Pandemonium Series Takeaways

Fri, 07 May 2021

Meg Holden and Aphrodite Bouikidis
SFU Urban Studies

The SFU Urban Studies 2020-2021 remote lecture series, Pandemonium: Urban Studies and Recovering from COVID-19, delivered its seventh and final event in March 2021. 

The lecture series was presented by SFU Urban Studies in collaboration with SFU Public Square and financially supported by the Initiative in Urban Sustainable Development.

Thirty-eight panelists and more than 1,400 participants took part in the discussions. The series of episodes focused thematically on important and critical questions related to long-range planning, housing, sociability, economy, resilience and public space, and discussions included a range of issues and how they are interrelated.

The series invited the urban-interested community far and wide in expert, experiential and speculative conversation about cities, crises and the different kinds of demands for interconnected thinking and action. The series was also an opportunity to stay connected with our community of research partners and colleagues, some of them from here in the region, others from Seoul, New York, Europe, Montreal and Thunder Bay; with our alumni, from as far away as the small developing island nation of Saint Lucia; and to make hundreds of new connections as well.

The series offered a great deal of food for thought about cities. Here we digest, reflect on and share some of the insights, themes and questions that were raised for us throughout the series, and lessons identified for "the future of the city" and how we respond to the next and the compounding crises facing the city.

A historic and multifaceted crisis

The pandemic represents a disruption of historic and monumental proportions that has had a major impact on nearly every aspect of our economic, social and cultural lives in Canada and many parts of the world. The health care system, first and foremost, has been tested to its limits, as has the global research and development system for vaccine development. Our governance system has been disrupted, operating on high alert and with a high rate of new information to convey, unprecedented restrictions to impose and programs to invent and deploy. There have been severe disruptions to our economies in ways that have revealed processes, like global supply chains, previously taken for granted and hidden from view. Some core and deep-seated assumptions of economics, like the private sector as primary generator of wealth, have also been called into question. Environmental impacts have been remarkable—with transportation held in check, air pollution has been decimated, but signs of a changing climate have not slowed. Systems of oppression of others based on race, class, gender and other categories have become more pronounced, and in some cases, demands for justice have also been made more loudly than previously. The sociological and psychological impacts have been profound, with some calling the pandemic the largest psychological experiment in human history. Throughout 2020 and still to this day, we continue to experience what is obviously a uniquely disrupted moment in history. With this disruption has come a great deal of pain and suffering, major challenges across sectors to respond effectively—and, along with all of this, some opportunities as well.

Though our experiences with the pandemic are varied, the disorientation that is shared across the experiences of so many has prompted a major re-think of the city and a reshuffle of our collective urban priorities. As the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on cities grow, extend, multiply and amplify, both pre-existing and new urban vulnerabilities are more painfully obvious now than they have been in the past. While some see these vulnerabilities in terms of a race to technical solutions, others recognize that a more measured and lasting response will be to rethink the values expressed and embedded in our cities. We are challenged to consider “Whose city is it?”, as Am Johal pointed out. To answer this question is to consider that the common humanity of our cities is at stake.

A return to the "old normal" or a time of transformation?

There was agreement amongst most if not all of our panelists that the "old normal" is not an option available to return to, as we strive to emerge from the pandemic crisis. Several panelists reflected on Arundhati Roy’s observation that the pandemic can be seen as a “portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” To leverage this moment of global uncertainty as such a portal, our minds and efforts need to craft systemic changes and redress structural inequalities created since the time of colonization. Rather than one portal, it may be that multiple portals are opening. This observation resonates with Indigenous wisdom, as communities talk about "sustainabilities" and "resiliences"—the words are plural. Taking a global perspective also means that we need to exercise caution in extrapolating from our own, or from North American, experiences of the pandemic. We heard poignant accounts of places that are grappling with this pandemic and compounding crises with far fewer resources than we have in Canada, and other places that have not paused their growth agenda. While the demand for transformative change has been made more clear for many, we are reminded that systems of oppression are also resilient and would do anything to maintain the "old normal" structures to the extent that these benefit them.

Hear more in the Post-COVID-19 Urban Economy (November 2020) and Urban Resilience (February 2021) events in particular.

