The Post-COVID-19 Urban Economy

2020, Pandemonium, Cities, Economy

The pandemic wrought economic devastation unseen since at least the Great Depression and government intervention in the economy on a scale comparable only to the two great World Wars. The shake-up in our urban economies has been far-reaching, with even more fundamental changes to sectors, drivers, demand, and structures still on the horizon, poorly understood. Opportunities to lead are becoming apparent, as are more radical opportunities to take hold of the need for new understanding of what the economy and wealth are for. What do we know so far about how has the game changed and the economic direction in which we are heading?

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, 25 Nov 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


Peter Hall
Associate Dean, SFU Urban Studies


Tamara Vrooman
CEO of YVR and Chancellor of SFU

Matti Siemiatycki
University of Toronto School of Cities

Lynsey Thornton
Shopify Vancouver

Angela Marie MacDougall
Executive Director of Battered Women's Support Services and Co-Chair of Feminists Deliver

Wade Grant
Intergovernmental Relations, Musqueam Nation

Event Summary

A Summary of the Post-COVID-19 Urban Economy

By Aphrodite Bouikidis, SFU Urban Studies

Our panelists were Tamara Vrooman, CEO of YVR and Chancellor of SFU; Matti Siemiatycki, a professor and interim director at the University of Toronto School of Cities; Lynsey Thornton, who leads Vancouver operations for Shopify; Angela Marie MacDougall, Executive Director of Battered Women’s Support Services and Co-Chair of Feminists Deliver; and Wade Grant, a member and leader of Musqueam Nation. This mix of panelists permitted the discussion to avoid a narrow understanding of economic impacts on income, resources and production to consider the economy, more broadly, as a force for development.

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The event opened with a territorial welcome offered by Wade Grant, which came with a reminder of the Indigenous economy of this place and the ongoing impacts of its destruction since colonial contact.  

Moderator Peter Hall, professor of urban studies at SFU, opened the panel with a brief look back, reminding us that urban economic development was a dynamic and contested space before the COVID-19 crisis. Over the last 30 years, economic activities became increasingly concentrated in cities, with people, ideas and capital flowing into urban places. These forces had positive and negative impacts, including impacts on inequality, which grew and destabilized our economic system.

Matti Siemiatycki began with an assertion: the old normal is not an option. The pandemic has highlighted existing flaws in our urban economies and accelerated processes exacerbating inequality. He argued that our cities are facing three intersecting and cascading crises: an urgent public health emergency, the climate crisis, and inequality and structural racism.

From an economic perspective, he noted that pandemic restrictions have created a supply-side recession. This makes the economic disruption of the pandemic different from the type of crisis that first creates a shock in demand — for water, first aid supplies, essentials that have been demolished in a storm, for example. This shock on the supply side has had a disproportionate negative impact on Main Street small businesses, the real estate sector in downtown cores, and mixed economic impacts on suburbs and exurbs.

Our economies under this pandemic have revealed significant inequality in terms of who is being impacted. Matti repeated the term coined by economist Armine Yalnizyan, “she-cession,” to describe the disproportionate negative impact of the economy on women because of women’s disproportionate representation in essential service occupations and because of the impact of the pandemic on the daily lives of households. Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) are also impacted disproportionately, in some of these same ways, and in other dangerous ways besides.

As they think about recovery and plan for the future, cities have the potential to be a part of the solution if they focus on inclusive, sustainable and just economies.  

Lynsey Thornton shared insights from Shopify, the Canadian e-commerce platform that powers the back end of over a million online businesses around the world. Small businesses are in an unprecedented struggle, with many seeing their revenue fall to near zero at the onset of this crisis. Shopify’s business model of working for small businesses has been key to its success during the pandemic: it has provided the means for businesses to be adaptable, choose the right technology, and find a way to meet customers where they are. These have been survival-level factors for retailers during the pandemic. In terms of internal operations, as a major employer, Shopify made a bold decision in May to remain a “remote-first” workplace permanently, in order to get ahead of the situation rather than remain subject to ongoing uncertainty about protocols for returning to office work full-time.  

