Plans, Pandemic, Protests: Time For Cities to Pause & Pivot

by Jul 28, 2020Economy, Governance, Society

Dr. Ann McAfee, FCIP, MLAI, Retired Co-Director of Planning at City of Vancouver

Ann McAfee has a Doctorate in Planning and Urban Land Economics from UBC. From 1974 to 2006, she worked for the City of Vancouver first as Housing Planner, and from 1994 – 2006, as Co-Director of Planning. In mid-2006, Dr. McAfee established City Choices Consulting, a firm specializing in advice on strategic planning and public processes. As an Adjunct Professor, she teaches a course in strategic planning. Dr. McAfee is a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners. In 2007, she was co-recipient of the Kevin Lynch award for distinguished planning practice from M.I.T.

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This paper describes the immediate and possible future impacts of COVID-19 on planning in the Greater Vancouver area.

The first part introduces three initiatives, launched in 2019, to refresh city and regional plans. The second part identifies new challenges for plans to address and initial responses to COVID. The paper concludes with transferable observations on reframing plan making in the context of COVID and fiscal constraints.

Three Programs Caught in COVID

Prior to COVID, three agencies launched strategic plan updates. The plans are aspirational; all seek to manage growth to address sustainability, resiliency, and equity.

In 2019, Vancouver’s City Plan and Transport 2050 invited people to share ideas. The intent was to listen to those with lived experience of the city and regional transportation system. Initial responses were not fettered by cost considerations. Subsequent steps proposed public discussion of scenario choices and tradeoffs.

In April 2019, Metro and TransLink staff compiled Regional Growth and Transportation Scenarios. Potential ‘Big Disruptors’ were seen to be climate change, shifting global economy, and new technologies. A pandemic and recession were not listed.

In mid-March 2020, Canada went into COVID lockdown. Plan updates paused. Staff were reassigned to COVID response and recovery.

A ‘New Normal’

This section illustrates examples of COVID impacts in the Vancouver area, initial responses, and issues for new plans to address. A broader view of Canadian COVID impacts can be found in the Canadian Urban Institute Signpost 100 Days.

Impacts of Sheltering-in-Place

Directives to stay-at-home and decisions to close the Canada-US border to all but essential travel crashed the economy. In Vancouver City 41% of businesses, involving 22% of the workforce, closed for COVID. Most closures were in the hotel, restaurant, retail, and personal service sectors. The Canadian government is providing emergency relief.

With COVID closures, metro transit ridership dropped by 80%. TransLink responded with enhanced cleaning, physical distancing, free masks, free bus rides, and more bus priority lanes to speed up service. By July, ridership rebounded to 42% of pre-COVID levels. Nevertheless, the projected revenue loss is significant for an essential service which relies on fare box revenues. 

Attracting Riders Back to transit with Free Masks.

Blurring the Distinction between Home and Work

Early indicators of increased numbers of employees working from home are mixed with two additional factors: an increase in office vacancies as employees work from home, and some businesses seeking larger workspaces to improve physical distancing. These work from home patterns could continue as an estimated 46% of the metro labor force are in jobs which could be performed, at least part-time, from home.

As people shop from home, the trend toward e-commerce is accelerating. Concern about future supply chains may reverse industrial job losses by encouraging manufacturing and food production to locate closer to markets.

Pressure to rezone business lands for residential and commerce could intensify. Vancouver’s experience with rezoning for these purposes is that the resulting increase in land value prices out production and service uses.

The value of ‘home’ is reflected in metro residential sales patterns and prices. May 2020 sales were 54% below the 10-year monthly sales average. By June, the market was rebounding. The June 2020 benchmark price for a detached home ($1.46 million) showed a 3.6% increase from June 2019. This likely reflects a desire to shelter-in-place in a single-family home.

Intensifying Local Business Trends

Prior to COVID, communities were experiencing a loss of mom and pop shops. The impact of COVID has varied in this regard. Food shops, remaining open as essential services, have increased sales. For other businesses, COVID closures are accelerating financial challenges.

To help local businesses reopen with physical distancing, cities are permitting private uses in public spaces. Examples include sidewalk patios and temporary use of parking lanes for queueing. Vancouver has approved longer term COVID responsive public space initiatives.

The desire for a region-wide response to economic recovery has increased calls from the business sector for the 21 regional municipalities to merge. This was not a topic anticipated in the Metro 2050 Plan. Canadian experience suggests amalgamation is not a decision to be taken lightly.The pandemic accelerated changes to municipal permit approvals by moving from in-person applications to online approvals. Feedback from applicants shows they are appreciating the streamlined process which includes remote meetings and digital receipt of permits.

Rethinking Accessibility

Vancouver’s Central Business District has no freeway access. Over the past decade, jobs and residents continued to increase, while commuting by automobile decreased. Movement mostly happens by walking, biking, and public transit.

Fear of infection is discouraging transit use. However, incorporating American Centre for Disease Control guidelines to drive solo, thereby avoiding exposure to COVID is not an option for Vancouver. The absence of a freeway and limited downtown parking discourages car use.

Outside the CBD, regional growth is focused on transit-oriented development. Some nodes offer residential and retail on repurposed malls. Many nodes offer few community amenities other than transit. If transit is seen as unsafe, this will make transit a less attractive benefit to locating in TOD nodes.

Refreshed Social Equity Issues

Pre-COVID, homelessness and opioid dependency were already issues in Vancouver. COVID has increased demands for social equity from populations disproportionately affected by the virus. City and Provincial governments are renting and buying hotels to provide shelter.

The impact of COVID on elder mortality in care homes, mobility concerns, and financial implications of market fluctuations on retirement savings are new topics for Vancouver’s three Plans to consider.