Decolonization and learning from the past to move to a better future   

Reflecting on and learning from the past and our current experiences allows us to move toward a better future. In particular, the process of colonization continues to impact urban design and development. It is important to understand this and recognize how re-centring Indigenous ways of knowing and values in our society can lead to solutions for better ways of living. Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations 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. Re-centring the ancestral and Indigenous hosts of our cities and territories entails recognition of the contemporary value of Indigenous knowledge for just and sustainable urbanization.

Thinking holistically about resilience in urbanism 

The sudden disruption caused by the pandemic health emergency response, in combination with its long-lasting health, social and economic impacts, emphasizes the importance of a wider and more holistic understanding of resilience. Emergency preparedness and recovery planning are elements of resilience, but the social, economic and political conditions in our societies that create vulnerabilities and disaster risk are also part of resilience. Panelists highlighted that we need to do more for social and economic resilience, and we need to centre social solidarity and justice in resilience practices, including participation of those affected by decisions. We know what we need to do, but we must recognize the urgency to do it.

The extended timeline of this pandemic also means that, in many places, multiple disasters have occurred simultaneously. This reminds us that we need to think about general resilience, i.e., resilience to multiple hazards across multiple systems, to be prepared for unexpected events and for multiple events.

Hear more in the Pandemics and Long-Range Planning (September 2020) and Urban Resilience (February 2021) events in particular.

Equity and disproportionate impacts

The pandemic and related health safety measures implemented in many places created burdens that fell on different groups in uneven ways. Gender equity is backsliding with the pandemic, particularly due to disproportionate negative impacts of the economy on women’s work in essential service occupations and the caring economy. As the pandemic created a heightened reliance on the digital realm, we are reminded that virtual spaces also require attention, particularly for youth who are increasingly active in these spaces. We should be reflecting on current challenges as we work to shape more equitable and sustainable economies and societies going forward.

Kindness, health and solidarity

In B.C., as in other locations internationally, leaders are making appeals to a politics of kindness to guide our response to the pandemic and public health. The pandemic is deeply affecting our relationships with our close circles and the wider community. We need to consciously and deliberately bring joy, kindness, solidarity and love back into the city and everyday life. We can think of kindness as a common love of humanity, and panelists stressed the importance of the practices of kindness being linked to equity and systems change. In this way, kindness was described as solidarity, and in the discussion around resilience, there was an emphasis on the importance of reimagining the “urban infrastructure of empathy," as Lilia Yumagulova described it, in our cities.

Kindness is particularly relevant in a community health approach, recognizing that health is not only individual but also relational—our relationships with each other impact our health. Kindness and social conscience are central to individual and community health. This relational notion of kindness calls on us to take action to disrupt the status quo and demonstrate solidarity with the most marginalized communities in our societies, who are experiencing compounding negative impacts during the pandemic response.

Hear more in the Pandemics and Long-Range Planning (September 2020)Being Kind (October 2020) and Urban Resilience (February 2021) events in particular.

Housing is more than just shelter

The importance of housing and its critical importance to people’s wellness was noted throughout the series. The pandemic shone a spotlight on our assumptions about housing (e.g., stay-at-home orders during the pandemic presupposed that everyone had safe and adequate home environments to stay in), and the critical importance of quality and healthy housing for individual, family and public health. There are lessons we can learn from the community housing sector about healthy housing and resilience, as this sector already understands that housing is more than just a roof over our heads. This sector encompasses a variety of different models, and is also referred to as “social” housing (public ownership or support) or “affordable” housing (below market rents). Indigenous experience is also a source of wisdom when it comes to community housing models. In Vancouver, important new Indigenous-led housing development projects are opening doors for this deep-seated wisdom to come through in new urban housing models.

At the same time, financialization of housing and gentrification of communities drive a lot of housing problems in cities in Canada, Europe and around the world, and neither the pandemic nor other recent policy shifts seem fit to change this.

Hear more in the Housing Post-Pandemic (January 2021) event.

