Oct 14, 2020


Canada continues to struggle with the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak that caused economic activity to drop by nine percent in March 2020 and which destroyed more than 1 million jobs. The country is probably in a deep economic recession and forecasts for the coming months are dire. 

The COVID-19 epidemiological threat has revealed large gaps in Canada’s pandemic preparedness and exposed the vulnerability of our urban population centres. In stark contrast to the proactive measures of countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and Vietnam, Canada does not appear to have built on the lessons learned from previous pandemic outbreaks. Additionally, it seems this crisis was aggravated by poor decision-making among senior decision makers who may have overlooked domestic threat intelligence.1 Every aspect of Canadian city life has been negatively affected by the belated response measures introduced to contain the domestic spread of the coronavirus. In several respects, this tragedy will be remembered as an historic policy failure. 

While Canada’s virus suppression measures have thus far managed to avoid a worst-case scenario, there are many unanswered questions. One of the most perplexing policy questions is why cities have not figured more prominently in the nation’s emergency response plans given that more than 80% of Canada’s population is urban. A public inquiry is inevitable given the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive scale of the all-government response required. Right now, the principal challenge for policy makers is figuring out how to mitigate the risk of a future pandemic outbreak without precipitating a prolonged economic recovery process.

Adapting to the New Normal 

The COVID-19 pandemic threat compels a critical examination of the complex dynamics set in motion in recent weeks. Adapting to these fluid dynamics and making sense of the lasting policy implications will stretch the capabilities and ingenuity of Canada’s public institutions. Many of our legacy institutions and risk management protocols were designed for a more predictable era when the negative impact of strategic surprise (apart from a nuclear weapons attack) was less consequential. Today, global security threats (ie., oil price shocks, cyber attacks, money laundering, irregular migration flows) can emerge and converge with little or no advanced warning. The imperative of interdisciplinary knowledge sharing, and effective policy coordination will intensify as the international threat environment grows more unpredictable in the coming months and years. 

Many large cities both within Canada and around the world are having to play a greater leadership role in managing a diverse range of complex policy issues, including those not traditionally defined as “urban.” The COVID-19 epidemiological threat has blurred those jurisdictional boundaries even further. An intensification of human insecurity (ie., opioid addiction, mental health issues, structural poverty) will be particularly challenging for fiscally-challenged mayors in Canada who may also be struggling with the second and third-order effects of environmental disasters like flooding, droughts, heat waves, and air pollution caused by forest fires. 

While urban leaders generally support the pandemic response measures (ie., strict physical distancing, population mobility restrictions, border controls, and non-essential business closures), many have been forced to declare a state of emergency. In recent weeks, some Canadian municipalities have experienced financial difficulty while ensuring essential service delivery to frontline workers and vulnerable population groups. To manage the unanticipated costs of managing the COVID-19 emergency measures, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) is seeking $10-15 billion in federal assistance to cities over the next six months.2 Targeted funding for municipalities may also be crucial for leading Canada through various stages of the recovery process.  

Across the country, governments (ie., BC Economic Recovery Task Force, Calgary Economic Recovery Task Force) and independent think tanks (ie., C.D. Howe Institute3) have established working groups to distill expert policy advice and to design pandemic “exit” strategies. Anchoring these desperate discussions to an urban governance framework will instill them with a much-needed strategic focus. With that in mind, a first-order question that should guide contemporary policy discussions is: What is the adaptive capacity of today’s mission-critical infrastructure, governance institutions, business models, leadership practices, labour laws, and training regimes? 

To strengthen Canada’s adaptive capability, traditional city-making factors like effective governance, high-quality infrastructure, and vibrant cultural spaces will be important but so too will sophisticated design thinking, scenario planning, and threat-based analysis. Urban planners working in partnership with various constituencies will have to reconcile the conflicting demands of the “city we want” and the “city we need.4 Underpinning these capability requirements will be a distributed knowledge infrastructure that connects experts, business improvement associations (BIA), emergency responders, transit planners, epidemiologists, scientists, data analysts, investors, and local community leaders with military-like precision. 

Designing a Future-Ready City 

More than 80% of the 37 million people living in Canada are urban residents. Moreover, 33% of Canadians are concentrated in the country’s three largest metropolitan centres: Toronto (5.9 million); Montreal (4.0 million); and Vancouver (2.4 million).5 The longstanding appeal of Canadian cities is a reflection of their “legacy infrastructure” (ie., public transit, green spaces, museums, universities). Well designed urban spaces provide the openness and scale that helps to maximize serendipity, collaborative arrangements, social learning, and inter-personal trust building. Continuous city infrastructure improvements also stimulate creative innovation, foreign capital investments, and novel consumer experiences. 

