Pandemics & Long-Range Planning

2020, Pandemonium, Cities

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the basic tenets of city planning and the direction of longer-term planning processes currently underway? 

All our core principles about successful urban places—density, mixed-use, eyes on the street, reliance on public transit and non-motorized transport, and active public spaces—have been called into question by the pandemic. At the same time, new rules about cities, space, work, travel and social life have been imposed as emergency measures, without time to consider their long-term implications.

In this session, we will learn about how urban and regional planning efforts underway before the pandemic will be influenced by it; what, if any, concepts need a radical rethink; and what new lessons will be incorporated.

Part of Pandemonium: Urban Studies and Recovering from COVID-19, a lecture series presented by SFU Urban Studies in collaboration with SFU Public Square and financially supported by the Initiative in Sustainable Urban Development.

Wed, 30 Sep 2020

5:00 p.m. (PT)

Online Event

Pandemonium: Urban Studies and Recovering from COVID-19

The scale of disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented, even for an era which has already been described as the age of uncertainty. It has affected the health of millions of people and forced billions to radically alter their movements and behaviours. At the same time, the struggle to manage the pandemic is taking place alongside the urgent need to respond to the additional global crises of climate change and social injustice.

In this context, what is the future of the city? If a city is first and foremost a place where people gather together to cooperate and create, can it function if there is a long-term need to maintain physical separation from each other as we live, work and travel to conduct our daily lives? If our societies can’t be urban, then what will they be?

As new shocks, restrictions and uncertainties sank in, the Pandemonium lecture series provided opportunities for dialogue and critical reflection on our urban alternatives during this time of change amid crisis.

Read a summary of the major themes and takeaways from the Pandemonium Series

Read Series Summary


Ken Cameron
Adjunct Professor, SFU Urban Studies


Kennedy Stewart
Mayor of Vancouver
Reconstructing Our City

Heather McNell
General Manager, Regional Planning and Housing, Metro Vancouver
The Vancouver Region in 2050: Implications of COVID-19

Jennifer Keesmaat
Former Chief City Planner, Toronto
The New Imperative for Resilience in Canadian Cities

Am Johal,
Director, SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement
Whose City Is It Anyway?

Yunji Kim
Assistant Professor, Grad School of Public Administration, Seoul National University
The Pandemic and the Impatient Nation: How Korea Responded to COVID-19

Event Summary 

Highlights from Pandemonium: Pandemics & Long-Range Planning

By Aphrodite Bouikidis, SFU Urban Studies

COVID-19 has called into question all our core principles about successful urban places – density, mixed-use, eyes on the street, reliance on public transit and non-motorized transport, and active public spaces. At the same time, new rules about cities, space, work, travel and social life have been imposed as emergency measures, without time to consider their long-term implications.

In this Pandemics & Long-Range Planning webinar on September 30, the conversation focused on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the basic tenets of city planning and the direction of longer-term planning processes currently underway.

It featured Kennedy Stewart (Mayor of Vancouver), Jennifer Keesmaat (Former Chief City Planner, Toronto), Heather McNell (General Manager, Regional Planning and Housing, Metro Vancouver), Yunji Kim (Assistant Professor, Grad School of Public Administration, Seoul National University), and Am Johal (Director, SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement).

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The pandemic is one of several crises that Vancouver and other cities are facing, and they are all connected. There are no simple solutions to these complex challenges. This reinforces the importance of long-range planning, even as we work to respond to current crises.  

Moderator Ken Cameron opened the session with remarks on how COVID-19 is a turning point in our society, marking the end of an era that began with the spirit of reconstruction after World War II. The pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of our economic, social and cultural lives and it has had significant environmental impacts, prompting us to rethink the city and what it needs to do to continue meeting the needs of citizens. Ken reminded us that “History has shown that crises, if managed property, lead to better cities.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have video of Ken Cameron’s introduction or the first portion of Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s remarks, but we do have transcripts! Click here to download them.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart

In March, Mayor Kennedy Stewart declared the first state of emergency in Vancouver’s history. Yet even before the pandemic, the city was struggling with a number of crises: the opioid overdose crisis, which is an official emergency and has been made worse by COVID-19; the problem of housing and homelessness; and the stresses coming to the surface as the Wet’suwet’en land defenders pushed back against projects on traditional territories and the murder of George Floyd sparked protests.

Jennifer Keesmat
Former Chief City Planner, Toronto

Jennifer Keesmaat argued that the public health crisis, climate crisis, social justice crisis and housing crisis are linked together, and we need to think strategically about them together. She acknowledges that the level of complexity in this moment can be intimidating and lead to inaction. While there is a growing discourse that cities are part of the problem and that we need to retreat from them, Jennifer begs to differ, arguing that we need to go deeper into our urbanism by creating green and just places to live. The 2020 Declaration for Resilience in Canadian Cities, signed by a group of urbanists across Canada (land use planners, academics, developers, environmental activists, architects, designers), lays out the specific actions that would drive us to a more resilient urbanism, including:

  • Responsible use of land
  • Recognition that our current urban form has had detrimental effects on new Canadians, Indigenous peoples, racialized people, lower-income workers
  • Embrace sustainability in our built and natural environments

Jennifer emphasized that there is no technology or big funding mechanism that will save us, there is nothing we need to invent to make cities more resilient – we know what we need to do, and how. Most importantly, we must recognize and embrace the urgency.

