The New Socially Distanced Contract

Managing Life in Our Changing Public Realm

Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

In self-isolation, I was staring outside my window the other day and saw what looked like a charity 10K run in the middle of the street and teeming sidewalks below. I understood the situation: everyone was so desperate to get outside for some fresh air during the early stages of this global pandemic. Failing miserably at respecting the recommended two metres of distance from each other, many “good citizens” of Toronto madly and mindlessly crossed into each other’s path, scrambling to jaywalk across the normally speedy arterial of Bayview Avenue so they can reach the narrow gates of the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where a disconcerting amount of people jostled to get inside.

I assumed this scene was playing out across Toronto and around the world, as we learn to recalibrate our physical self-awareness in the public realm. A new social contract pertaining to social distance is evolving.

In addition to groups and families walking four- or five-abreast, impatient joggers paced each other in the middle of the road, cyclists wove about and young children on bicycles, scooters—and yes, even a self-righteous battery-operated toy model of a Tesla—crowded out the sidewalks. Amidst this new form of mitigated public life, delivery vans intermittingly pulled up to deliver parcels of fast fashion in slower times, while a near-empty TTC bus missed an ill-trained off-leash Golden Doodle by a hypoallergenic hair. “He’s not normally like this,” declared the minimally embarrassed dog owner. Really? Have people lost their minds?

Requiring my own daily dose of fresh air, I’ve quickly adapted by avoiding our city’s urban parks, ravines and trails—and I’m quite happy to see many of them now closed, although I’ve shed a tear or two in the process. With my own dog, the “inverted landscape” of Toronto’s ravines provided a daily dose of nature therapy—a meditative and safe space where I could get some exercise, breathe freely and just think. However, during this moment of transition, those who currently navigate the more bucolic spaces within our cities are doing so out of acknowledged desperation. It is not the sheer numbers of interlopers that concern me, but their comportment: heavy-breathing joggers weaving erratically, occasionally relieving themselves of their sputum at our feet; aggressive MAMILs (middle-aged men in Lycra) racing expensive bikes with determination and without any concern for the safety of small children; or large groups of walkers trudging along in tight socially-knit phalanxes, leaving the rest of us quite literally in the dust.

It’s difficult (and even unfair) to point fingers with derision, or to lay blame on the poor judgment of those navigating through our newly defined public spheres. Everyone is doing their level best—even if some people’s “best” clearly isn’t good enough. Beyond the anecdotal observations, I think there is a deeper explanation to what’s going on here.

It might seem paradoxical, but many of us are just relearning how to walk through a dramatically transformed public realm. Hopefully, most of us have already learned the good graces of acceptable social conduct while interacting with fellow humans. Examples include the societal norms associated with walking on the right side of a sidewalk, exercising and moving about in gyms and bike paths so as not to infringe on other people’s personal space, or what is rapidly becoming a nostalgic yearning: daily walking itineraries defined by normative, yet fluid, social spaces like Toronto’s underground PATH system, a shopping centre or the route from the subway station to the office. Think about it: even a farmer’s market, museum or sports venue has an intrinsic code of conduct that defines the cadence of our perambulating and distance kept from each other. We even celebrate the cultural differences experienced in cities around the globe that bring us together through complex social networks, albeit while remaining somewhat comfortably apart. Shanghai, Milan, New York, Delhi and Dakar are places with cosmopolitan citizenries; in pre-pandemic times, each one demonstrated unique and informal norms of social distancing as part of daily public life. COVID-19 is rebalancing social norms, rewriting social contracts everywhere pertaining to how close to we stand next to—or converse with—thy neighbour.

Many urban theorists have looked into the ways humans publicly interact. William H. Whyte, one of the most famous, produced the wonderful, humorous and highly illustrative The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in 1980, describing in great detail what constitutes a good public space. Readily available on the web, I’ve used it for many of my classes over the years to teach students. More recently, the work of Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl illustrates what makes a city liveable today, through his writing and his ongoing consulting. Tomorrow’s challenges remain unanswered.

Will the COVID-19 outbreak yield a long-term rethink in social propinquity? Will a return to normalcy in an as-yet-to-be-determined future rewrite the social contract with respect to navigating public markets, busy sidewalks, large public venues, or the simple act of giving a loved one a big hug on the street? For now, we’re stumbling into action to safeguard our neighbours and ourselves. Will we ever go back to what life was like just a month ago?

Whether you are a cynic, realist or romantic nostalgist, there is currently social confusion all around us. It is a brand-new occurrence to see people avert eye contact and appear visibly annoyed while moving determinedly out of each other’s way. I admit to personally feeling a new apprehension of strangers, finding myself crossing the street to avoid someone who seemed perfectly friendly only a few days ago. But until we’re all truly inoculated or immunized, and hopefully not inundated by this dreadful coronavirus, fear and annoyance by others sharing the sidewalk has become the new normal. It remains to be seen how and when this current revision to our social contract in the public sphere will either be rescinded or further amended.

Let’s remain hopeful.

Ian Chodikoff is a former editor of Canadian Architect. He trained as an architect and is an educator, researcher and design critic.

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