Do cities have adequate tools to plan their recovery from the COVID-19 crisis?

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Braulio Eduardo Morera, Director of Innovation & Project Development at Global Resilient Cities Newtork
First published on 
The Manchester Briefing — Lessons on COVID-19, №10

Introduction

Planning is a frequent activity for local government. Communication campaigns, budgets, land-use plans, and climate mitigation strategies are just some examples of complex programmes of work that local governments create and deliver on a regular basis. However, COVID-19 poses a major new challenge to local governments to act and plan differently.

To plan a relevant response to COVID-19, local governments need to consider that this pandemic develops at a different pace in different places and its effects will be numerous; it is useful to describe it as a slow onset crisis with wide-ranging and complex impacts[1]. This means there are a myriad of practical considerations that make recovery planning particularly hard: vast knock-on effects, undefined impacts and overlaps between response and recovery are just a few of the considerations that need to be taken into account[2].

City planning tools are normally based on non-dynamic snapshots of data and projections that are typically updated every five to ten years. City planning methodologies can be helpful in the current context, but they will fall short of integrating the key data because it is constantly changing while new urgencies are surfacing. Post disaster tools also offer relevant insights in managing a complex situation, but their reliance on external capacity often make them impractical for local governments — especially those in the Global South. Importantly, post disaster tools and methods rely on static pictures of pre- and post-disaster vulnerability conditions, which are helpful after a sudden natural disaster like an earthquake or hurricane.

The challenge

How can local governments systematically capture and analyse the evolving data? How can the dynamic information be articulated to all stakeholders in an accessible and clear manner? The GRCN, drawing on over six years of experience exploring methods to support strategic planning in local authorities, is collaborating with its member cities to support them in such challenges. Through its Cities for a Resilient Recovery initiative[3], the GRCN is identifying how tools can be adapted to support cities in responding to the substantial challenges of this pandemic.

The changes needed

Our emerging hypothesis is that strategic planning tools based on existing best practice can help local governments respond to the urgencies of this moment, but to do so effectively they may require change. Tools and methods need to have three key characteristics:

  • Enabling agile processes. As the global pandemic evolves and has multiple effects locally, new science will emerge, and ideas and measures may have to change in response to uncertainty. An agile approach assumes that making real-time changes is crucial not only for emergency response activities but also for recovery planning and implementation.
  • Integrating an iterative approach into planning. Key indicators might vary over the crisis due to multiple factors like changes in people’s behaviour or policy failure. Subsequently, the focus of planning activities may have to switch back from recovery to emergency response and vice versa, and some decisions will need to be reconsidered.
  • Orienting the work through well-defined phases. Operating in this complex environment demands local government staff to have appropriate information that clarifies key phases and priorities. Whilst in the early stages of recovery planning, priorities are focused on gathering and analysing current data, later stages of work will require focus on the articulation of ideas and their prioritisation.

The importance of resilience

As society, its economy and the infrastructure that serves them are severely impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, cities need to ensure their recovery strategies and investment decisions enhance, rather than undermine, the city’s resilience. A resilience-based approach can be helpful in every planning opportunity, but it can be particularly helpful now that cities require fresh new ideas that can help them prevent similar crisis. Resilience is also helpful in integrating new, often grassroot, place-based ideas to support communities in the long-term and prevent urban systems to fail. Core to our approach is the City Resilience Framework (CRF), a practical tool to guide this process holistically[4]. It summarises the 12 action areas that cities need to address to build resilience and the key objectives underpinning those.

The phases of work involved

In this context, our ongoing collaborations to support cities to integrate resilience in their recovery efforts are based on key phases, shown in Figure 1 and detailed below:

  • Recovery assessment: This includes methods and approaches that enable a situational analysis with a level of detail that aligns to the cities’ needs and capacities. Our team is exploring how existing methods based on best practice like the Impact Assessments used in the UK[5] or UN’s Post Disaster Needs Assessment[6] can be helpful to local government, by using them in an iterative manner. We have adapted one of our tools to create a Recovery Resilience Assessment to help cities analyse the impacts of COVID-19 in their communities from a systemic perspective. By using tools like these, cities will be in a better position to identify interventions and investments relevant to their specific needs.
  • Portfolio definition: Once the impacts of the crisis are understood, local governments need to identify actions that will enable them to respond to their specific context and the complex nature of the COVID-19 impacts locally. Existing methods like scenario planning can help cities to test their ideas in the context of uncertainty. However, it can become an expensive exercise if there are insufficient trained staff. ‘Filtering’ and/or prioritising actions through a holistic resilience approach is likely to generate a more robust pipeline of projects, better able to reflect the diverse needs and gaps in each city. To enable this, we are developing a practical ‘Action Plan’ tool to help cities articulate the resilience value of each proposal through a simple set of questions. Following this rapid process, cities will obtain an evidence-based portfolio of relevant actions to address the social, economic and infrastructure needs emerging from the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Project enhancement: Our experience demonstrates that early stages of project development represent the best opportunities to embed holistic resilience principles in projects. By exploring their priority projects from a resilience perspective, cities can ensure their investments are more impactful, and genuinely respond to existing and emerging stresses and future shocks. Critical to this stage is that local governments own the process using accessible methods. The GRCN, as well as other Rockefeller Foundation grantees have developed multiple methodologies, such as the Project Scan Tool, Resilience Value Realisation[7] and Urban Resilience Screen[8], which we are making available through our Cities for a Resilient Recovery initiative.
  • Post-crisis learning: Cities should consider their opportunities for deep learning once the situation has stabilised. In response to the needs emerging from our city members, the GRCN with the support of our partners will embark in the development of guidance and potential KPIs to help cities explore specific resilience challenges around health, resilient infrastructure, and economic prosperity, to name a few. Integrating learning in late recovery activities will help cities modify their practices and policies based on the newly emerging evidence, and thus leverage the key lessons to inform future decision-making.

Figure 2 shows the various tools that might be useful at each phase:

COVID-19 will have a profound impact in cities; investing time and effort in learning from the successes and challenges will be key for leaders and practitioners who are willing to be better prepared for future challenges and prevent the poorest and vulnerable are the worst hit once again.

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Do cities have adequate tools to plan their recovery from the COVID-19 crisis?