PT: Ann McAfee was Co-Director of Planning for Vancouver from 1994 to 2006 at the time the extraordinary growth described in the post below was occurring.  This paper describes the immediate and possible future impacts of COVID-19 on planning in the Greater Vancouver area.  (Edited from the original here, with my emphasis added in bold.) It one of the best summaries of all the different forces and developments that will (or should) affect local and regional planning in the near future.

Despite the dispassionate tone of the paper, no doubt from years of writing planning documents, her summary is, if not radical, a challenge that will be profound for planners, politicians and leaders in community:

Local governments are challenged to reframe plans to respond, recover, restart, and rebuild in the context of limited funds and raised expectations. Post COVID plans need governments to understand economic distress and calls for social justice. Post COVID plans also need public understanding of fiscal limitations.

“Limited funds” and “fiscal limitations” are realities that will be imposed on us by the pandemic, and it won’t be pleasant.  Perhaps that’s why they have so far been largely undiscussed as society and governments cope with more urgent demands.   Ann is calling for planners to step up to the challenge.

 

Ann McAfee:

Three Programs Caught in COVID

Prior to COVID, three agencies launched strategic plan updates. The plans are aspirational; all seek to manage growth to address sustainability, resiliency, and equity.

In 2019, Vancouver’s City Plan and Transport 2050 invited people to share ideas. The intent was to listen to those with lived experience of the city and regional transportation system. Initial responses were not fettered by cost considerations. Subsequent steps proposed public discussion of scenario choices and tradeoffs.

In April 2019, Metro and TransLink staff compiled Regional Growth and Transportation Scenarios. Potential ‘Big Disruptors’ were seen to be climate change, shifting global economy, and new technologies. A pandemic and recession were not listed. …

 

Blurring the Distinction between Home and Work

Early indicators of increased numbers of employees working from home are mixed with two additional factors: an increase in office vacancies as employees work from home, and some businesses seeking larger workspaces to improve physical distancing. These work-from-home patterns could continue as an estimated 46% of the metro labor force are in jobs which could be performed, at least part-time, from home.

As people shop from home, the trend toward e-commerce is accelerating. Concern about future supply chains may reverse industrial job losses by encouraging manufacturing and food production to locate closer to markets.

Pressure to rezone business lands for residential and commerce could intensify. Vancouver’s experience with rezoning for these purposes is that the resulting increase in land value prices out production and service uses.

The value of ‘home’ is reflected in metro residential sales patterns and prices. May 2020 sales were 54% below the 10-year monthly sales average. By June, the market was rebounding. The June 2020 benchmark price for a detached home ($1.46 million) showed a 3.6% increase from June 2019. This likely reflects a desire to shelter-in-place in a single-family home.

 

Intensifying Local Business Trends

Prior to COVID, communities were experiencing a loss of mom and pop shops. The impact of COVID has varied in this regard. Food shops, remaining open as essential services, have increased sales. For other businesses, COVID closures are accelerating financial challenges.

To help local businesses reopen with physical distancing, cities are permitting private uses in public spaces. Examples include sidewalk patios and temporary use of parking lanes for queueing. Vancouver has approved longer term COVID responsive public space initiatives.


The desire for a region-wide response to economic recovery has increased calls from the business sector for the 21 regional municipalities to merge. This was not a topic anticipated in the Metro 2050 Plan. Canadian experience suggests amalgamation is not a decision to be taken lightly.

The pandemic accelerated changes to municipal permit approvals by moving from in-person applications to online approvals. Feedback from applicants shows they are appreciating the streamlined process which includes remote meetings and digital receipt of permits.

 

Rethinking Accessibility

Vancouver’s Central Business District has no freeway access. Over the past decade, jobs and residents continued to increase, while commuting by automobile decreased. Movement mostly happens by walking, biking, and public transit.

Fear of infection is discouraging transit use. However, incorporating American Centre for Disease Control guidelines to drive solo, thereby avoiding exposure to COVID, is not an option for Vancouver. The absence of a freeway and limited downtown parking discourages car use.

Outside the CBD, regional growth is focused on transit-oriented development. Some nodes offer residential and retail on repurposed malls. Many nodes offer few community amenities other than transit. If transit is seen as unsafe, this will make transit a less attractive benefit to locating in TOD nodes.

 

Refreshed Social Equity Issues

Pre-COVID, homelessness and opioid dependency were already issues in Vancouver. COVID has increased demands for social equity from populations disproportionately affected by the virus. City and Provincial governments are renting and buying hotels to provide shelter.

