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As Canadian cities make pandemic patios permanent, standards called for

‘It’s remarkable how bad a job we’ve done’

At the height of social distancing and other restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, many Canadian cities rolled out temporary patio policies, loosening rules and waiving fees for bars and restaurants looking to seat more customers outdoors.

These programs brought a glimmer of hope — and revenue — to businesses that had been forced to shut their doors, allowing them to offer more outdoor dining to citizens eager to leave their houses.

Now, as cities transition into their new normal post-pandemic, experts say patios need better across-the-board standardization to make them more accessible, as well as more predictable for the businesses still trying to make up for lost sales.

“It was a thing that became an obvious no-brainer for better streets and better neighbourhoods and better cities,” said city planning consultant Brent Toderian, who is also the former chief planner for Vancouver.

“So it’s remarkable how bad a job we’ve done.”

When the pandemic hit, restaurants and bars shut their doors, resorting to takeout services or going dark altogether, and the extended patios were a lifeline for many businesses.

“The pandemic was a bit of a forced pilot program,” said James DiPaolo, a senior associate at Urban Strategies.

“Cities were looking at creative ways to adapt, and they were forced to do it on a much faster timetable than they’re used to.”

Three years later, the transition to the new normal looks different everywhere you look, with some municipalities making temporary changes permanent while others roll them back.

But advocates have been sounding the alarm about the accessibility concerns of sidewalk and curbside patios for several years, and say that any permanent solution needs to have appropriate accessibility standards. Meanwhile, businesses are looking for predictability as they make plans and investments for the future, but in some cities have been complaining about delays and dismissals in the permitting process.

Many businesses in Toronto are seeing patio permits that were previously approved during pandemic years now denied for a variety of reasons, or are facing delays in getting permits even as summer rolls forward, said Tracy Macgregor, vice-president of Ontario for Restaurants Canada.

“That’s where the frustration is coming in, because they can’t hit the ground running with these patios,” she said.

The city’s CaféTO program is an example of the “red tape” that can occur if policies aren’t designed well, said Toderian.

“When you walk around Montreal, you see a lot more (patios). So that certainly suggests that their system is more effective,” he said.

“It’s part of their general attitude towards the public realm, which is better than any other city in North America.”

In some cases the pandemic patios actually improved accessibility, said Maayan Ziv, founder and CEO of AccessNow. For example, businesses that perhaps didn’t have accessible indoor seating before were able to do so with the additional outdoor space, she said.

But in other cases they introduced new barriers, she said.

“No public money should be going to the installation of new barriers, no permits or authorizations should be granted to businesses that have not considered the accessible access points to these spaces.”

Over time, urban settings are becoming less accessible, said David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance. The pandemic patio programs are just one example, he said, noting that early iterations often made pedestrians walk into the road.

Changes announced early on in 2023 to Toronto’s program include “uniform platforms for accessibility,” according to the city, along with a transition period to make required changesand grant programs for businesses and BIAs.

Lepofsky said as each municipality looks for a permanent solution, there’s a patchwork situation developing, even though the duty to accommodate transcends city borders.

“If you leave it to each municipality to reinvent the accessibility wheel, they either won’t, or they risk getting it wrong. And you’re burdening people with disabilities in each community to have to fight about this,” said Lepofsky, who wants to see provincial accessibility standards for outdoor seating areas.

Widespread, uniform accessibility benefits everyone, not only people with disabilities, said Lepofsky, including increasing the base of potential customers for businesses.

“We just need to ensure that there is an accessibility plan built into all of these projects,” said Ziv. That could be as simple as ensuring an easy path of access or educating and training restaurant staff, she said.

“I’d like to see that widely adopted across every municipality, as opposed to a case-by-case basis,” said Ziv.

Toderian agreed that patio programs should be approached in a standardized way, instead of a program that requires case-by-case reviews of patio designs as some do.

“It’s no wonder these things aren’t getting done faster,” he said.

Both Calgary and Edmonton appear to have clear and helpful guidelines for their patios, said DiPaolo, helping businesses figure out what their patio should look like instead of “starting from scratch in every case.”

In Calgary, the city is yet again waiving fees for patio permits this year. In 2022 it made its extended patio program permanent, with permits valid for three years, according to the city website.

Along 17th Avenue, a popular stretch of bars and restaurants, a local business group decided to pitch in to streamline patio season.

The 17th Ave Business Improvement Area last year invested in building an extended boardwalk system that runs alongside the sidewalks, explained executive director Tulene Steistol. Seating is set up on the sidewalks in front of businesses, while pedestrians walk on the boardwalk without having to watch for servers and patrons crossing between the restaurant and the patio seating.

This has made patios safer for diners and pedestrians and more attractive for businesses, said Steiestol, noting that the BIA made changes after feedback from the city’s accessibility committee.

Steiestol thinks municipalities should help pay for projects like this, helping them become more widespread.

“We’ve had municipalities coming down, and their own teams from other cities taking note of what we’ve done,” she said.

Some communities have taken pandemic patios several steps further, implementing pedestrian-only street times and bringing in live music and public art, said DiPaolo.

“My hope as a planner is that … the success of these programs can be leveraged for more permanent improvements to the public realm,” he said.

“Instead of building makeshift patios into the street during the summer months, maybe we talk about expanding the public boulevard, where these issues of accessibility and mobility and safety are actually built into the design of the streetscape rather than addressed through the permitting process that happens every year.”

READ ALSO: B.C.’s pandemic patios need local approval to operate past June 1