In addition to having one of the highest urban population concentrations among the G7 nations, Canada is unique in terms of the global percentage of its citizens living among the world’s best cities. Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal consistently rank among the top ten cities globally in terms of their cultural vibrancy, institutional integrity, and livability. Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian medium-sized cities were also globally competitive in areas like economic potential, human resources, business openness, and foreign direct investment. For instance, Hamilton (Ontario), Kingston (Ontario), and Fredericton (New Brunswick) featured prominently in the FDi American Cities of the Future 2017/186. Hamilton, a quintessential “steel town,” is an interesting example of a city that displayed considerable adaptive capability when confronted with de-industrialization. Local leaders achieved this transition by developing new specializations in knowledge-intensive economic activities.  

Sustaining these advantages will require adequate resourcing to optimize synergistic relationships between sustainable land-use development, multi-modal transportation planning, policy innovation, and community engagement. A successfully managed transition will also require an action-oriented, interpretive framework to foster sensitivity regarding the potential impacts of second and third-order consequences. Canada’s adaptive capabilities can be further strengthened with integrated government initiatives supported by inter-agency collaboration (ie., strategic intelligence sharing, joint threat assessments, employee secondments) and leadership development opportunities. With the proper execution of strategic leadership, Canada has more than a fighting of withstanding today’s urban governance challenges while preparing the future-ready policies that will need to be scaled-up tomorrow.  

Local Leadership: Vancouver’s Broadway Plan 

Launched in March 2019, the Broadway Plan7 is a comprehensive two-year process that encompasses 485 city blocks in some of Vancouver’s distinctive neighbourhoods: False Creek Flats, Mount Pleasant, Fairview, and Kitsilano. The study area is British Columbia’s second largest job centre and it overlaps the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. The primary goal of the Broadway Plan is to support growth while optimizing opportunities created by the Broadway Subway, a tunneled extension of the Millennium Line SkyTrain along the Broadway Corridor. It represents an historic opportunity to better coordinate public space design, transit-supportive land use, affordable housing needs, high-wage job growth, micro-mobility networks, and park space. 

Creating a long-range strategic vision that represents the aspirations and needs of current (and future) city residents is not only a call to action, it is a recognition of the limitations of contemporary governance frameworks, off-the-shelf policy prescriptions, and incrementally focused “best” practices. In fact, the Broadway Plan represents a unique opportunity to demonstrate how a differentiated portfolio of human-centred designs (ie., “tiny” homes8, “superblocks9,” complete streets, stream restoration10) can transform the Broadway study area into a much more interesting place to live, work, and learn. Because of its scale and ambition, the Broadway Plan has great potential as a prototype for the larger Vancouver Plan.11 

Although the Vancouver City Council postponed the Broadway Plan until 2021 so that it can concentrate on meeting the critical housing shortages exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, this tactical delay creates much-needed space to broaden the public dialogue and enhance  strategic planning initiatives using co-design methods such as scenario planning. Furthermore, this is an excellent opportunity to scale institutional learning and human-centred design principles by leveraging the reciprocal knowledge sharing among urban planners, business improvement associations (BIA), academics, and community leaders that is proliferating on virtual platforms. 

Rising public demand for innovative solutions to intractable social, political, and environmental problems has increased the premium on fast-track policy exchanges and local policy-making processes. The COVID-19 pandemic could be a watershed moment to envision how these demands might be met by through the functional integration of national and municipal capabilities.   

Global Leadership: City-to-city Diplomacy 

Strengthening the resilience of Canada’s social and economic institutions is the first step in managing the second and third-order consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic threat. Even if Canada prevents the formation of new coronavirus infection clusters in the short-term, future outbreaks around the world could inhibit, or potentially reverse Canada’s economic recovery. 

Wide-spread infections could easily flare up in less developed countries least capable of managing a large-scale coronavirus pandemic, especially one that is highly contagious and for which there is no known cure. Currently, 50% of the world’s population is currently under lock-down conditions. But many places are beginning to relax their virus suppression measures to jump-start the local economy. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the immediate future of the 1.6 billion labourers in the informal economy, equivalent to nearly 50% of the global workforce, looks bleak. 

Even though multilateral organizations are not immune to the COVID-19 outbreak, the lack of leadership exhibited by the G7 and the G20 is dispiriting. Recent meetings organized specifically to address the global pandemic crisis were not productive. Communiques from recent high-level policy discussion reflected strategic confusion, not a structured plan for economic recovery. If the initial statements are any indication of future commitments, municipal leaders may have to step up to fill the leadership vacuum. 