The impact of COVID on elder mortality in care homes, mobility concerns, and financial implications of market fluctuations on retirement savings are new topics for Vancouver’s three Plans to consider.

Protests south of the border in the U.S., and west in Hong Kong, are drawing attention to unequal access to opportunities. China’s national security law could result in some of the 300,000 Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong returning to Canada. In a tight rental market, this adds uncertainty for people renting homes owned by offshore Canadians.

The Provincial Government has introduced measures to help renters and landlords experiencing financial difficulties during COVID. These include temporary rent supplements, halting evictions, and freezing rent increases.

Vancouver’s three plans already incorporate equity and reconciliation objectives. The challenge is how to deliver enhanced equity in the context of budget limitations and multi-jurisdictional responsibilities.

 

Help From ‘Above?’

Over the past 50 years, senior governments have allocated or abrogated responsibilities to local governments without transferring resources. Local governments have assumed increased responsibility for infrastructuretransportationaffordable housingsupport servicesopioid harm reductionzero wasteresiliency, and climate change.

However, unlike senior governments, which can accumulate deficits to pass to future generations, municipalities must pay their way today. Local governments have limited revenue sources. Municipalities can tax property and charge user fees. With the events around COVID, the challenge of delivering services while balancing budgets has intensified. For example, Vancouver City expects a revenue decline of more than $120 from decreased user fees and COVID responses.

Recovery will require partnerships. In June, the Federal Government offered cities early access to $2.2 billion previously allocated for infrastructure funding. Whether further funding will be forthcoming is unclear.

This is not a time to raise expectations by adopting broad aspirational plans with expectations of senior government funding for social equity. This is a time to reframe planning to focus on rebuilding the economy, and providing support in the context of local resources.

 

Pivot: Reframing Plans in a Time of COVID

COVID is both a challenge and an opportunity to rethink plan content and the planning process. The three Vancouver plans are being reframed to include COVID recovery and long-term community resiliency. Going forward, to temper raised expectations, actions need to be accompanied by financial implications.

 

Transferrable Lessons

Vancouver’s COVID experiences and responses are not unique. Health, recession, and voices protesting long-standing inequities are similar.

For those starting or updating comprehensive plans in response to COVID, a four step process which marries plan making with implementation is needed.

 

1. Listen and Learn

Start with opportunities for ‘Ideas and Solutions to Travel Together’ by:

  • Governments listening to ideas to address economic, social, and environmental distress
  • Publics learning about funding constraints and the mix of public, private, and not-for-profit partnerships, which together deliver plans

 

2. Choices and Consequences

Stakeholders, including potential funding partners, assemble plan options from Step 1 by identifying choices and financial, social, and environmental consequences.

 

3. Trade-offs, Trajectory, Timing

Step 2 provides the content for a broad public discussion of trade-offs, leading to a desired long-term aspirational plan and actionable timetable in the context of available funds.

During COVID, engaging stakeholders in a way which builds understanding of varied needs, competing for limited funds, while maintaining physical distance presents a challenge.

survey conducted in late May 2020 by Coquitlam, a Vancouver area municipality, found that 60% of respondents supported engaging on-line. However, a concurrent survey found willingness to engage online had time constraints. Most preferred 30 minutes or less. Only 6% were willing to participate in discussions lasting an hour or more. Those not supporting online engagement cited lack of technology, expertise, and translation.

Vancouver’s 1995 CityPlan addressed difficult growth and service choices. Support for shared Directions only emerged after long and spirited in-person discussions (involving over 100,000 people) of choices, costs, and consequences.

Expectations and accessibility raise questions of whether existing online engagement practices will provide a wide and robust commitment to future directions. This is the time to experiment with new engagement practices, which offer an opportunity for those with differing perspectives to meet on the same platform to find common ground.

 

4. Plans, Programs, Projects, Partnerships

Tradeoffs from Step 3 provide the basis for new plans. Some plan directions, such as future re-zonings, may not require immediate funding. Most plan directions are dependent on project, program, and partnership funding. Plans need to be accompanied by operating and capital budgets to provide a clear indication of when programs and projects will proceed.

 

These four planning steps combine inspirational objectives for economic and equitable recovery, and aspirational plans for longer term resiliency, with actionable programs to move forward in the context of available resources.

Local governments are challenged to reframe plans to respond, recover, restart, and rebuild in the context of limited funds and raised expectations. Post COVID plans need governments to understand economic distress and calls for social justice. Post COVID plans also need public understanding of fiscal limitations.