Angela Marie MacDougall began her comments by recognizing that it was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the beginning of 16 days of activism to redress gender-based violence. She spoke of her work with Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS) and Feminists Deliver to unpack the gendered and intersectional impacts of the pandemic, particularly on women and women’s work with respect to the caring economy. Our societies have taken a step backwards in terms of gender equity during COVID-19, as evidenced by reports of gender-based violence affecting frontline workers internationally. Job losses, increases in the burden of homemaking and unpaid caregiving work as a result of pandemic conditions have also disproportionately affected women.

Angela offered the perspective of the pandemic as a portal: rather than a recovery or a return, this time could and should be taken up as a moment of transformation into another way of managing ourselves and our relationships. The kind of transformation needed, signalled by Black Lives Matter and related movements of the summer of 2020, is a systemic redress of structural inequalities created since the time of colonization and founding of Canada and its urban regions. She warned that if we rely on traditional piecemeal responses to challenge this crisis, we risk not only returning to, but entrenching, structural inequities. Angela emphasized the importance of community-based responses to transform our economic institutions as we move through and beyond this crisis toward more equity. Her vision for the new economic model is a caring economy, fit to recognize the work of caring and the role of nonprofits and social enterprises in particular.

Before speaking about the role of YVR airport in the regional economy, Tamara Vrooman shared the story of how Vancity Credit Union, which she formerly led, emerged as part of the economic recovery effort at the end of the Second World War. Now the world’s largest credit union, it started as a locally-based solution, initiated by 14 regular people based upon principles of inclusion and equality. Essentially, these initial 14 members joined forces to create their own bank when the big banks would not lend them money to help with their housing costs, because the banks considered the east side of the city too risky an investment. Vancity was the first financial institution to lend to women without requiring a man to co-sign, and continued to be a leader among financial institutions on policies and commitments related to inclusion, community development and sustainability.

Vrooman went on to describe how the regular activities of YVR airport have ground to a halt during the pandemic. Rather than fixate on a return to operations as soon as possible, YVR has sought opportunities to offer unused spaces and services for use during the pandemic response, including the largest COVID-19 testing site in the region in one of its underused parking lots. Admittedly the air travel industry has been a laggard in terms of climate and sustainability, but YVR is a locally-controlled, not-for-profit private corporation and a large employer. Vrooman saw many opportunities for YVR to support the region in health, community service and climate leadership through this crisis. YVR holds a pivotal economic role as a connection point for people, transportation and cargo, particularly related to health and medicine. It is invested in its partnerships with Metro Vancouver, the regional government, and proud of the steps made toward reconciliation with Musqueam in the Friendship and Sustainability Agreement they have signed together.  

Wade Grant also emphasized the importance of reflecting on our past in order to think about where we are going in the future, and what we need to do to achieve meaningful and needed change. He offered a brief overview of some of the history of the Musqueam Nation and its people, highlighting the unique position of Musqueam as the original people of the Fraser River delta and the role they have played as the urban region of Vancouver has grown on their territory. Through connections to his personal story and family history, Wade shared some of the ways in which, since the time of colonization, the reservation system, residential school system, and restricted access to rights to fishing and other essential disruptions of their traditional economy have had and continue to have a profound impact on Musqueam people and their ability to participate in the urban economy.

Community members have succeeded in lifting up Musqueam and other First Nations, and continue to have an important role to play in offering alternatives about what neighbourhoods can look and work like in the future. Musqueam also has important lessons to share about how to bring change about in the face of strong resistance, given that it was one of the first nations to advance litigation in the Supreme Court for Canadian recognition of their unceded rights and title, which spurred a cascade of title and rights cases. Wade also described how Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh have come together in partnership and are working together to have their lands returned and to play a vital and respected role in the greater regional economy, including through major land, housing and community development throughout the region.   

The discussion continued with a lively series of questions and requests for recommendations about the kind of infrastructure that the region needs to support a transformative recovery, the new ways in which home is becoming a recognized and significant site of economic activity once again, the benefits of economic diversification, the role of post-secondary institutions, and how to increase opportunities for youth to take part in the economic recovery and transformation. Substantive and speculative stories and opportunities were shared, that we can all play a role in carrying forward.


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Financially supposted by the Initiative in Urban Sustainable Development

Pandemonium Events