May 13, 2020

Resilient Cities, Post COVID-19: Rewriting Policy

By Evergreen

In the second of this series, Evergreen asks which policies, programs, and investments should last beyond this pandemic?

COVID-19 has prompted governments at all levels to move faster than ever before. The immediate and palpable severity of the situation means that governments were able to gain fairly broad consensus from residents to use all the strategies at their disposal to contain the pandemic and mitigate the socio-economic impacts of social distancing. We’ve seen national eviction bans and suspensions, unprecedented federal wage supports and a boost in essential workers’ pay, and investment in modular homes to house homeless populations. Many of these rapid solutions have people asking: why did it take a pandemic for us to use these tools? Which policies, programs, and investments should last beyond this pandemic?

Evergreen, Future Cities Canada and many others are beginning to explore what COVID-19 could mean for the future of Canadian cities. The hope is that this work unearths promising steps toward re-opening our cities, mitigating future risks and impacts, and seizing opportunities presented by this crisis to build truly equitable and resilient cities.

As a first step towards this, we reached out to city-builders and community leaders from across the country for their perspectives on this question: How will COVID-19 change the future of cities?

Getting to work…

There have been many predictions about the future of cities after COVID-19, but ultimately, that future will be ours to define. Redefining our cities means that communities will need to advocate for their needs, that researchers will need to make sense of the data, that politicians will need to support bold new ideas, that organization leaders will need to rethink their service delivery, and that policy-makers will need to entertain new approaches to old problems. So far we have done a good job of acknowledging the gravity of the issues that COVID-19 has laid bare and finding quick short-term solutions to many of them. Our next priority is getting to work on long-term solutions that will far outlast this moment.

In the first of this series, we heard about Strengthening Communities. In this article, we’re focusing on rewriting policy.

Rewriting Policy

Revisit policies that prevent our cities and communities from flourishing; define a bold new vision for our cities based on promising global policy and emergent policy innovations in crisis response.

Keywords:  equity;  green space;  people first;  access;  design;  behaviour change;  planning

We Cannot Go Back to Normal

Niklas Agarwal works at the intersection of climate action and urbanism. He was first connected to Evergreen through the Future City Builders program.
Toronto, Ontario

COVID-19 will change the future of cities by showing us that we cannot go back to “normal.” Normal was never good enough. We couldn’t afford to pay rent, transit prices kept on going up, young people were entering an unstable job market defined by gig jobs and short term contracts, cities around the world were choking on pollution, people went unhoused while homes sat empty, essential workers were underpaid and overworked, and our public spaces came second to cars. When I dream of the future of cities, I see cities recognizing that these emergencies are ongoing, permanently implementing and expanding policies we’ve gained in this time, and prioritizing the needs of everyday residents. This crisis has shown us that our dreams for the future of our cities are possible – it just takes political will.

City services don’t need to play hard to get

Andrew Do is a Service Designer at the City of Austin .
Austin, Texas (formerly Toronto, Ontario)

Imagine yourself needing renter’s assistance but then not being able to produce or find that one pay stub or tax slip you need to prove you’re eligible. Why do the services our cities offer for its residents seem to play so hard to get?

It is true that oftentimes the services cities deliver are on behalf of other governments but it’s the city that hires that call center agent, that person managing the email inbox or that person over the counter to help residents. The quick response of the government to COVID shows that the services and benefits don’t need to play hard to get ⁠— don’t need onerous means-testing to screen for eligibility upfront, especially when services are hard to offer in-person. May our cities post-COVID and the many dedicated municipal workers who see day-in and day-out what onerous means-testing can do to discourage our residents be the forefront of ending this game of playing hard to get.

Not Setback nor Restart, but Reset

Keren Perla is a Fellow at States of Change, working to pioneer new ways to solve governments biggest global challenges.
Edmonton, Alberta

While the pandemic emergency is, appropriately so, front and center of our news feeds as well as our hopes and fears, it reflects a much broader reality where countries and leaders are “waging war” on a series of separate yet related crises, all stemming from our inability to live sustainably (Donella Meadows, Beyond the Limits). What distinguishes the pandemic is how it has connected us in a global, shared experience that cuts across all boundaries. The pandemic is our common enemy; one shocking enough to our human systems as to potentially spur a reset.

History shows us that cities are one of humankind’s most enduring and stable forms of social organization. So, we must never overlook the ability of our cities to evolve and reinvent themselves, and COVID-19 will likely accelerate changes that have been brewing in our cities for a long time. And this could break different ways, making things better or worse, as cities emerge from this uncanny, uncertain pause. Given current climate scenarios, deep seated economic inequalities, and a second virus wave on the horizon, I believe this prolonged downturn will catalyze the need and time to trial new economic models that can contribute to more resilient societies.

My hope is that here in Canada the pandemic sows […] seeds that extend beyond recovery. It’s a question […] about designing for resilience that still needs to [be] asked, and it’s the local governments that can spark and amplify a much needed space for solutions. Coming out of this will not be simple, and most cities have been smashed into the immediate now. But the fact remains: a vision for redesign matters.

So even now, as we manage the urgent needs, our municipalities must bring forward what this experience is teaching us – about empathy and connection, and community well-being – and bake the potential of new operating models of citizenship into their mandates for the future.

Beyond Response, Into Recovery

Staff members at the Suncor Energy Foundation.
Calgary, Alberta

COVID-19 has potential to change the seemingly impossible into the possible. This pandemic shows we can change habits and behaviours, and take collective action for a greater good. It also demonstrates that collective action requires the participation of everyone: leaders to articulate what’s needed; governments to set policy in support of those needs; organizations and businesses to offer their strengths in support; and individuals to make behavioural changes. Along the way, we have gained greater respect for the new and unlikely heroes who are emerging: those that typically held little power are now essential. A culture of caring has arisen in many areas. All the while, technology has allowed many to stay home and safe, expand and redefine our sense of place (less need to travel to be together), and connect us with others in meaningful ways (e.g., those of us privileged to still be working have more insight into colleagues’ homes and personal lives). Less flying or driving means fewer emissions, and we are noticing the return of “wildness” – in the form of wildlife visiting our neighbourhoods and via our own increased presence in the outdoors.

Can these early changes be sustained in a post-COVID context? We hope so. But the behaviours we adopt, the policy decisions we make, and the structures we rebuild will need to be mindful of this potential – lest we instead see increased focus on borders, barriers, anxiety, and “us versus them” mindsets. Certainly, we recognize within all the positives there is also fear and grief. We feel it too. Learning from past crises, it will be necessary not to think we’re “done” when the response phase of this emergency is over. If cities are to be stronger after COVID-19, the leadership, policies, leveraging of strengths, and changing of behaviours will need to be rallied beyond response into recovery and re-imagining as we rebuild structures, mindsets, trust and resiliency.

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