by Rick Spence
photography by mike Ford
It’s been said that unexpected catastrophes – such as the year-old coronavirus pandemic – don’t change us as people or as a society; they reveal who we are.
That truism sprang to mind when Ute Lehrer, an urban planner and professor in York’s Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, studied a map of the new bicycle lanes installed by the City of Toronto in 2020. City staff boasted of their rapid response to COVID-19 after adding 40 kilometres of bikeways to help Torontonians get outdoors, cycle in safety and avoid potential infection on public transit – the largest one-year expansion of bike lanes in Toronto’s history.
What struck Lehrer, however, was the uneven distribution of the new bike lanes. Bloor Street, University Avenue, Dundas, the Danforth, Bayview: the new lanes were overwhelming located in the city’s most affluent areas. There were virtually no north–south routes to help commuters dodge long bus rides to the subway, and certainly nothing for the Black Creek/Rexdale communities, the northwest neighbourhoods hit hardest by the virus.
Speaking on an international panel on designing safer communities, organized by Nova Scotia’s St. Francis Xavier University, Lehrer pulled no punches. “It is of the utmost importance to focus on improving public amenities, especially for those who are disenfranchised and underprivileged in our society.” As city planners come to grips with the challenges of pandemic life and death, she said, we have an opportunity “to collectively create spaces that are healthy and environmentally sustainable while also promoting equality and integration of all people.”
Telling it like it is clearly isn’t a problem for Lehrer. In fact, it’s a badge of pride for the newly formed Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change (EUC), which was created Sept. 1 in a one-of-a-kind union of York’s geography program and the Faculty of Environmental Studies. Since its founding in 1968, Environmental Studies has promoted an interdisciplinary approach to studying the interconnections (and disconnections) between humans and the environments in which we live. From rethinking climate-change policy to democratizing the global city, the new faculty is tailor-made to address the world’s most urgent social, economic, ecological and political problems.
When COVID-19 struck, EUC’s academics were among the first to respond. They’re trained to analyze issues fast, identify problems and ask tough questions. While we look forward to reading their scholarly articles on these subjects a year or two from now, here are some ways that York’s champions of change jumped into the fray as the pandemic began transforming today’s world – for better or worse.
Public Spaces or Private Property?
It wasn’t just bike lanes in Toronto that concerned Lehrer, a Swiss-born art and architecture major with a PhD in urban planning from UCLA. In May, she watched in horror as west Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park was overrun by young adults tired of social distancing. She wondered how today’s increasingly crowded cities can possibly offer enough public space for all residents, especially those in the city’s high-rise communities. In a 2018 paper, Lehrer criticized the “let’s make a deal” backroom arrangements in which condo developers seek “density bonuses” from local politicians in exchange for vague “community benefits.” She declared the process akin to “legalized bribery.”
Lehrer’s concerns also extend to sidewalks. While she understands why the city allowed restaurants and cafés to expand their premises onto sidewalks and closed-off traffic lanes last summer, she is concerned about public space becoming perceived as private. “Public spaces are created, negotiated, contested and reinvented in multiple ways,” she says. In the end, public versus private space is simply a social construct, and one in which citizens must relentlessly guard their rights. “I don’t think there’s an easy solution,” she says. “It’s really about political will.”
In the early days of the pandemic, the stinking epicentre of Canada’s coronavirus nightmare was two giant meatpacking plants in southern Alberta that produce 70 per cent of the country’s beef. Canada’s sophisticated cities have outsourced meatpacking to small communities closer to the feedlots, so few city slickers know just how difficult and dangerous this work is – or how those dirty jobs usually end up being filled by foreign workers, resettled refugees or other marginalized people.
As a geographer with a lifelong interest in refugee and displacement issues, Jennifer Hyndman has embarked on a study of the culture, politics and working conditions of Alberta’s meatpacking plants to find out what made them so vulnerable to COVID-19 transmission.
“Part of that can probably be explained by their immigration status,” says Hyndman. Turnover is high in the meatpacking industry, so employers welcome temporary foreign workers, who may face language barriers and don’t have access to provincial health insurance. She’s also heard of employees being offered incentives to work eight days in a row, or to show up even if they’re feeling ill. The two plants at issue are Cargill in High River – where more than 950 employees tested positive for COVID-19, with three deaths related to employee transmission – and JBS Canada in Brooks, where more than 1,000 cases were reported in May and nine people died.
Alberta Health Services later noted that “there is currently no scientific evidence that food or food packaging is a likely source or route of transmission of the virus….We’re all in this together…and no one is to blame.” But a class-action lawsuit filed against Cargill on behalf of workers’ families alleges the corporate giant threatened employees who tried to stay home sick and neglected to implement preventive measures such as masks and social distancing.
Hyndman, who grew up in Alberta, is working on the one-year research project with a post-doc in Calgary. “There are two kinds of outcomes we can hope for,” Hyndman says. “We hope to identify better working conditions for people in this work. But we’ll also examine if [workers’] workplace status puts people at risk because they don’t have access to health care. We need to create better pathways to citizenship.”
We’re not all in this together, she insists. “The fault lines are very clear: if you are low-income, it’s harder to protect yourself.”
We now live in a world of vaccine politics, Hyndman adds. “We have a global pandemic, but no global co-ordinated response.” Instead, countries are competing to obtain vaccines and making their own rules about who gets vaccinated when. “Geographers study globalization. Right now, we have globalization and balkanization happening at the same time. It’s all connected. By doing a project on meatpackers, I can bring all this together.”
