Business as un-usual: Revisiting planning processes in the wake of COVID-19
04 June 2020 | By Kristin Agnello, RPP, MCIP
Nearly 2 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is starting to tentatively reopen its doors. While things are far from business as usual, planners around the world are beginning to think about what the world will look like in a post-pandemic future. The Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) and the Provincial and Territorial Institutes and Associations (PTIAs) have been leading the way by facilitating discussions, sharing resources, and disseminating information in order to support planners across the country as they transition into this new reality. The public health challenges that have resulted from COVID-19 are unprecedented and, throughout the last two months, the Canadian Federal and Provincial governments have emphasized that a coordinated and collaborative response will be essential if we are to effectively overcome the challenges posed by this pandemic. It is clear that the way we think about our cities will have to change in order to prioritize physical space, public health, and social well-being.
But, in addition to considering how we will live, work, and play in our cities’ reimagined public spaces, planners are also facing more basic, practical decisions. Like most of Canada, my home province of British Columbia is under a Provincial State of Emergency, which limits the number of people permitted to gather in any one place at a given time. This has meant cancelling Council meetings, public hearings, and consultations, as well as preventing direct mail-outs to constituents. Realizing that delays in processing development applications, voting on bylaws, or moving forward with infrastructure projects will likely result in cancelled projects or increased costs - both of which could negatively impact the economic recovery of a municipality or region - local governments have had to identify new ways of meeting, allowing public input, and maintaining public process in the face of restricted physical contact.
However, permitting modified engagement and public hearing processes at the municipal level has been largely dependent on a series of provincial legislative changes. In British Columbia, for example, the Emergency Program Act has enabled changes to provincial legislation that have permitted local governments to hold Council meetings and public hearings virtually, to allow written testimonies for public hearings, and, in some instances, to allow bylaws to be read and adopted in a single day[i] . But, while local governments are expected to find ways to virtually support public engagement and participation, they must also remain as inclusive and transparent throughout the decision-making process. Good online engagement will mean more than recording presentations and distributing surveys; there will need to be a consideration of access to resources, opportunities for interaction, and options for alternative means of participation.
Moving toward virtual participation for public engagement presents new opportunities, but it also presents a number of new challenges. Planners must be aware that there may be a stigma against virtual consultation as a credible and legitimate process for public participation. Furthermore, virtual engagement challenges planners to ensure that citizens and committee members are engaged in an accessible and equitable way. Virtual engagement is increasingly being lauded as an opportunity to reach new audiences and allow citizens to engage in civic processes from the convenience of their own homes, however, we must also consider who may be excluded due to discomfort with technology, limited access to internet, or concerns about privacy, data collection, or information sharing. While approximately 91% of Canadian households have access to the internet in their homes, this figure drops to 71% for senior households [ii]. Furthermore, internet access and reliability varies substantially across the country, with remote or rural citizens less likely to have access to dependable, affordable service. Fast, reliable internet access will increasingly become a non-negotiable necessity for people as their home technology becomes the backbone for the local and global economy, the education system, and for participation in social and civic life.
As the economy begins to reopen across Canada, planners working as consultants, public servants, and academics will continue to re-evaluate their business processes and work methodologies in order to ensure that the tools they are proposing remain credible, reliable, and feasible long after the immediate effects of COVID-19 are behind us. It is an opportunity to revisit our best practices for engagement, governance, and process to create tools that are not only adequate, but that breathe new life into community relationships now and in the future.
Lately, I have been feeling a push to return to a new normal. It is clear to me that our chance to return to business as usual is also our chance to re-evaluate our processes for design, planning, consultation, and implementation in order to move forward toward a more sustainable, equitable future. The world will likely not return to normal, but maybe - just maybe - that isn’t a bad thing.
[i] Province of British Columbia. (2020). COVID-19 Updates for Local Governments & Improvement Districts. https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/governments/local-governments/governance-powers/covid-19
[ii] Statistics Canada. (2019). Canadian Internet Use Survey. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/191029/dq191029a-eng.htm