Heather McNell
General Manager, Regional Planning and Housing, Metro Vancouver

Heather McNell discussed how COVID-19 has impacted our learning from the Metro 2040 Regional Growth Strategy as Metro Vancouver extends the strategy to 2050 and works closely with TransLink to integrate with their Transport 2050 strategy. There is an effort to fill the gaps in the strategy that have been accentuated by the pandemic emergency, including social equity, climate action, environment and affordable housing.

Conversations about "Why should we plan for the long-term when such unforeseen events can happen?" recall the quote from Winston Churchill: “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” The plan is vulnerable to disruptors and external forces, but planning is about our thinking and perspective, a way to build common objectives, goals, and understanding for collective action. It also helps us think about intersectionality of different crises and issues. We cannot predict the future, but we can make projections and do scenario planning.

A key lesson from the COVID-19 experience is the importance of considering resiliency to shocks and disruptions; and that it is also important to consider equity in each policy move we make. Heather emphasized that we need courage and vulnerability in planning to embrace uncertainty, consider discomforting scenarios and to bring excluded voices into planning.

We need to double down on our fundamental planning principles for "good density" and at the same time be flexible – make big moves in policy and social equity.

Yunji Kim
Assistant Professor, Grad School of Public Administration, Seoul National University

Yunji Kim said that South Korea succeeded at responding quickly to the pandemic and getting back to something closely resembling pre-pandemic life, but in its impatience to do so it is losing two important things: democracy and collective goods.

The Korean government responded very quickly with testing and detailed contact tracing. This was recognized globally. The quick response is in part because of Korea’s experience with past crises (a fire in a metro station with fatalities and the SARS epidemic in 2003, a ferry disaster in 2014, and an earthquake and experience with MERS in 2015) and resulting changes to legislation and emergency management laws. It is also partly due to social norms, a collectivist culture, and rapid information sharing through social media.

Yunji noted that density was never up for debate in Korea – density allows for a more equal society, and more collective goods. The country’s strong response to the pandemic involved taking away some of these collective goods, like exercise equipment in many public parks and cooling centres for people to spend time in a cool place during heat waves. This loss of collective goods especially impacts people who do not have the financial means to rely on private goods.

While day-to-day life appears to be back to pre-COVID-19 times in Korea, the government is banning political protests. Organizers of one protest proposed a drive-through protest and the Seoul administrative court ruled against even that.

At the same time, local governments are introducing new ways to deliver public services to citizens, and innovating on ways to provide social welfare services.

Am Johal
Director, SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement

Am Johal challenged us to consider “Whose city is it? Who does it embrace, who does it marginalize, and who does it push away from eligibility?” The current crisis calls for disruption and fundamental change in values and our experiences in cities.

Am said that racial and economic injustices are built-in forms based on planning decisions founded on flawed and narrow assumptions, but planning can also bring about things like public health care, social housing, pensions, employment insurance. Planning departments need to be as diverse as the cities they plan for. We need to move from transactional to transformational planning, and think from within the lived experience of the city and its inhabitants. Planning must rethink its relationship to the state and land politics, particularly in urban contexts.

Cities need more resources and regulatory power to work around intergovernmental stalemates. Am argues that if COVID-19 was a test run for a major earthquake, (the focus of most of the City’s emergency planning) where services are disabled, then we are not prepared. We must consider who determines what recovery looks like and on what terms it rolls out. Inhabitants of a city must have agency, participation and decision-making in the recovery.

Is "resilience" the bullshit word of the moment if planning does not center social solidarity and social justice, and build in the participation of those affected by decisions?

People are inhabiting public space in new ways, and moving forward. We need to bring joy back to the city, invest more in the social infrastructure of arts and culture, invest south of the Fraser and the suburbs, and move beyond brick and mortar solutions to address multiple challenges we are facing.

Am concludes that the work of “love for the city and solidarity as a moral position” is the work for all of us, to be "done in the everyday with joy, love, poetry, ferocity, velocity, generosity and solidarity”.

Read a transcript of Am’s comments here.

Ken Cameron’s six takeaways

Moderator Ken Cameron synthesized six key takeaways from the discussion that we need to think about and carry forward.

  1. Today’s problems (eg climate emergency, homelessness) aren’t going away – they will still be there during and after the pandemic. Yet we have "Amazon Prime" expectations of policy - as Mayor Stewart described it - of immediate implementation and resolution of entrenched problems.
  2. We are in a unique moment in time that comes with huge opportunities as well as huge challenges.
  3. Vision, values and principles are even more important than ever. One principle – the responsible use of land – is a basic concern of making a better city.
  4. We face dual challenges in our urban planning, and we heard this particularly from Metro Vancouver: Double down and deal with the immediate crisis, but also be flexible going forward and make sure we are developing solutions that will stand the test of time.
  5. We must heed the warning from Yunji that democracy and engagement could very easily become casualties of an effort to focus on a crisis and to come out of a crisis.  have to ensure that our democracy and our democratic principles and the relationships between government and the governed are healthy.
  6. Am presents a new view of what engagement and inclusion is in terms of what the challenges are both to citizens and to elected people and to professionals of ensuring that the city rediscovers or, in fact, discovers all of its population, all of the interests that it should be properly representing in a democratic community and what that means for the question of resilience, which Ken is not prepared yet to call a "BS word."


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Financially supposted by the Initiative in Urban Sustainable Development

Pandemonium Events