Pandemonium: Recovering from COVID-19 and Lessons for the Future of the City

The SFU Urban Studies 2020-21 lecture series, Pandemonium: Urban studies and recovering from COVID-19, took place online from May 2020 to March 2021.

By Aphrodite Bouikidis and Meg Holden

Summary: The Pandemonium discussions hosted by SFU Urban Studies featured some impactful solutions for addressing urban issues that proved crucial during the pandemic.

As public health measures were implemented in response to the global pandemic in March 2020, Simon Fraser University (SFU) pivoted to fully online courses and research. As we dealt with the abrupt transition to an all-digital engagement, students and faculty in the Urban Studies program also began questioning how this pandemic would affect people and urban life, and what it would mean for the future of the city and urban policy and practice.

To provide a space for dialogue, critical reflection and real-time learning on the impacts of the pandemic on our urban future and urban alternatives, SFU Urban Studies in collaboration with SFU Public Square – with financial support from the Initiative in Urban Sustainable Development – delivered the remote lecture series Pandemonium: Urban Studies and Recovering from COVID-19. The series brought together thirty-eight panelists and more than 1,400 participants in seven events from May 2020 to March 2021. The series of episodes focused thematically on important and critical questions related to a range of interrelated issues, including health, housing, sociability, public space, economy, long-range planning, and resilience.

Shining a light on existing solutions

The pandemic amplified all kinds of pre-existing urban challenges, but it also shone a spotlight on the value of existing solutions for healthier, more equitable, and ultimately, more resilient communities. Here we share some of the creative and impactful approaches for contributing to community health, quality housing, social connectedness and online youth engagement featured in the Pandemonium discussions. Many of these initiatives began before the pandemic but their purpose and impact have been amplified during the crisis. They offer important lessons for our cities as we work on recovery and plan for the future, acknowledging other interrelated crises and uncertainties.

A community health approach in Toronto: From a community health approach, health is not just individual but relational, affected by our relationships with our communities, environments, cultures, economies and power relations. This approach recognizes that community health depends on more than just curing diseases – it also depends upon structures and options available for people to engage with the health care system, and therefore requires complex adaptive solutions. Dr. Kate Mulligan illustrated how the neighbourhoods hit hardest by COVID-19 in Toronto are also the neighbourhoods already known to have the highest levels of deprivation along a host of social and economic dimensions. Not only was testing less available as in other parts of the city, community members were less likely to take advantage of testing when needed because of historical and ongoing discrimination and poor lived experiences interacting with the health care system.

The creative and empowering pandemic response from the members of the Alliance for Healthier Communities convened testing services in these neighbourhoods that were culturally friendly, and cognizant of the colonial and disempowering legacies of conventional health care approaches. This work fits within the practice of “social prescribing,” an approach the Alliance advocates for, where ‘prescriptions’ for social and cultural activities or supports (from dance classes or walking outdoors to housing and food security) are as important as drug prescriptions. Dr. Mulligan encouraged viewing community health as “local but structural kindness,” and urged government agencies to recognize matters of kindness and social conscience as central to health.

Community Housing: The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the importance of secure shelter and healthy housing – where people are supported and connected – as essential for people’s wellness and health. Dr. Rebecca Schiff discussed how this insight was already understood in the Community Housing (CH) sector. This sector encompasses a variety of different models, and is also referred to as “social” housing (public ownership or support) or “affordable” housing (below market rents): housing that is designed to accommodate the one in eight Canadians who need support in obtaining a safe, affordable and adequate home. Dr. Schiff shared some early findings from a recent Cooperative Housing Federation of Canada (CHF Canada) survey, suggesting that cooperative housing residents seem to be more financially resilient and less negatively affected by the pandemic overall than those living in market housing. Additional research is needed on the impact of the pandemic on households in different housing types. Moving forward from the pandemic, and to avoid returning to the “normal” of the pre-pandemic housing challenges, Dr. Schiff emphasized the need to recognize the multiplier effect of community housing and to provide more support for the stability and expansion of the sector.

Housing and sociability: The safety measures required to address the public health emergency of the pandemic have restricted social life and contributed to social isolation and loneliness. The Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC) is a community-of-practice-based project housed at the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver, BC. It brings together residents of multi-unit housing, housing providers, non-profits, researchers, local and regional governments, housing associations, and health authorities to experiment with and learn about ways of alleviating loneliness and social isolation while building capacity for neighbourly support and mutual aid.

Project Director Michelle Hoar described how HNC is founded upon research showing that social connections help protect people against numerous health risks and help individuals and communities to survive and recover from emergencies. Knowing their neighbours even a little bit makes people more likely to give and accept help in a crisis. HNC is a 2020 National Housing Strategy Demonstrations Initiative recipient. Its practice partners include Catalyst Community Developments Society, Building Resilient Neighbourhoods, Brightside Community Homes Foundation, Concert Properties, and the West End Seniors’ Network.

Youth engagement in virtual spaces: Ethọ́s Lab in Surrey, BC launched in 2020 as a response to a critical lack of Black youth representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in schools and workplaces. It is a space for youth aged 13-18 to experiment with emerging technologies, realize their fullest potential, and influence their own futures. Anthonia Ogundele and Joan Wandolo described how Ethọ́s Lab brought together teenagers in physical and virtual spaces as a community of impassioned technologists and innovators. Together, beginning at a hackathon, they created a virtual world called Atlanthos. As the COVID-19 pandemic has created a heightened reliance on the digital realm, the practices and spaces within Ethọ́s Lab serve as a model of kindness and integrity for youth seeking to find places of meaning in the city.

The initiatives described above are just a few featured examples in the Pandemonium series discussions. They offer lessons for how we can make our pandemic recovery efforts transformative for our cities and communities.

Find out more

Visit the Pandemonium website for a summary of insights, themes and questions that were raised throughout the series; and a list of the names of the panelists and moderators of all the events in the series, along with the videos and written summaries.


Aphrodite Bouikidis is a graduate student in the SFU Urban Studies Program.



Meg Holden is the Director of the Urban Studies Program, 2018-2021 and a Professor in Urban Studies and Resources and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University (SFU).