Opportunity to Organize
In the first two months of the pandemic, Canada lost three million jobs. While many of those jobs later returned, COVID-19’s full impact on employment has yet to be calculated. York’s Steven Tufts (PhD ’03) is an economic geographer who focuses on labour issues. In a recent article for left-wing journal The Bullet, Tufts noted that labour unions have come under pressure trying to protect workers’ rights during an economic disaster, even as many locals are also dealing with downsizing. But, he says, this could be an opportunity for unions to rediscover their roots by championing not just their members, but every Canadian who needs a hand up.
“Unions are necessary to addressing the impact of the pandemic, but they are sadly insufficient,” Tufts wrote. “We need to think through what is currently possible as unions face the mass unemployment of members and how their response can lead to stronger unionism in the future.”
To study this turning point, Tufts is collecting policies and press releases from unions all over North America. Eventually, this archive will inform a comprehensive investigation into how the union movement stepped up (or not) during the pandemic. For now, he offers a few pertinent observations:
• Downturns can be divisive. But Tufts was impressed with the way management and unions worked together at the start of the crisis. “Of course, if you’re going to the state for support, it’s good to show that labour and management are united in their demands.”
• A Toronto local in the hard-hit hospitality sector received funding to help people find new jobs in the community. By helping the unemployed with skills training and resumé-writing, Tufts believes, unions can find new ways to serve their communities and rebuild popular support.
• As members lose their jobs, many unions are fighting to survive. Tufts wouldn’t be surprised to see some public-sector unions stepping in to support their private counterparts, which could create conflicts in the future. What happens when the same union represents public health workers and industrial workers calling for an end to lockdowns? “I’m starting to see the cracks emerge,” Tufts says.
Yet he remains optimistic about the future. “The best thing for organizing workers,” Tufts concludes, “is a crisis.”
The Great Land Rush
From Toronto to New York and beyond, the first cold breath of COVID-19 sent hundreds of city-dwellers packing for the countryside. But as they burrowed into cottages, country estates and B&Bs, these migrants created waves of their own, upsetting rural ways of life and compelling some local politicians to tell them to stay home.
Professor Laura Taylor (MES ’91) studies the exurbs – the hinterland beyond the suburbs that feeds our cities and fires our imaginations – and the planning processes that shape them. She worries that this accelerated flight to the fringe will stress small communities, land use, wildlife and conservation. Ironically, she says, former city folk can also become obstacles to progress, since they love their rural communities and no longer want them to change: “They’re like the last settlers coming in who want to pull up the drawbridge behind them.”
Such culture clash causes many complications. Newcomers drive up land prices, making it harder for agricultural properties to transition to the next generation. Higher property prices also make it tough for local acreages to be conserved as land trusts. As well, many small towns have minimal planning processes, leaving them vulnerable to affluent newcomers looking to build sprawling estates or proposing questionable economic-development projects such as resorts or casinos.
Last year’s COVID-19 summer saw unprecedented pressures on exurbia’s conservation areas and provincial parks. Taylor says there’s a shortage of recreational land, and it will worsen as more city-dwellers move out. Just try to find a parking space, she says, near Georgian Bay north of Wasaga Beach, where waterfront homeowners post “Private Beach” signs to scare outsiders away.
To be sure, Taylor believes Ontario has addressed some of these issues. The Greenbelt surrounding the Toronto–Hamilton “Golden Horseshoe” is containing sprawl, and the regional-municipality structure governing many rural communities promotes professional planning. Still, “a greater co-ordination in rural planning would be helpful,” Taylor says. “The GTA is projected to have 15 million people by 2051. Preserving parks and greenery is going to be a huge challenge. We can’t just sit back and say the Greenbelt is enough.”
Earth to Tables
During the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns, grocery stores became not just essential services, but a source of creativity for Canadians rediscovering the joys of cooking and baking. By year’s end, the pandemic had produced an agricultural reawakening, opening our eyes to local food production, the importance of farmers’ markets, community gardening and the development of mutual aid networks that cross borders, cultures and generations.
What more can we learn from each other about our most fundamental industry? Retired York environmental studies professor Deborah Barndt is working on one last educational project before she retires again for good. “Earth to Tables” is collaborative multimedia content that explores honouring, raising and preparing food in communities around the planet.
Barndt and her colleagues are promoting the multimedia educational package – which includes videos, photo essays, a book and hopefully a web series – to schools, universities and community organizations to communicate how food activists are creating food sovereignty, responding to our fragile ecosystems, long and costly supply chains, food-related health issues and the overhanging threat of climate change.
Growing up in the civil-rights ’60s, Barndt devoted her career to food, culture and development issues, and to working with marginalized and Indigenous communities in Canada and Latin America. Why “Earth to Tables”? As Barndt explains, “Food is the entry point to understanding our world and how we engage with it.”
You can read about the project and meet Barndt’s collaborators at earthtotables.org. There’s Dianne, a farmer in rocky Muskoka (“I don’t own this land, it owns me”); Chandra from the Six Nations of the Grand River, founder of Real People Eat Real Food; Fulvio, a bio-organic farmer in Mexico; market gardeners Anna and Adam from Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula; Leticia from Ghana, now director of Toronto’s Black Creek Community Farm; and a dozen more. Users of the site choose their own path in learning about these people, their struggles and their discoveries.
Leveraging all her skills as an activist, academic and artist, Barndt’s last teaching project is about sharing food, knowledge and stories to build strong bodies and healthier communities around the planet. Building bridges through collaboration, finding the interconnectedness between people and their ecosystems, is a unifying principle at EUC and it’s animating a diversity of research across the faculty.
“What makes York’s approach to environmental studies so unique is that it combines the sciences, social sciences and humanities. It’s a way of thinking. If you only understand the environment in terms of the physical elements, that’s part of the problem,” Barndt says. “That sort of thinking is the root of the climate crisis: it suggests that humans are not part of the environment, that we only modify it and change it. It’s all about relations – with each other, and with the earth. We need this shift in our thinking to save the planet.” ■