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5 perspectives on urban planning during the pandemic

With unexpected financial losses due to COVID-19, cities will need to think carefully about how they allocate resources. This article provides five perspectives on how planners can manage and even find opportunities in the challenges brought on by COVID-19.

1. Infrastructure projects to encourage economic recovery

The C.D. Howe Institute Crisis Working Group is composed of industry experts and economists and co-chaired by Jeanette Patell, Vice-President of Government Affairs and Policy for GE Canada and Dwight Duncan, former Ontario Minister of Finance and Senior Strategic Advisor at McMillan LLP. As reported by, the group recently published a report that suggests the Canadian government can help the country’s economy recovery by providing stimulus for productivity-enhancing infrastructure projects. Some of the report's specific proposals were:

  • Maintenance backlogs: Stimulus should be used to accelerate infrastructure spending, which can be used as an opportunity to address maintenance backlogs of aging public infrastructure assets, such as repairing bridges and linear water infrastructure. These projects can help boost aggregate demand in a period of anticipated weakness.
  • National Strategic Assessment: The report suggests that the country requires a national strategic assessment to identify infrastructure investments that would enhance social wellbeing and long-term economic growth, especially with regards to risks from climate change.
  • Backstop facilities for “debtor in possession”: To mitigate a potential wave of insolvency and liquidations if traditional debtor in possession (DIP) lenders become overwhelmed, backstop facilities for DIP financing should be put in place.
  • Establish timetables for “sunsetting” and develop second wave plans: Governments should compare the economic costs associated shutdown and the risk of transmission in specific occupations and industries in anticipation of a second wave while economic activity resumes.

2. Focus on vulnerable populations

In a recent article, the Ontario Professional Planners Institute suggests that planners should be cognizant of how the pandemic disproportionately affects vulnerable populations and plan accordingly. Those who rely on transit, live in dense and shared spaces, work in frontline jobs such as elderly care and food delivery are more at risk than those who can work remotely from their home during the pandemic. They point out that various practices in urban planning and architecture that have traditionally focused on “efficiency”—maximum land use densities, a deference to automobiles over pedestrians and cyclists, and a lack of emphasis on social services—could work against us. They go on to suggest that planners put people at the centre of their planning, thinking about how spaces can be accessed and used, especially by the most vulnerable.

3. Facilitate curbside pickup to promote distancing

As the pandemic becomes the new normal, businesses have turned to curbside pickup as a way to keep customers safe while facilitating much needed economic activity. This is a reality that cities and planners will need to contend with. The City of Toronto, for example, has rolled out its CurbTO initiative to help businesses, services and community agencies promote physical distancing. Planners can think about how existing spaces, such as underused parking, can be repurposed for commercial activity.

4. Density is not necessarily the enemy

The need to social distance may lead one to believe that the high density of cities would increase the spread of COVID-19. However, this is not necessarily the case. As Patrick Condon, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture, pointed out in an interview with CBC, the rates of COVID-19 are actually lower in high density central Toronto and Vancouver condominiums than they are in lower density surrounding areas. The same is true of New York: The worst hit neighborhoods have been those in the comparatively lower density outer boroughs, such as Queens and Brooklyn, rather than Manhattan. The principal reason is that those in the higher density, but more expensive neighborhoods often have the luxury of working from home while those in the lower density outer areas typically don’t and also disproportionately rely on transit to get to work, leaving the latter more exposed.

5. Keep people moving safely

As discussed, many people still rely on transit to get to and from work that cannot be done remotely. As governments and businesses ease restrictions, ridership will likely increase as more return to using transit. As such, cities, transit authorities and planners will need to think about how they can enable efficient transit while reducing the spread of COVID-19. 

Some organizations, such as the Société de transport de Montréal, will require riders to wear a mask while using their system. To make the policy easier to follow, the Société de transport de Montréal will provide masks to riders. Planners can work with transit authorities to develop strategies for keeping people safe while maintaining this essential service. Routes that provide access to grocery stores and social services could be prioritized in terms of frequency and cleaning, for example.

Bringing it all together

As seen in the perspectives discussed above, planners will have many considerations to prioritize and manage. Planners will be called upon to develop scenarios and justify strategies. To do so effectively, it is advantageous to have relevant, timely and accurate information. Planners can use Esri Canada’s COVID-19 Open Data resources to gain insights into the location and status of health facilities, emergency management services, infrastructure, demographics and more. Additionally, ArcGIS Insights users can perform analyses to inform decision making, as demonstrated here. Finally, users of ArcGIS Urban can use its features and functionality, including analytics and scenario testing, to inform and develop their planning.

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.