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Planning during (and after) the pandemic: Resources to review

Many articles, webinars, panel discussions, and other publications have been created in recent months to assist planners on navigating the practice during these dynamic times. Discussions on expected changes, potential adaptations, and innovative methods have been growing in number from voices across the globe. Here at NDC, we’ve read, watched, and listened to many of these voices in planning and related fields, and have selected a few that we encourage readers to explore more on their own.

Author Michele Acuto, Professor of Global Urban Politics at the University of Melbourne and Professor of Diplomacy at University College London.

As the number of infectious diseases increases and more of the human population moves into urban areas, with 66% projected to live in cities by 2050, pandemics will continue to be a major challenge worldwide.

Director of the Connected Cities Lab at the University of Melbourne Michele Acuto discusses the realization that outbreaks often occur along the edges of cities instead of in city centers, and then subsequently spread to the cities. They can especially occur in informal settlements that often lack running water and proper sewage systems, which nearly 1 billion people call home.

In addition, as the spread of the coronavirus is due in part to globalization, this pandemic has challenged the “global city” model. According to some, de-globalization has been occurring in recent years, and that’s a trend that might stick around. Moreover, planners are learning many digital lessons through the pandemic—the heart of which should be empowerment and community-building.

Now that digital engagement is and will likely continue to be the norm for the foreseeable future, planners must determine ways to reach the greatest number of people and to make materials and meetings as accessible as possible. Author Michael Podgers, a planner in Chicago, offers the following tips to achieve this goal:

  1. Make sure you’re mobile compatible: Because 81% of Americans own a smartphone, digital outreach efforts must be compatible with mobile apps. Making hotspots available is another way to ensure those without internet can participate.

  2. Manage expectations: Ensure that stakeholders know what to expect and feel comfortable participating by standardizing the public engagement process.

  3. Overcome the in-person bias: In-person engagement was never accessible or easily utilized for everyone, such as those with disabilities; for many, digital platforms have always been the more accessible option.

  4. Crowdsource solutions: Podgers gives the example of the necessity of translation services during virtual meetings; while planners may not have the ability to provide them, community groups, for instance, may be able to step in and fill that gap.

  5. Take advantage of new opportunities: Digital engagement breaks down barriers presented by in-person events. If people are able to tune it at any time from any place, people with all different work schedules and time commitments can tune in and get involved who may have been unable to before.

  6. When in doubt, go old-school: Engagement efforts like phone interviews, mail-in surveys, and kiosks with written feedback options can be viable options that may be more accessible for those who are unable to utilize or uncomfortable with digital engagement, and can easily reach a wide range of people.

  7. Evolve together: We must all accept the fact that engagement has changed, likely for good. The transition towards virtual meetings and digital engagement and away from traditional in-person events will require patience and will also evolve over time, so planners must commit to finding solutions that work for the greatest number of people.

Author Michael Podgers includes the example of a digital charrette that attracted far more participants than expected, showing equitable and far-reaching public engagement is possible digitally.

During a video interview, APA research associate Jo Peña asks for advice from Jennifer Horney, who works for the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, one of the oldest disaster research centers in the US. She discusses how planning has been heavily intertwined with public health throughout history, with infrastructure such as sewer systems and green space that has allowed for great improvements in public health. Horney encourages planners to work closely with public health professionals in ongoing and future projects to develop spaces that can accommodate social distancing and improve public health outcomes. She also encourages the exploration of what physical activities can be done virtually, like building inspections, and for individual-level social distancing and non-pharmaceutical interventions like frequent cleaning and hand-washing. For planners who want to learn more about this topic, Horney encourages them to review CDC guidelines, as they have specific guidelines for a number of settings that can be useful, even if not specifically developed for planners.

Authored by three engineering professors and researchers at Arizona State University, this article explains that the way our systems were designed emphasizes rigidity and the assumption of stability and predictable demand, which is no longer acceptable. New infrastructure will likely emerge in coming years as the pandemic progresses, and what must now be incorporated are agility and flexibility. The authors define agility as the necessary capability to change physical structures and governing processes in a way that will allow them to adapt and transform infrastructure services as the environment changes, and flexibility as the necessary capabilities to meet changing demands for whatever events occur, both predictable and unpredictable. Ensuring new infrastructure has these two qualities will allow it to be resilient. They also explain that lessons can be learned from those systems that have been resilient during the pandemic, and that they were able to do so through understanding how the environment changed and the complexity of the issue and adjust their processes and assets as quickly as the pandemic’s progression.

This ideastream segment features two Ohio mayors and a city manager, as well as OHM urban planner Aaron Domini. They discuss how Ohio cities have been struggling during the pandemic due to their reliance on flat income taxes–as unemployment rises, the cities struggle more. The impact of the pandemic has been similar to that of a natural disaster, as there was no way for any city to properly prepare for a complete economic shutdown.

While cities are struggling, planning projects continue, and as Domini explained, a lot of what we were planning for pre-pandemic will continue, such as Smart City. Ohio and the rest of the US was already at a tipping point for a shift in our urban fabric, such as with the rise of e-commerce, so this pandemic is simply “pushing the gas pedal” on what was already occurring. As certain infrastructure will no longer be needed, such as following a reduction in physical offices and retail stores, planners will need to figure out what to do with that legacy infrastructure.

Domini hypothesizes that while previous times of crisis have come with investment, at this time innovative technology, such as drone deliveries and autonomy, will be key to the restoration of society. As innovative technologies are developed and deployed, planners will also need to determine whether more or less infrastructure is needed to support them.

During this short panel discussion with four planners, they all discuss their opinions on what changes they anticipate will (and should) be made in the short and long term in reaction to the pandemic. An important point is that this has and will continue to change people’s patterns, which change much quicker than the built environment, so that will be important to study. For instance, how many more people will be working remotely, walking instead of driving, and shopping online instead of in-person?

While all the panelists acknowledge that the true scope of the impact of COVID-19 cannot yet be determined, one of the biggest impacts is the exacerbation of existing inequities and the dire need for them to be addressed. These inequities are the result of both design and policy problems, and it must be determined who needs help most through the use of data and evidence-based solutions. Another important point is that planning is an excellent framework to bring about change because it touches on many disciplines, and planners will need to collaborate now more than ever to effectively develop and implement solutions.


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