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Where do we go NOW!? – President’s Message

July 7, 2020 by Ted Knowlton
Policy/Legislative

Where Do We Go Now?

 

What a challenging and great time to be a planner. We certainly are in the middle of our own crisis as local governments face funding shortfalls. This affects departments that rely more on growth and a healthy economy, such as planning. Our battered economy affects public and private sector planners alike. Even as society faces an exigency like this, the planning profession has special value right now.

 

Just as we are beginning to overcome the public health emergency of COVID-19, and are grappling with the economic emergency, we all are just starting to explore how COVID-19 will affect people’s lifestyles and decisions. Shifting lifestyles over time affects how our cities function and change over time. Leaders and residents should look to planners to understand shifts and how to react and shape these shifts.

 

What kind of shifts are we talking about? From before the onset of the pandemic to the peak shift, we have seen open space demands increase 100% on average, bike trips are also up about 100%, and trips to work have been down by as much as 40%. These are significant shifts in a short period! What will conditions be like when the pandemic crisis recedes, and life settles into a “new normal?” Some of these changes will endure even after we gradually emerge and recover from the pandemic as a result of new habits. (See the article “Some of Utah’s growth challenges take a breather ­but not for long” for more information at www.utahpolicy.com.)

Where do we go now?

 

  • Will we see a permanent bump up in telework and an acceleration in e-commerce? If so, what does this mean for our commercial areas in cities? How can they evolve? Is now the time to have a frank conversation about allowable uses in commercial zones (increasing land-use flexibility)?

 

  • Will we see a permanent increase in bicycle use? Bike sales are up also roughly 100%, and e-bike sales are up much higher than that. Indications are the growth in bicycling represents a broader market of bike riders, not just the pre-existing bike community riding en masse. Many European cities are making permanent increases in bike infrastructure to respond to COVID-19. What are we doing in suburban, urban, and rural Utah? What should we be doing with bike infrastructure?

 

  • WIll your community look welcoming to skilled labor and businesses that seek highly amenitized environments that surround residential and mixed-use developments? Will your community thrive economically after the new equilibrium? Local sales tax allocation for online sales largely follows the buyer’s location. This means that there is a much higher value to your city when households choose to live there.

 

A crisis creates a natural opening to ask structural questions like these. We need to ask these questions while the natural opening exists within our communities. In a year, when a new equilibrium comes about, the desire to look afresh at land use, urban design, amenities may no longer be there. While being sensitive to your community’s willingness to look ahead, I hope you will be bold in helping your officials and the public ask, “Where do we go now?”

 

Utah is Still the Place for Growth

 

Now here is the hard thing—recall we were going through the most heated growth-related conversation in modern times before COVID-19 hit. Utah was the fastest-growing state in the nation in the last decade and was facing significant challenges in housing, transportation, air quality, etc. COVID-19 will certainly affect economic growth, but residential growth in Utah is predominantly internal. Local conversations about effectively accommodating growth while maintaining a high quality of life will return and will continue to be challenging for several reasons:

  • People tend to focus on the urgent issues of the moment, less about longer-term issues.
  • Participation in local government is low—unless people have a direct stake in an outcome.
  • Regional impacts are often not considered in local decision making.
  • Public processes can be expensive.
  • Ultimately, the level of controversy is “high” around accommodating growth pressures.
  • Negative messaging about the risks of change or growth can be contagious.

APA Utah will be shifting some of its focus to facilitate conversations about COVID-19 to share lessons with—and between—you about “where we go now.” We will also re-engage the significant issues that pre-dated COVID-19 as appropriate. I encourage you to participate in chapter activities. Let’s help each other further the cause of creating better places!

 

Be safe,

 

Ted Knowlton, APA Utah Chapter President