There are several reasons to consider such as proposal. In the current environment of geopolitical uncertainty and the resurgence of great-power rivalry, para-diplomacy networks function as critical knowledge portals. First, global power is now distributed more evenly among city-regions and technologically enabled actors which are forcing international governance institutions to become more open, innovative, and flexible. Second, city-to-city networks are gaining prominence at a time when global governance institutions are failing to adapt along with the pace of geo-economic and geopolitical change. Third, city-to-city diplomatic exchanges are intensifying as new trust relationships and communities of practice (COP) are formed and the urgency for cities to make themselves more resilient becomes apparent. Urban leaders from around the world actively engage with other levels of government and international stakeholders on a variety of complex issues ranging from cultural heritage protection, to infrastructure financing, education policy, and environmental sustainability. By one estimate, there are 200 city-to-city networks advocating for a new urban agenda. 

In Canada, city-to-city (or city-twinning) relationships have traditionally enjoyed the support of local community groups that partner across international borders to organize international conferences, student exchanges, business trips, and joint cultural events. These informal activities are an overlooked aspect of Canada’s foreign policy which may need to be strengthened in short order. Since Canada lacks a central coordinating body, a strategic question facing national policy makers is how to sustain the mission-critical capabilities that may need to be rapidly scaled-up in support of Canada’s commitment to maintain essential global links for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. A model that Canada may consider adopting is Japan’s Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR). This national level organization ensures that Japanese city-to-city as well as person-to-person relationships are sustained and strengthened. By working collaboratively with Japan to shore up municipal linkages essential to the global economic recovery, Canada may enhance its own long-term security and prosperity while setting an example for other middle-ranking powers worldwide.  


Re-designing Canada’s legacy institutions with dynamic adaptive capabilities will not happen overnight. The transition to a revised governance paradigm in an era of biosecurity will usher in an intense period of reflection and over-the-horizon thinking about the best way to secure an open society. In fact, this may ultimately be a multi-generational endeavour. Predicting the future is impossible. But a safe bet is that when the process of adapting to a “new normal” is over, many of our core assumptions about urban planning, national security, foreign policy, and Canadian federalism will have become memories of a by-gone era. 

This article was originally published in the May/June issue of the Canadian Government Executive magazine.

1 Murray Brewster, “Canadian Military Intelligence Unit Issued Warning About Wuhan Outbreak Back in January,” CBC News (10 April 2020). https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/coronavirus-pandemic-covid-canadian-military-intelligence-wuhan-1.5528381

2 Federation of Canadian Municipalities, “Protecting Vital Municipal Services (2 April 2020). https://data.fcm.ca/documents/resources/reports/protecting-vital-municipal-services.pdf.

3 C.D. Howe Institute, “Risk Management Approach to Back-to-Work Strategy: Crisis Working Group on Household Income and Credit Support,” (20 April). https://www.cdhowe.org/council-reports/risk-management-approach-integral-back-work-strategy-crisis-working-group-household-income-and

4 Vancouver City Planning Commission (VCPC), “The Vancouver We Want, The City We Need,” VCPC Summit 2020, Co-Design Workshop Report (December 2019). http://vancouverplanning.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/VCPC-Co-Design-Workshop-Report.pdf

5 Statistics Canada, “Population Size and Growth in Canada: Key Results from the 2016 Census,” (08 February 2017). http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/170208/dq170208a-eng.htm?HPA=1

6 FDi Intelligence, “American Cities of the Future 2017/18 – FDi Strategy Winners,” FDi Magazine (10 April 2017). https://www.fdiintelligence.com/article/68863

7 City of Vancouver, “Broadway Plan,” (accessed 3 May 2020). https://vancouver.ca/home-property-development/broadway-plan.aspx

8 Urbarium, Smart City Talks, “Is Small Beautiful? Breaking Rules for Compact Affordability,” (29 May 2019). https://urbanarium.org/small-beautiful-breaking-rules-compact-affordability-video

9 Marta Bausells, “Superblocks to the Rescue: Barcelona’s Plan to Give Streets Back to Residents,” The Guardian, Resilient Cities (17 May 2016).  https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/may/17/superblocks-rescue-barcelona-spain-plan-give-streets-back-residents

10 City of Vancouver, One Water (accessed 3 May 2020). https://vancouver.ca/home-property-development/one-water.aspx

11 City of Vancouver, “Vancouver Plan: Planning Vancouver Together” (accessed 3 May 2020). https://vancouverplan.ca/


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