The data tells a disturbing story: downtowns across North America are having a tough time recovering from the pandemic. The result has been a “hollowing out” of urban cores. According to a recent Canadian Chamber of Commerce report, “workplace mobility” -- whatever that may be -- has dropped 46% here in Toronto. In Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver, the situation is even worse.

If it’s any consolation, the same study says the opposite is true of Brantford, Barrie, Brampton, Kawartha Lakes and -- praise be -- Wasaga Beach. But seriously, the question of why it’s taking Canada’s big cities so long to get back to pre-COVID numbers demands our attention.

Figures from Statistics Canada reveal that stay-at-home work remains popular: in Toronto, that means 35% of workers, in Calgary, some 28%. In Ottawa, it’s a dramatic 44%. 

But wandering through the downtown core earlier in December, the Eaton Centre, Financial District, and surroundings were packed. Stores and restaurants were busy. The crowds likely included numerous Christmas shoppers; regardless, the streets were crowded.

This is hardly scientific, but certainly the argument that cities are ghost towns abandoned for the pleasures of domestic isolation and working at home shouldn’t be taken too seriously. No, many office workers haven’t returned to their 9-to-5 workstations, but most have. For some, working from home is still preferable. All they need to be happy in their job is a computer, a phone, and a tabletop.

But we are gregarious creatures. For those who spend seven or eight hours at work, five days a week, the office is where much of their social and intellectual lives unfold. This is where many meet their friends, colleagues and rivals, not to mention life partners. It’s also where they learn critical professional skills not taught at school. It’s where they test ideas and become part of a larger effort united in pursuit of a shared goal. For better or worse, it is where they derive much of their self-identity and even self-worth.

It’s no surprise, then, that contemporary architecture is so focused on creating spaces that make it easy for people to bump into one another, to sit and talk, exchange, compare and test their ideas with others similarly engaged. This synergy is arguably the most valuable characteristic of a well-functioning workplace. At the risk of sounding like an aging Pollyanna, work can actually be fun.

Of course, not all workplaces are created equal. Bad bosses and toxic office environments are everywhere around us. Elon Musk’s adventures at Twitter are a good example. And not everyone has the luxury -- if that’s the right word -- of working at the kitchen table. Some have no choice but to travel to work. For the most part, it’s white-collar, university-educated workers who can stay home. And let’s spare a thought for mothers forced to stay home to look after their kids while schools were closed.

In addition to workplace culture itself, perhaps the most burning issue is less where we work than how we get to work. Mobility is the bane of 21st-century life, urban and suburban, especially in North America where reliance on the car is more or less absolute. To a greater or lesser degree, Canadians depend on the automobile to get to work and back home. We have the congestion to prove it.

Public transit and commuter trains exist, but are rarely the alternative of choice. To put it indelicately, mass transit generally sucks. For various reasons, Canadians -- nowhere more so than in Ontario -- have failed miserably at building a transit system that meets users’ needs. Toronto Mayor John Tory unwittingly hinted at the underlying cause in a letter to his executive committee in which he insisted that transit is primarily for those who can’t yet afford a car. In other words, transit is for the poor. And let’s be honest, the poor have never counted for less.

To make matters worse, transit has been co-opted by vote-seeking politicians who don’t know BRT from a BLT. In Ontario, one need look no further than Premier Doug Ford.  

Canada has yet to awake from the failed promise of the car. Even those who spend hours every day remain faithful to the discredited dream of four-wheeled mobility. Now, under Ford, Ontario is committed once again to specious policies that will make a bad situation worse.

No wonder many office workers would rather stay home than waste their lives trapped in gridlocked highways, waiting for a bus that never comes, or sardined in overcrowded subways.

The lesson of COVID-19 is not that we should all stay home, but that it’s urgent we remake our cities with a greater emphasis on community needs. The luckiest are those who don’t have to decide between work and home. Proximity is the city’s great gift. Already people are living in downtown neighbourhoods that until recently would’ve seemed outlandish. Condo towers have popped up in the Financial District on corporation-friendly streets such as Yonge, King, and Bay. Toronto’s downtown extends beyond the Financial District, of course, but the same dynamics apply across the core.

As the great American sociologist William H. Whyte noted in his seminal documentary, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”

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