Can we plan during a pandemic?

Despite the inability to host large public meetings, city planning is still vital under new challenges brought forth by COVID-19. In fact, future planning will be even more essential in order to make adjustments to our behaviors and our built environments in equitable and appropriate ways moving forward.

The global pandemic has brought persistent urban issues to the fore—like narrow sidewalks and a lack of green space in many areas—and raised new ones as well, such as an increase in both unemployment and remote work. However, many planners are confused about how to advance projects and carry out the planning process while working remotely, especially regarding public engagement.

One of the preeminent challenges will be adjusting public engagement techniques. As planners, public engagement is one of the most important aspects of the planning process, and public meetings present an important opportunity for planners to directly engage with the public. That’s why the prospect of virtual public meetings can be unattractive for planners. We value our work to convene diverse stakeholders in authentic and meaningful ways that can build trust and foster collaboration. How can we achieve that on Zoom?

Ensure your virtual meeting runs smoothly.

While it may be awkward and confusing to host virtual public meetings, there are steps that can be taken to ensure it goes smoothly and maintains a sense of normalcy, while still allowing for meaningful interactions with the public.

  1. Do a trial run beforehand

  2. Double-check the link is correct

  3. Make clear instructions for how to turn on microphones and/or cameras

  4. Practice speaking to a computer screen instead of an actual group of people

  5. Have a back-up plan in case of a technological failure

  6. For example, ensure others have the presentation open on their computer in case the person sharing their screen disconnects, so that another can jump in and share their screen right away to keep the meeting moving.

Experience Columbus is offering free virtual backgrounds of Columbus, like this one of the German Village, that can be used during Zoom calls to help residents feel more connected with the city during quarantine.

COVID-19 has made American inequities more visible.

It has been well documented that low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, since many residents are essential workers and they are more likely to have chronic health conditions that can make the virus more deadly. For instance, as of mid-April, 89% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 had at least one chronic condition, and half had high blood pressure and obesity, which are conditions that are especially common among African-Americans.

Because of the prevalence of these chronic conditions among African Americans, they make up 33% of those hospitalized with the virus despite constituting only 13% of the U.S. population. Chronic stress can also make people more vulnerable to the virus, which is highly prevalent among low income communities. In addition, 37.7% of black workers are employed in essential industries compared to 26.9% of white workers, putting them at an even higher risk. They are also 50% more likely to work in the healthcare/social assistance industry and 40% more likely to work in hospitals than white workers, the essential industries with the greatest risk of exposure to COVID-19, as well as other jobs requiring close proximity to others such as bus drivers and postal workers. The inequality exacerbated by the pandemic is so blatant that racism has just been declared a public health crisis in Franklin County, where black residents have been hospitalized at twice the rate as other demographic groups.

The pandemic has greatly increased people’s awareness of how important natural open space is in cities.

Parks are now one of the only public spaces we can use without restriction. And with quarantine causing significant stress on our mental health, spending time in nature is more important than ever. However, accessibility to green space is not equitable across communities. Low-income communities and communities of color typically have less green space than more affluent, mostly white neighborhoods. They are also typically denser, which makes social distancing much more difficult.

For example, in a primarily black and Hispanic neighborhood in New York City, Herbert von King Park in Bedford Stuyvesant, there are 42% more residents per square foot than the northern part of Prospect Park’s Long Meadow, which is mostly white. Gehl, an international urban design firm, conducted a study from their NYC office and observed narrow sidewalks and a high density of essential services in Herbert von King Park, which crowded those narrow sidewalks and made social distancing highly difficult than in the more affluent Long Meadow.

High density urban spaces will need to be designed more like Distrito Santa Fe in Mexico City, with the goal of designing “a park that is a street, and a street that is a park,” with an abundance of multi-use green space.

It’s still unclear what the full implications of the virus will be on the planning practice.

Until we learn more about it, many things will remain uncertain. Nonetheless, there are several important takeaways. Green space is vital to the health of a community, more space should be dedicated to pedestrians and bikers, and urban designers and planners will need to consider how to design places that can accommodate social distancing.

In addition, with inequities highlighted more than ever, planners will need to consider if low-income communities are adequately prepared during a pandemic or national crisis. With a lack of economic safety nets and sufficient open space, as well as a prevalence of essential workers, it is abundantly clear why these communities are hit harder than others. These inequities, as well as crowded urban spaces that discourage or even make social distancing impossible, are two major challenges that planners must address from now on.