When vision meets COVID-19

Proper city planning more relevant than ever amid current upheaval


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In the past few months, COVID-19 has seeped into our cities, our streets, our homes and our minds. With it came a challenge to adjust to a “new normal” — from wearing masks in public spaces to physically distancing ourselves and sanitizing religiously. We have adjusted the ways in which we interact with (or even perceive) our neighbours and our friends. The pandemic has shifted concepts of work and home life, blurring these lines for many of us. Child care and school were, for a long while, not places to drop our kids off at, but activities occurring in the background of our video calls.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/10/2020 (787 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the past few months, COVID-19 has seeped into our cities, our streets, our homes and our minds. With it came a challenge to adjust to a “new normal” — from wearing masks in public spaces to physically distancing ourselves and sanitizing religiously. We have adjusted the ways in which we interact with (or even perceive) our neighbours and our friends. The pandemic has shifted concepts of work and home life, blurring these lines for many of us. Child care and school were, for a long while, not places to drop our kids off at, but activities occurring in the background of our video calls.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly affected every aspect of our lives but we have adjusted quickly. At a city level, we see it heightening existing challenges and shifting demand. Interest in active transportation has skyrocketed. Bicycles have been selling out across the globe. Meanwhile, people may be more cautious about using public transportation — a perception likely stemming from a fear of crowding. The importance of outdoor space has also become more clear than ever, as we sought places to interact with friends and loved ones from a safe distance.

While the changes we have witnessed over these past months may seem extreme and rapid, cities and the people who live in them, are always changing. COVID-19 has only accelerated the need to adapt and evolve.

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg’s long-term goals, set out in planning documents, should serve as pillars for the city’s pandemic recovery strategy.

A perspective-changing pandemic

The way we experience our cities and interact within them is now entangled with worries around virus transmission. These concerns are not only centred on contracting the virus ourselves, but also, on the potential for putting others at risk. We continue to learn more about the realities of this each day, as more data either supporting or disproving our associated concerns emerge.

COVID-19 has not necessarily created new challenges for cities, but rather exacerbated existing ones. The pandemic has emphasized both racial and social inequities — not only in the way in which people traverse the city but in their access to adequate shelter. It has shone a light on fear and stigma, and also the very real fiscal and economic challenges.

Thinking about these issues and how best to address them, from housing and transportation to employment and public space, is central to the work of city planners. Planning for inevitable change, in a purposeful way, is a constant part of what we do. When drafting public policy, we consider demographic shifts, market demand, and environmental impacts, routinely modelling the future with varied scenarios that present both challenges and opportunities. This type of contemplation helps cities arrive at a vision for their future, and is often enshrined in planning documents called official city plans, municipal development plans or development plans. These documents are developed and approved by municipalities, and describe the long-term vision of communities.

Municipal plans allow cities to think about the “big picture.” How do we accommodate growing populations? How do we attract young people and welcome more homes and people into neighbourhoods? How do we make spaces and places accessible to people of all backgrounds, races, ages and abilities? Most importantly, how do we create the cities and the types of communities we want to live in?

Municipal plans can help facilitate answers to these complex questions and help the public formulate exciting visions for their city. And while we have likely only lived through the beginning of this pandemic, investing in municipal plans can not only help us make sense of the challenges we are faced with today, but also help guide us through an increasingly uncertain future.

Big plans in the works

Long before the pandemic entered our lives, both the City of Winnipeg and City of Edmonton were working hard on new municipal plans.

Edmonton’s city plan envisions neighbourhoods, nodes, and corridors intensified with more housing — with a goal of 50 per cent of new units added through infill city-wide, and 600,000 new residents welcomed in redevelopment areas. These goals are based on the notion that spaces and places can continuously be reimagined and rebuilt to accommodate a growing population. In its prior municipal plan, Edmonton set its sights on concentrating 25 per cent of housing units in core and mature neighbourhoods, a target that was achieved in 2016.

The city plan asked thousands of Edmontonians: “What choices do we need to make to be a healthy, urban and climate resilient city of two million people that supports a prosperous region? The plan was developed with learnings from a series of technical studies, including economic and demographic analysis, greenhouse gas emissions and energy impacts, growth scenarios, and population and employment distribution.

As well, the plan touches on a range of topics directly related to the day-to-day experience of community members: articulating the necessity for two million new urban trees; 50 per cent of trips made by transit and active transportation; 15-minute districts to allow people to easily access services and amenities; elimination of chronic or episodic homelessness; and vibrant nodes and corridors that support 50 per cent of all employment in Edmonton.

Winnipeg is also looking to the future with a draft of its municipal plan, OurWinnipeg 2045, and its companion document, Complete Communities 2.0, which guides land use, growth and development. Originally drafted in 2011, the updated OurWinnipeg sets a renewed 25-year vision. The plan is centred around the 17 United Nations sustainable development goals, localized into six Winnipeg-based goals: leadership and good governance; environmental resilience; economic prosperity; good health and well-being; social equity; and city building.

