Canada has long enjoyed a global reputation as a paragon of multiculturalism. Our Indigenous communities, alongside people of myriad different ethnicities, abilities, and socioeconomic status call our communities home, and the intersection of our built and social environments is where many of these complex identities overlap. Yet in the summer of 2020, we faced a crossroads of questioning how inclusive our communities truly are. As we move forward, it’s imperative that we apply an equity lens to how we design infrastructure. Whose needs are prioritized? Whose culture informs our decision-making? And how do we create spaces that are more inclusive for everyone?
When we run into crisis events, whether it be a pandemic, a natural disaster, or the impacts of climate change, we tend to focus first on our health care and emergency response systems. In a black swan or crisis event, the first canary in the proverbial coal mine will naturally be our public health resources. But the intersecting challenges of the pandemic, climate change and economic uncertainty illuminated more cracks in our infrastructure than just limited ICU beds or building ventilation risks.
The events of 2020 and 2021 shined a spotlight on the inequality that exists from coast to coast, both in remote regions versus urbanized areas, or even within densely populated cities that — theoretically, at least — have an abundance of closely-concentrated resources for everything we may need.
The pandemic unfolded amidst a backdrop of stark economic inequality, both in Canada and around the world. We were already seeing huge differences in the rates and outcomes of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and social determinants of health. Covid’s impacts were amplified by these pre-existing fault lines in our social support systems, and those who bore the brunt of those impacts were disproportionately those living with economic insecurity, women, youth and minorities, and underhoused communities.
Many of these fault lines weave through the intangible systems that we all rely on, like employment prospects, good health-care access, and social safety nets. But at the foundation of it all lies the physical, built environment in which we live.
How has our infrastructure contributed to unequal access to good health outcomes and quality of life, particularly in the context of a global pandemic? Asking these questions is the first step toward thinking differently, and applying a 360 thinking approach to how we design the built environment.
Washing with contaminated water
From the very first days of the pandemic, the first line of defense has been hand-washing. After every trip outside, every grocery store run, every interaction (even with a package or a food delivery), we trained ourselves to scrub our hands thoroughly. But what about the 33 communities, many of which are remote and Indigenous, that are still living with boil water advisories? Because of limited, unequal infrastructure, these communities do not have access to clean, safe drinking water. The CDC recommends checking with local public health officials before handwashing with contaminated water.
It’s challenging to combat a pandemic even with every resource at our disposal, but for communities that don’t have access to even the most basic infrastructure, the challenge becomes catastrophic. In Canada, dozens of remote, Indigenous communities have faced not only long-term boil water advisories, but also lack adequate health-care facilities, housing and food reserves, and staff to implement emergency response measures. And covid may have long-reaching impacts on infrastructure in remote communities; in 2020, the federal government omitted any mention of its promised 2021 deadline to lift boil water advisories, leading some to speculate that covid may delay the timeline.
Travelling, tests, and treatment
Clean water isn’t the only infrastructure gap impacting vulnerable communities. Covid has also highlighted how underserved communities face gaps in transportation infrastructure, housing, and health-care access. For those living in remote communities, it can be extremely difficult to travel to get a covid test or see a doctor, when public transit infrastructure is limited or non-existent. Even urban areas are seeing some challenges in this area; as buses and streetcars cut their service schedules as ridership plummeted, it became even more challenging for those in underserviced areas to travel to a testing centre, hospital or vaccination centre.
Transit gaps had a disproportionate impact on those living in numerous “transit deserts,” even in big cities like Toronto. These underserviced areas overlap with lower-income areas, raising critical questions about transportation equity when citizens in these areas are cut off from easy access to mobility, employment opportunities, and public life.
There’s also the intersection of transit infrastructure and disability. During the pandemic, many disabled individuals reported challenges accessing already-limited accessible transportation, as covid exacerbated many of the pre-existing barriers while also creating new ones.
Clean water, accessible transit, affordable housing and equitable health-care are just some areas where our built environment intersects with equity gaps for underserved communities.
These are just a few examples of how the pandemic put immense pressure on those areas of our infrastructure that were already strained, underserviced, or sparse. Clean water, accessible transit, affordable housing and equitable health-care are just some areas where our built environment intersects with equity gaps for underserved communities.
In highlighting these equity gaps so clearly, covid-19 may help us to think more broadly about how we design our infrastructure, our cities, and our communities. An essential part of that will be ongoing consultation with the communities that are facing the gaps. Embracing the deep knowledge and expertise of Indigenous communities or those with disabilities can help inform our design approach to make our infrastructure more resilient — and ensure that our built environment works for everyone.
To learn more about how WSP is reimagining Canada from coast to coast, click here.