In My Opinion: Pandemic has changed the way we interact and is breaking Toronto’s urban detatchment

The closed playground at Kew Gardens in the Beach.


A visit to Kew Gardens on a weekday morning in April left me with the impression that Toronto had lost its big city feel.

Aside from a family of geese and a few people out with their dogs, my four-year-old daughter and I found ourselves alone in the deep outfield of the baseball diamond, playing nonsensical games with a dollar store bouncy ball. With playgrounds and sports facilities closed, and physical distancing in full effect, it was an unusually quiet scene at the park near the lake.

The few people that I have encountered on daily walks and infrequent errands in the neighbourhood seem keener to partake in small talk, perhaps motivated by boredom, a freer schedule, or a chance to show friendliness in a time of collective suffering.

A few days after our trip to Kew Gardens a woman approaching my family on the sidewalk stopped for a moment to ponder out loud the hierarchy of physical distancing. Who should have to give up their place on the sidewalk, she asked: dog owners or people with young children?

She decided that small children should take priority, stepping into a nearby yard and ceding the path to my wife, daughter and me (we made sure to express gratitude and compliment her on her dog).

Many Torontonians are now accustomed to a sense of urban detachment. Eyes trained on smartphones in the subway. Greeting-less passes on the sidewalk. Even in the Beaches neighbourhood — arguably Toronto’s most quaint with its patchwork of cottagey homes and abundance of park space — there is a tendency to go about our daily business with few words uttered to those we don’t know.

But the pandemic has changed that, slowing down our busy lives and effectively erasing non-virtual social plans.

What’s left socially is the chance encounter: a physically distant chat with a community member on the sidewalk, a brief interaction with a neighbour from the porch, backyard, or communal laneway. The other day while talking with an elderly neighbor I remarked on his hilariously DIY hairdo. Surely deprived of his local barber, he had buzzed the sides of his head in the fashion of a Queen West hipster.

The lighter side of the pandemic is one that some of us might find difficult to access in these challenging times.

Many of us by now have experienced anxiety-laced encounters with fellow citizens. A woman walking her dog on the Don River Trail barked “Six feet apart!” as I cycled by a few weeks ago, even as I nearly grazed the bushes on the opposite side of the path in an effort to maintain appropriate distance. Evidently she was unconvinced my huffing and puffing would limit the trajectory of those pernicious droplets we’ve all come to fear so much.

We do have a choice in how we treat each other during our limited outings, and notwithstanding a few grumpy social-distance warriors, so far what I’ve observed during bouts of exercise and occasional errands tips toward kindness and understanding,

In the mental health community we often speak of mindfulness: a sense of awareness within the here-and-now, on what is right in front of us rather than what lies behind or ahead. Take notice of the wind blowing through the leaves of the trees. Pause for 10 seconds to pay attention to one bite of food. The mindfulness principle can apply equally to our social spheres, and we would do well to apply it.

Say hello to a fellow pedestrian instead of looking at the ground on your walk. Chat with a neighbour for a few moments from your porch instead of checking social media. Volunteer to help a community member in need with grocery or medication pick-ups.

As the virus and its restrictions wear on, we must consider the strong possibility that the usual frenetic pace of our city—or indeed, of the world—won’t return anytime soon.

One possible upside amidst the lost lives and economic woes is that we may come out feeling just a little closer to our neighbours.

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