Like Edmonton, Winnipeg’s building plan, Complete Communities 2.0, sets an ambitious intensification target: focusing at least 50 per cent of new housing in areas with existing infrastructure, services and amenities. The plan also aims for 350 new housing units in the downtown, each year, until 2030, and increasing after that. By making infill and housing redevelopment easier and more predictable, Winnipeg can increase choices for a changing demographic and keep the city affordable.

These targets aim to maintain and foster what Winnipeggers love: safe, desirable neighbourhoods to raise families; affordable living; and a healthy environment. These targets are also necessary in the face of expanding infrastructure and increasing costs. Over the past 50 years, the city’s settlement area has expanded by 96 per cent, while the population only grew by 37 per cent. This has substantial effects on services; over that same time period, the length of water pipes, which carry drinking water from Shoal Lake 40 into our homes, grew by 131 per cent. So, while in 1971, there was 9.6 feet of water pipe per person, and by 2016, there was 16.9 feet per person. What this all means is that there are less taxpayers to cover the costs of increasing services.

“To support these targets, Complete Communities 2.0 articulates the need to understand servicing capacity in existing areas — not only to better understand limitations of existing neighbourhoods but to make better, more transparent decisions on investments and future upgrades to accommodate growth,” says Michael Robinson, senior planner for the City of Winnipeg.

A wrench in the plans?

Without a doubt, COVID-19 has disrupted many individual plans; summer trips have been cancelled, visits to loved ones have been drastically reduced, and that conference or festival we were looking forward to has almost certainly been cancelled. No one was planning for a pandemic, but fortunately, the forward-looking nature of these plans mean they are not only still relevant, but perhaps more timely than ever.

Even before COVID-19 emerged as a top issue facing cities, Edmonton’s plan placed an emphasis on being agile in the face of disruption, specifically focusing on how to plan in the wake of a crisis or change.

“Our city council and communities have placed a great deal of emphasis on the city plan as a central part of Edmonton’s recovery,” says Kalen Anderson, director of Edmonton’s city plan. “While we drafted the plan pre-COVID-19, our team is continuing to explore the influence of public opinion and public health on planning policy development before, during, and after the pandemic. Understanding how stakeholders view the city plan and planning issues like density, transit use, and health risks in light of the COVID-19 crisis can help inform us on how best to put our plan into action, but also how to plan for, and in, crises in the future.”

Similarly, Winnipeg’s overarching goals — although developed pre-pandemic — would serve well as pillars for the city’s recovery strategy. For instance, the plan outlines a need for responsive change management to ensure municipal investment and divestment serves evolving needs effectively and sustainably. Further, the plan emphasizes a need to improve community safety by increasing our capacity to respond to and recover from emergencies, disasters and diseases. The list goes on, including goals and policies related to affordable housing, equitable transportation and improved access to public space.

“These goals will not be easy to achieve, but they are necessary in a changing climate, within our aging and growing city, and with fiscal challenges that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic,” says City of Winnipeg’s Robinson.

Although the desired destination may be the same, it is important to acknowledge that we are now at a different starting point. The pandemic has added new challenges. For example, will achieving the ambitious infill targets in Edmonton be more difficult? Time will only tell, but according to some preliminary results, the plans are still right on track. In fact, the Province of Manitoba recently released case numbers broken down by Winnipeg regions, which demonstrated infection rates were not higher in denser neighbourhoods. The two regions, to date, with the highest number of cases per 10,000 people were actually Seven Oaks and Assiniboine South — some of Winnipeg’s less dense areas. While it is probably too soon to know exactly why cases have been higher in these areas, this preliminary data does not show a direct correlation with density, and instead, indicates the need to look beyond assumptions to better prepare for these types of situations moving forward.

Although these past few months have certainly been challenging and unprecedented by any measure, we can likely all agree that we have learned immensely from this period of rapid change. We have seen how the world can pivot in a matter of days to adapt to new circumstances. While we may not have fully adjusted to “the new normal,” we are well on our way — changing the way we work, communicate, care for children, and socialize. We are now starting to ask ourselves: what’s next?

Planning is key to recovery

People live in neighbourhoods, plans often live on shelves. How do we bridge the two? How might we enlist communities to translate policy in our plans into everyday actions?

The plans often set ambitious targets centred around a long-term vision for a city. This is the fun part. The challenge then becomes implementation. How will we actually achieve what we set out to see? How do we ensure we invest and prioritize these plans?

Edmonton’s Anderson recognizes the challenge: “City building is a long game, and our visions for city regeneration don’t materialize overnight. With this pandemic, we’re going to have to be even more intentional, integrated, and thoughtful about our plans, our ideas, and our policies — and we’re going to have to implement them with sharp co-ordination.”

Edmonton’s plan is envisioned as a living, breathing document that is kept up-to-date and is monitored, evaluated, and readjusted annually. And more recently, council and city administration embedded its official plans at the heart of the city’s recovery plan, Reimagine, signalling a priority and respect for city planning and city building; and a continued desire to think about both our current context and the future — even in these challenging times.

