)
Another Bernie Sanders meme, this time in Langley

Principal adds image of mitten-wearing U.S. senator to playground photo

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

From the left: Midway RCMP Csts. Jonathan Stermscheg and Chris Hansen, Public Servant Leanne Mclaren and Cpl. Phil Peters. Pictured in the front are Mclaren’s dog, Lincoln and Peters’ dog, Angel. Photo courtesy of BC RCMP
B.C. Mounties commended for bringing firewood to elderly woman

Cpl. Phil Peters said he and detachment members acted after the woman’s husband went to hospital

Dr. Jerome Leis and Dr. Lynfa Stroud are pictured at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Thursday, January 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
‘It wasn’t called COVID at the time:’ One year since Canada’s first COVID-19 case

The 56-year-old man was admitted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

An Uber driver’s vehicle is seen after the company launched service, in Vancouver, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Several taxi companies have lost a court bid to run Uber and Lyft off the road in British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Taxi companies lose court bid to quash Uber, Lyft approvals in British Columbia

Uber said in a statement that the ruling of the justice is clear and speaks for itself

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

sd
VIDEO: Mission drag racer scores 1st career win, sets world record, makes history in 2020

Justin Bond, founder and owner of JBS Equipment Mission, has break-out year

A 75-year-old aircraft has been languishing in a parking lot on the campus of the University of the Fraser Valley, but will soon be moved to the B.C. Aviation Museum. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Vintage military aircraft moving from Chilliwack to new home at B.C. Aviation Museum

The challenging move to Vancouver Island will be documented by Discovery Channel film crews

A video posted to social media by Chilliwack resident Rob Iezzi shows a teenager getting kicked in the face after being approached by three suspects on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (YouTube/Rob i)
VIDEO: Security cameras capture ‘just one more assault’ near B.C. high school

Third high-school related assault captured by Chilliwack resident’s cameras since beginning of 2021

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma State Rep. Justin Humphrey prepares to speak at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. A mythical, ape-like creature that has captured the imagination of adventurers for decades has now become the target of Rep. Justin Humphrey. Humphrey, a Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season, He says issuing a state hunting license and tag could help boost tourism. (Steve Gooch/The Oklahoman via AP, File)
Oklahoma lawmaker proposes ‘Bigfoot’ hunting season

A Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season

Most Read