 

There is a proverb: ‘Tell me I forget. Show me I may remember. Involve me I understand.’  The challenge moving forward is to find a path to understanding and agreement in the context of uncertainty and difficult choices.

Comments

  1. on climate change
    We can’t wait for random acts of evolution; we can’t wait for a rich person to produce an heir that will save the planet. We instead need to improve the literacy of the world population; we need to build an infrastructure of knowledge that guides our worldwide everyday actions. This very important work could be a Canadian world wide project.

    In the wake of covid 19, ‘close encounter economies’ have suspended operations. many shuttered businesses will not return so there is a need for re-training programs and financial support for sectors in demand, the new ‘2 meter economies’. Let’s make sure they are green and branded 2M economy.

    Remote work has emerged as a viable option for revenue generation. On the horizon is the personal drone transporter. Taken together along with the internet these two revolutions: remote work and personal flight have the potential to transform human settlements and the way they are connected and develop in the future.

    People will be on the move as the economy changes. There is a demand for low cost shelter systems, mobile modular rooms using modular factory production of rooms for living, cooking, bathing, working and so forth.

    2050 projected growth of 3.6 million residents? Indications are that there is negative growth in the near term as some folks exit the city. This is an event we might view as a positive outcome for the environment. A city in balance with nature is certainly the goal of development and something we should work to enable. We could for example choose to promote new best practices ‘pop-up cities’ as a way to manage growth when there is growth. ‘Pop-up cities could be government seeded with desired new industries of the future.

    We need to think beyond the confines of Vancouver planning documents and policies if we want to create new industries for the unemployed, if we want to have affordable housing, if we want to have a just society. We cannot rely on the same old rezoning, deconstruction, reconstruction environmental catastrophe model of international real estate sales to get us to the promised land of a green city and a safe world.

    1. Because everybody flying around in their personal drones is lighter on the environment than people walking around within their compact mixed-use neighbourhoods?

      We should learn a lot of lessons from Covid. But it’s pretty premature to be designing a society based on 2m distancing. We went an entire century without it being necessary and it seems likely most of the next century will be similar in that regard. If Covid outsmarts us for a couple of years and there’s still no end in sight we can discuss again.

  2. With regards to the Metro Regional Growth Strategy and the Regional Transportation Strategy, the Surrey Skytrain extension is not in sync with these. Talking to my clients, Surrey is approving projects with no reduction in parking spaces close to future Skytrain stations along this planned extension. It is as if they do not understand transportation demand management or at least, choose to ignore it. Surrey is far behind in negotiating the right of ways needed for the guide-way track and stations. It seems they are just too preoccupied with the exploding growth in their City Centre and are asleep on the job for the extension to Langley. Incidentally, the City Centre growth is not dependent on the extension as there are 3 Skytrain stations already there and that probably explains why Surrey is not that keen on the extension right now.

    Surrey is not prepared to put in policies to support the Skytrain extension that involves huge sums of money from the taxpayer just being handed over. What is prudent and should happen is to put the Surrey Skytrain extension on hold and allocate all of its funding committed by the 3 levels of government to the Vancouver Broadway Skytrain so it can proceed in a more expedited way. After the Broadway Skytrain is nearing construction completion, then the focus could be on the Surrey to Langley Skytrain line. By then, Surrey should hopefully have its act together and it is a much better and more practical usage of taxpayer money.

  3. My experience as someone who lives in the Tynehead part of Surrey (eastern part of Fleetwood) is that even with the good upgraded bus service Translink has recently given us, far too many are driving their cars to work from Surrey. It was like this before COVID and it is only going to be more so the case for a few years at least due to the pandemic. As for planning along the future Skytrain corridor, it seems Surrey is still putting in townhouses with lower density (4 to 6 story) apartments from the most recent planning approvals since the Skytrain approval. Neither does Surrey distinguish for multi-family parking requirements between areas that are in the “middle of nowhere” and those on good and frequent transit (with the single exception of the city centre). Excessive parking requirements are the norm and there is no reason to leave ones car at home and take transit. Translink and the province should require Surrey to implement good planning principles in order to obtain funds -which amount to about 3 Billion dollars – so certainly not chump change. The taxpayers are at least owed that. What Surrey might need is outside expertise to help them along.

    There is no obvious rush or urgency on the Surrey Skytrain extension and I agree that it should probably be best constructed at the same time the Broadway extension to UBC is.

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