Protests south of the border in the U.S., and west in Hong Kong, are drawing attention to unequal access to opportunities. China’s national security law could result in some of the 300,000 Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong returning to Canada. In a tight rental market, this adds uncertainty for people renting homes owned by offshore Canadians.

The Provincial Government has introduced measures to help renters and landlords experiencing financial difficulties during COVID. These include temporary rent supplements, halting evictions, and freezing rent increases.

Vancouver’s three plans already incorporate equity and reconciliation objectives. The challenge is how to deliver enhanced equity in the context of budget limitations and multi-jurisdictional responsibilities.

Help From ‘Above?’

Over the past 50 years, senior governments have allocated or abrogated responsibilities to local governments without transferring resources. Local governments have assumed increased responsibility for infrastructure, transportation, affordable housing, support services, opioid harm reduction, zero waste, resiliency, and climate change.

However, unlike senior governments, which can accumulate deficits to pass to future generations, municipalities must pay their way today. Local governments have limited revenue sources. Municipalities can tax property and charge user fees. With the events around COVID, the challenge of delivering services while balancing budgets has intensified. For example, Vancouver City expects a revenue decline of more than $120 from decreased user fees and COVID responses.

Recovery will require partnerships. In June, the Federal Government offered cities early access to $2.2 billion previously allocated for infrastructure funding. Whether further funding will be forthcoming is unclear.

This is not a time to raise expectations by adopting broad aspirational plans with expectations of senior government funding for social equity. This is a time to reframe planning to focus on rebuilding the economy, and providing support in the context of local resources.

Pivot: Reframing Plans in a Time of COVID

COVID is both a challenge and an opportunity to rethink plan content and the planning process. The three Vancouver plans are being reframed to include COVID recovery and long-term community resiliency. Going forward, to temper raised expectations, actions need to be accompanied by financial implications.

Transferrable Lessons

Vancouver’s COVID experiences and responses are not unique. Health, recession, and voices protesting long-standing inequities are similar.

For those starting or updating comprehensive plans in response to COVID, a four step process which marries plan making with implementation is needed.

1. Listen and Learn

Start with opportunities for ‘Ideas and Solutions to Travel Together’ by:

  • Governments listening to ideas to address economic, social, and environmental distress
  • Publics learning about funding constraints and the mix of public, private, and not-for-profit partnerships, which together deliver plans

2. Choices and Consequences

Stakeholders, including potential funding partners, assemble plan options from Step 1 by identifying choices and financial, social, and environmental consequences.

3. Trade-offs, Trajectory, Timing

Step 2 provides the content for a broad public discussion of trade-offs, leading to a desired long-term aspirational plan and actionable timetable in the context of available funds.

During COVID, engaging stakeholders in a way which builds understanding of varied needs, competing for limited funds, while maintaining physical distance presents a challenge.

A survey conducted in late May 2020 by Coquitlam, a Vancouver area municipality, found that 60% of respondents supported engaging on-line. However, a concurrent survey found willingness to engage online had time constraints. Most preferred 30 minutes or less. Only 6% were willing to participate in discussions lasting an hour or more. Those not supporting online engagement cited lack of technology, expertise, and translation.

Vancouver’s 1995 CityPlan addressed difficult growth and service choices. Support for shared Directions only emerged after long and spirited in-person discussions (involving over 100,000 people) of choices, costs, and consequences.

Expectations and accessibility raise questions of whether existing online engagement practices will provide a wide and robust commitment to future directions. This is the time to experiment with new engagement practices, which offer an opportunity for those with differing perspectives to meet on the same platform to find common ground.

4. Plans, Programs, Projects, Partnerships

Tradeoffs from Step 3 provide the basis for new plans. Some plan directions, such as future re-zonings, may not require immediate funding. Most plan directions are dependent on project, program, and partnership funding. Plans need to be accompanied by operating and capital budgets to provide a clear indication of when programs and projects will proceed.

These four planning steps combine inspirational objectives for economic and equitable recovery, and aspirational plans for longer term resiliency, with actionable programs to move forward in the context of available resources.

Local governments are challenged to reframe plans to respond, recover, restart, and rebuild in the context of limited funds and raised expectations. Post COVID plans need governments to understand economic distress and calls for social justice. Post COVID plans also need public understanding of fiscal limitations.

There is a proverb: ‘Tell me I forget. Show me I may remember. Involve me I understand.’  The challenge moving forward is to find a path to understanding and agreement in the context of uncertainty and difficult choices.


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  1. Very thoughtful. Every city should be thinking about this and I expect many are. Why isn’t this a pdf?

  2. Thanks Dr. McAffe, your experience and vision of reality are without a doubt fundamental and the investment background is in sight.

    I would like to ask you a somewhat different question, out of the box as they say, but perhaps more real than imagined, such as the appearance of a virus in the midst of logical planning that projected 30 years or more, but that solved without thinking the problem of Mobility.

    What would happen if anti-gravity is developed in our means of transport? We could think only of permanent investment in vehicular roads and the construction of those that come, but in addition to the size of the investment that has been made only to serve this harmful investment that moved the world at the cost of ending our destiny, stopping now was the most logical in the face of environmental damage in addition to the growth and development of the humanity that lies ahead.

    Perhaps a fraction of that arrogant budget that’s slated on highways is enough to develop anti-gravity.
    Thanks again.

    Miguel Thauby Bertoni

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful, and thought-provoking, article, Ann. Your views on transportation are right up my alley. I was in on the start of SkyTrain in 1981-82, and proselytizing for its construction. It is now time to abandon SkyTrain expansion plans, all the way from VCC to UBC. A colossal waste of money, which would otherwise restore fast, confirmable, neighbourhood-friendly street rail.

    Cancel the SkyTrain expansion plans now, and start construction of the Arbutus-South False Creek-Science World Line right away.


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