“Edmonton’s Reimagine plan is a call-to-action and reminder that we all have a role to play in the building and rebuilding our cities,” says Stephanie McCabe, deputy city manager of Edmonton’s urban form and corporate strategic development department. “This pandemic has shown us how adaptive and creative we can be, and Reimagine is all about taking these lessons we learned, to focus in on and advance what matters most for Edmontonians. As we move forward, a thoughtful implementation of our plans, and our priorities will help us achieve better planning outcomes.”

The release of OurWinnipeg is just the beginning. The plan offers a preliminary set of indicators to help make sense of progress towards the vision, with further work to be advanced after the document’s release.

OurWinnipeg proposes to measure both public perceptions and ‘hard’ data. For example, how Winnipeggers rate perceptions of well-being, contextualized with health outcomes can help measure the goal of good health and well-being; it proposes tracking median household income and the number of people experiencing homelessness to reveal progress on social equity and economic prosperity. Tracking dwelling density, commuting patterns and residential stability will reveal city building changes. In the current context of the pandemic, we have all come to know how critical timely, reliable data is to assess personal and community safety.

Winnipeg is in a lucky situation where a baseline set of indicators have already been compiled by the community-driven Peg system. We know where we are at now, and we can measure how far we are going to go. Using the Peg indicators as part of a municipal plan is unique, in that they are an external set of indicators, collaboratively chosen. Peg was developed approximately 10 years ago by the United Way of Winnipeg and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). By engaging over 800 people to see what was important to them and their neighbours in Winnipeg, they compiled indicators that would reflect this.

“Plans like OurWinnipeg are written within a changing political landscape. When you use indicators you can benchmark progress based on data and evidence, not necessarily a political agenda,” says Beth Timmers, Project Manager with the IISD. “The City of Winnipeg isn’t deciding what they want to measure and how, but by using the Peg framework, they are drawing on indicators that were selected by Winnipeggers, based on what was deemed important to them.”

In regards to how the City of Winnipeg moves forward with implementation, Robinson asserts, “Thankfully, OurWinnipeg emphasizes the importance of evidence-informed decision making, about using innovation, technology, and data to guide our policies and our budgeting decisions.”

Despite our whole world having shifted dramatically in the past five months, the goals outlined in OurWinnipeg are still relevant, and working towards them even more important. These goals need not be thrown out the window during a pandemic. Rather, they can help guide decision-making on a recovery plan, and reveal progress towards that.

Timmers notes, “COVID has really made it even more clear how important data is — and good data — to a society’s well-being. In the recovery process, good data is crucial. If you have a benchmark of where your city was before COVID, you can build back to that, or improve on that in a recovery plan. Good data is going to be so crucial to see a recovery that is equitable and sustainable.”

We are all in this together

Municipal plans, much like COVID-19, demonstrate the importance of working together and considering the needs of others. Whether it is putting on a mask to protect others who are more vulnerable than you (even if you are perfectly healthy), or supporting a dedicated bike lane in your neighbourhood to provide more equitable transportation options (even if you may not use it). We often need to make decisions with the best interests of others at heart. It is what binds us as a community.

As young planners, we think of municipal plans as opportunities to make a difference in our communities. We see these documents, and the visions articulated in them, as inspiring road maps for a city we want to live in. Like many of our colleagues emerging as professionals in the city building realm, we have a genuine desire to create space that allows the public to share their ideas, their hopes, and their dreams for the future of their city. While there are very real challenges ahead of us, we are motivated and inspired by the agility that municipalities, non-profits, and residents have all demonstrated during this pandemic. We are eager to see this mentality adapted as we plan, as we govern, and as we bring together communities towards a vision — and recovery for our cities.

As current and former Winnipeggers, we are proud of our livable city, our bustling and creative arts and music scene, and home to Canada’s largest urban Indigenous population. These are our strengths, and these will help us get through these challenging times. Our Winnipeg is one that builds on these strengths and works to achieve goals like Social Equity and Environmental Resilience. These are issues that are even more important and more present in the public consciousness during these unprecedented times.

But, we are all in this together, and many plans are in place. We can do this.

Jason Syvixay is an urban planner completing his PhD in urban and regional planning at the University of Alberta. He has worked as the managing director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, a planner with HTFC Planning & Design, and more recently, has joined the City of Edmonton to lead and support the implementation of its Infill Roadmap.

Lissie Rappaport is a city planner and community organizer. She is the manager of housing supply with End Homelessness Winnipeg and has worked in various roles in Winnipeg’s Inner City for the past 10 years.

Evan Sinclair is a city planner at Scatliff+Miller+Murray, an urban planning and design firm with its head office in Winnipeg, as well as regional offices in Regina and Calgary. In this role he is able to contribute to both developing and implementing community plans across the Prairie provinces.

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