Moving Forward, Even Amid the Uncertainty of COVID-19

June 05, 2020
Community & Regional Planning Urban Design

Proactive community planning is a critical component to the health of any community. And right now, it’s more important than ever before.

The past 12 months have been very interesting here in Nebraska: in the spring of 2019, devastating floods swept across the state, wiping out infrastructure and leaving businesses destroyed; a year later, the global COVID-19 pandemic has flooded our communities in a different but equally significant and devastating way.

Cities across the country are facing serious budgetary uncertainties, leaving economic development organizations to wonder how many businesses will remain open in 12 months. This insecurity is leading many local and regional decision-makers to adopt a more cautious “wait and see” attitude toward planning for the future, believing they must understand the impacts of COVID-19 before deciding how to move forward. For an urban planner like myself, this seems counterintuitive. Planning for the long and short term has never been more important.

Especially amid uncertainty, planning is a critical component to the health of any community. Healthy communities have strategies to build environmental, economic, civic and individual health. That comes with an ability to make decisions efficiently, know your strengths and put well-understood goals in place. 

Creating Efficiency

Any quick search on the importance of planning, whether community planning or business planning, will note that planning allows for more efficient decision-making processes. Scenario planning is at the core of many community planning procedures and even in these unusual and complicated times, that fundamental fact remains the same. If we can work with communities now to identify the potential outcomes of the COVID-19 era, then agreed-upon strategies based on those scenarios will allow communities to react quickly and efficiently. Conversely, if communities wait and see what the impacts might be from the pandemic, the response will be slower and potentially leave communities scrambling to respond to business needs or the allocation of federal funds.

Working with communities now to identify the potential outcomes of the COVID-19 era, then agreed upon strategies based on those scenarios will allow communities to react quickly and efficiently.

One only needs to look back to the Great Recession for reference. This was a time when federal funding for “shovel ready” projects left many communities scrambling to identify priorities and projects, often providing little time for community engagement and resident input. Housing, for example, will be one community planning issue likely affected by the pandemic. Amid a prolonged economic pause, an increasing number of tenants may find themselves unemployed and unable to pay rent. As a result, many developers may find themselves struggling to cover debt loads and finance the next project. Having timely conversations (that is, having those conversations now) about these potential scenarios will help communities identify strategies for proactively addressing these challenges, ultimately adding efficiency to the response process.

Understanding Talents and Strengths

Since being introduced to Gallup’s CliftonStrengths concept more than 15 years ago, I’ve seen strong parallels between the way we employ strengths-based management in our firm and the way we approach community planning. CliftonStrengths focuses on individual talents – allowing employees and managers to focus on what individuals are innately good at rather than trying to get people to perform in ways they are not naturally inclined towards. When we invest in these talents, we turn them into strengths.

Similarly, communities have innate talents, resources and hidden gems, and a solid planning process should identify these instinctive attributes to create strategies that turn them into strengths. During times of crisis, our talents and strengths are often more visible than ever, but we also must find those hidden resources or gems that, when polished, will make the transition out of crisis smoother. In Nebraska, examples of these resources are seen in the strength of our residents in the “Nebraska Strong” mentality that came out during the 2019 flooding, with residents lining up to fill sandbags, prepare meals for workers and donate to those in need. But there are other hidden gems that will help in recovery, and finding those gems starts by asking:

  • What businesses today have been the most resilient?

  • Can we identify vacant lot resources that can be used in the construction of attainable workforce housing?

  • Are there undeveloped or unmaintained floodplain properties that could be opened to the public with mowed paths?

Identifying the talents, resources and hidden gems that can be invested in, as well as the strengths that have already been lifted up, can help us understand how to apply them to a scenario planning process.

Clearly Defining Goals

Right now, it’s easy to simplify our goals down to “we want it to go back to normal,” but what does that mean and how will “normal” change? Normal may be months or even years off. Well-thought-out short- and long-term goals based around potential scenarios should guide the planning process and ultimately a community’s decision-making process. Don’t be afraid to be bold and clearly identify goals and objectives. Vague and generalized aspirations can help guide a decision-making process, but it’s the clear and bold ambitions that ultimately create a stronger community for the next 10 or 20 years.

Clear and bold ambitions that are informed by public engagement ultimately create a stronger community for the next 10 or 20 years.

Much of this begs the question, how do we achieve inclusive community planning in a time of physical distancing? Dialog and conversations with community members are more important than ever. Given that we are limited by physical distancing constraints, however, many communities wonder how they can come together as a collective to engage in the robust dialogue needed to set bold, ambitious goals. There have been thousands of pages written and hours of webinars on the subject but ultimately every community must know their demographics and understand what engagement methods or tools work best. Perhaps it’s a Zoom Q&A, a Facebook Live event or an interactive online quiz; or, being mindful of less tech-savvy residents, perhaps engagement looks like including fliers in water bills, display boards in downtown windows or comment boxes posted along busy trails that allow people to engage as they take their daily walk. For many communities, the approach that works best turns out to be a hybrid of both digital and print communication. Whatever the solution, there are certainly ways to continue engaging with residents safely and in ways that allow people to come to critical decisions around community needs.

My experience in community planning has taught me that we must create a multifaceted approach that focuses on going to residents, rather than asking them to come to us. The pandemic has only reinforced the importance of this philosophy. Today that might not mean setting up in the local coffee shop or food pantry to talk with residents, but instead reaching out to them in new, inventive ways. People’s lives have been forced to slow down, making them the most captive audience I’ve seen in my 20 plus year career. The events of late May and early June of 2020 also reinforce the need to really listen to our communities and look for solutions to our most pressing issues. We must seize the day and plan for a stronger, healthier tomorrow.     

Written by Amy Haase, Urban Planner