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August 04, 2020

Discovering my neighbourhood during COVID-19

Discovering my neighbourhood during COVID-19
Most certainly, when 2020 began, I had no idea I’d be entering a David Lynch-style surrealism movie painted as reality. Then again, not many people really expected the current reality we’re still encountering at the end of July.

Since March 19, I was one of the extremely privileged whose employment wasn’t locked into a singular office. I also had no perception that working from home over the past months would present both known and unexpected challenges and discoveries. (Where did all these dirty dishes come from? Do I need to eat again? I just made food, and it’s just me!)
Living in an east Toronto neighbourhood that is extremely walkable, I am fortunate that all my weekly needs can be resolved with a few local stores. For the first few months, I discovered a wealth of exploration opportunities within only a few kilometres of home. I realized the neighbourhood I’ve lived in for more than four years has an established base of discovery. I presume others have had the same experience where they live.
Perhaps some context on my situation is required to picture my perceived limitations. For the majority of my life, I grew up in a very rural area, where the closest store of any value was 15 minutes away (significantly longer if by tractor). When I moved to Toronto, the requirement for a car became more of a burden, and I gave it to my parents. Getting across the city on a bicycle was easy and quick enough; TTC was always a reliable backup when I needed it, and walking became a habit. Anything farther was a train ride away. 
With all distant travel heavily discouraged (and inappropriate in my mind), I decided that I’d limit myself to a two-kilometre radius from my home. Luckily, within that two kilometres are three butchers, a cheese shop, three grocery stores (locally owned), a corner spice store, dozens of take-out restaurants, a cooking hardware store, a general hardware store, and (most importantly) two large parks. All the shops are in well-established two- or three-storey, mixed-use places created in an area dense enough to support any business allowed to stay open. This shouldn’t have been such a revelation to me, but after spending decades in a farm community, this would have been impossible to comprehend as the vast majority of locally owned businesses have been pushed out.
Taking a break from my computer at dusk, I always find myself in one of the parks. Every night, I see a slew of (properly distanced) people sitting on the hill of Greenwood Park sipping in the sun, doing whatever it took to remove the months of our winter chill. Families gather together in small clusters to throw a frisbee in an unpracticed fashion. A figure skater was using the smooth concrete on the infinite skating loop to practice — when I asked about it, she said, “Hey, the arenas are all closed down, and I have to practice somewhere.” The dog park is active with hesitated chat.
Asphalt on the streets has been taken over by anyone separating themselves from others as much as possible. Porches have been transitioned from being extra storage into a place to sit and greet neighbours. Laneways that would be impossible today offer wonderful exploration adventures and perfect avenues of any multi-modal transportation.
Slow walks have allowed me to view the reality of the neighbourhood I normally would have sped by: houses highly packed together without a single garage in sight, semi-detached units that seem to spread into row housing, brickwork that was created only metres away at the Greenwood kiln (the majority of it in still perfect condition).
I also can’t help but feel that the current encouraged disconnect has shown what my neighbourhood would have been like decades ago. Every streetscape amenity space was initially being used to its fullest capacity (though, of course, the parks were giant brickyards). While exploring, I can only imagine what it was like decades ago: people living, shopping, and entertaining themselves with whatever was in walking proximity. 
Throughout the past months, I’ve observed how clusters of people have adapted to the virus — quickly and immediately based on the data being presented, only to be altered just as quickly, depending on new information. Parks slopes shifted from sunset viewers to softball or cricket practice. Physically distant blankets with new curious couples have been replaced with distant frisbee players. Puppies have grown (so fast!) and the chatter between fences has been expanded to open spaces.
There is no way to predict how this pandemic has changed us. I have seen how we attached ourselves to our essential needs, and everything else became simply supplemental.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Justin Sharp, RPP

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