Publicness and equity in urban public spaces

During the pandemic, cities placed restrictions on indoor and outdoor public community spaces, sparking debates about how tradeoffs between health, safety, creativity and democracy are decided, and who is prioritized in access to public space. Panelists in the Taking It to the Streets event (March 2021) focused on the class-based, gendered and racialized dimensions of changes in the uses of public space in the city. The pandemic emphasized the important relationship between public space and housing as many poor and precariously housed people, as well as street homeless people, faced compounded challenges with restrictions on the public spaces they could occupy, the loss of indoor community spaces they relied on (libraries, coffee shops and community centres, for example), decreased access to safe, clean and healthy spaces, and increased surveillance. The pandemic also fueled debates about the use of streets and modes of transportation, as cities tried closing streets to allow more cycling, walking, sitting, playing or other uses.   

In March, the series included the premiere screening of a short film produced by the City in Colour Cooperative, a new group of urban studies students and alumni who came together during the pandemic, spurred by their own sense of frustration with the massive changes to the city and public life, and their commitment to finding the means to keep our eyes on the street for one another. As one of their first projects, the City in Colour Cooperative designed and launched #2020in3words, a photo submission contest as a community reflection piece.

The film produced using the #2020in3words submissions can be seen here.

Community-based response and recovery

Panelists discussed the importance of community-led or community-based solutions for mutual support, emergency response, social connectedness, disaster preparedness, and recovery. Health, resilience and economic inclusion are context-specific. It is important to bring together, empower and support people at the local level, while also recognizing that systemic change is necessary to transform our social and economic institutions and ensure that people in all communities can be part of an equitable recovery and future.

The arts and culture sector was hit hard by health safety measures in many cities, yet local communities of artists played an important role in offering inspiration, mutual aid and social and cultural resilience, urging us to better acknowledge the value they bring to urban public life.

Lessons for urban planning as a field of practice and urban policy-making

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the basic tenets of city planning and the direction of long-term planning processes. The intersection of multiple crises reinforces the importance of long-range planning, even as we work to respond appropriately to urgent crises. For Metro Vancouver, the pandemic accentuated gaps in achievement of the Metro 2040 Regional Growth Strategy, including gaps in social equity, climate action, environment and affordable housing. Calling these lessons out, Metro Vancouver is rethinking the poles of its regional strategy as it updates and extends the strategy to 2050.

The range of social and economic impacts of the pandemic and their relationship to spatial aspects of our cities emphasizes that planning departments need to be as diverse as the cities they serve. The planning field also needs to acknowledge and rethink its relationship to state and land politics, and move from transactional to transformational planning.

Hear more in the Pandemics and Long-Range Planning and Housing Post-Pandemic events.

Ongoing and emerging challenges moving forward

Panel moderators Ken Cameron (Pandemics and Long-Range Planning) and Seth Klein (Urban Resilience) reminded us of what history has consistently shown: that urban crises can give rise to better cities. It also shows us that moments of crisis can be met with capitalist responses of privatization and profiteering, and long-lasting changes to our governance systems that are discouraging to the promises of democracy. In the present-day context, this is most notable regarding access to quality and affordable housing in cities like Vancouver, as the cost of housing continues to rise, driven by increasing rates of financialization of the real estate market.

Speakers from different countries pointed out that democracy and democratic engagement could very easily become casualties of an effort to focus on coming out of a crisis, and we have to actively protect our democratic principles.  

In another cautionary case, the private sector, particularly tech mega-companies, are increasingly driving or controlling new city developments and large urban developments. As governments spend unprecedented amounts as part of pandemic response and recovery, or future climate crises, their resistance to these kinds of projects may be weakened, and these private sector-driven new city projects or urban developments may proliferate. Considering the complexity of our urban systems and the interconnectedness of spatial, social, economic, environmental and political issues, we need to be cautious about who is deciding and planning large developments or entirely new cities, and what that will mean for people and communities.

A collective experience and collective healing

Towards the end of the final event (Taking It to the Streets), panelists considered a recent article by Ed Prideaux that refers to the pandemic as “the first global mass trauma event for several decades," and drawing on the science of trauma, anticipates our social need to memorialize and/or commemorate the pandemic in public spaces. They reflected on how the pandemic is a collective experience and how we begin thinking about remembering, commemorating and healing from this experience. The pandemic also coincided and became interlinked with the social justice movement and a reckoning, particularly in the U.S., about how we think about monuments in public spaces. As part of our collective recovery, we will be called on to think about how we heal together through collective actions and gatherings, monuments, narratives, and the lessons we take forward about how we shape our cities and who is part of the process.