How Canadian cities are responding to the crisis – and what comes next

By Selena Zhang, André Côté

Originally appearing in First Policy Response on April 21, 2020, Selena Zhang and André Côté detail the quick and innovative ways Canadian municipalities have responded to COVID-19 and propose principles that can guide cities in response and recovery planning

Following the usual pattern in Canadian public affairs, the governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic has largely put the spotlight on the federal and provincial levels. The Prime Minister’s daily press briefings have featured truly profound announcements, unprecedented both in the scope of actions recommended for public health and in the emergency investments to sustain people and businesses. Provinces are also essential players, as stewards of the healthcare system, as well as public safety, long-term care, education, and myriad other realms impacted by the shut-down.

Still, as with many other facets of public affairs, the emergency is largely hitting the ground in cities, where most Canadians live. Mayors, council leaders and public health officers have emerged as “faces” of the response alongside their provincial and federal counterparts, providing updates about local infection rates and major service disruptions, and delivering stern messages to residents about social distancing guidelines. Less appreciated are the wide array of other actions local governments are taking, at unprecedented speeds, in response to the crisis in their communities — and the daunting challenges they will face as the crisis wears on, and efforts shift from response to recovery.

How Cities are Responding

Since the start of the pandemic, the darkest of times have brought out the best in our communities, with a constellation of urban innovation and experimentation emerging from coast to coast. As the order of government closest to the people, municipalities are uniquely positioned to develop place-based policies that respond directly to local contexts, needs, and opportunities. And with some cities getting hit earlier and harder than others, local governments have been looking to each other for cues on what to expect, and how to respond.

To help city builders, administrators and community members across the country to stay connected and track what’s happening on-the-ground during the COVID-19 crisis, the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) launched three volunteer-sourced platforms. The first, CityWatch Canada, tracks emergency response measures put in place by city governments across Canada — now for 65 cities, including major urban centres in all provinces and territories, and all cities with populations over 100,000. The second, CityShare Canada, houses resources, tools and stories on how residents and city builders across sectors are responding to COVID-19. The third, CityTalk Canada, acts as a virtual town square, featuring candid conversations, analysis and commentary to make sense of the new urban reality under COVID-19.

This article draws from these platforms to highlight important trends and inspiring innovations that have emerged from local governments in particular.

Data from CityWatch Canada shows that 55 of 65 cities being tracked are in a state of emergency

The vast majority of Canada’s cities (55 of 65 being tracked by CityWatch Canada) are in a state of emergency.

The nine biggest cities, and many others, have announced local states of emergency — often ahead of their provincial and territorial counterparts. Others are captured under provincial/territorial declarations. Cities that are not in a state of emergency — for instance, Charlottetown and Iqaluit — are smaller and tend to be more remote geographically, and less likely to be initially touched by the pandemic. The state of emergency, beyond a declaration of the urgency of the crisis to residents, is important because it gives governments additional flexibility and powers to take actions for public health and security.

Robust public health measures are in place in most cities.

All of Canada’s biggest cities, and a majority overall, are enforcing social distancing policies. As has been widely reported, cities have taken their social distancing bylaw enforcement increasingly seriously as virus spread has ramped up, with controversy in some instances around tactics et ticketing. In the ten largest cities and a few others, childcare has been made available to essential workers. Some cities have faced unique challenges. For instance, Windsor city hall has had to broker arrangements for the estimated 1,600 health care workers that cross the border daily to serve in hard hit Detroit — in the midst of some sticky diplomatic issues.

Cities have taken the difficult step of fully or partially closing facilities and services.

This includes virtually all city halls, recreation facilities, public libraries, park amenities and playgrounds, and most other municipal buildings. Many critical civic services have been suspended, a big challenge for many residents and communities. A big exception: waste collection, which is service as usual across most cities. Essential operations like emergency services and water also continue untouched. In crisis, however, has come inspiring creativity and innovation. Many cities have retooled facilities for other purposes. For example, library branches have converted into food banks in Toronto, and the Halton Hills Public Library is using its 3D printers to produce face-shield parts for frontline healthcare workers.

Byron Avenue in Ottawa has been closed for pedestrian traffic only to allow for greater physical distancing.

With mobility limited by social distancing and stay-at-home policies, transportation has been severely impacted. 

Public transit authorities have instituted passenger limits, rear-door entry and waived fares to enforce social distancing. The crisis has been a challenge for local transportation in many respects — creating health risks for transit workers, and a nosedive in fare revenues. But it has yielded some novel solutions. Belleville Transit, after seeing a reduction in ridership of 80%, moved to on-demand service, with customers booking trips using a transit app. Officials in cities like Calgary , Edmonton, MontrealWinnipeg, et Ottawa  like have moved to “pedestrianize” some streets, or asked residents to treat sidewalks like one-way streets, to ensure people out on essential trips are able to safely practice physical distancing.

With many services closed or reduced, others are ramping up quickly to support vulnerable populations. 

All the largest cities have opened up new homeless shelter spaces and have made available homeless shelter isolation units, with most repurposing some public buildings for social services (data is limited for smaller cities). Dormant hockey rinks, convention centres, recreation buildings, and leased hotel rooms have been transformed dans temporary shelters or assisted self-isolation sites.

A strong majority of cities (55 of 65) have announced some form of financial support for residents and businesses to help them get through the crisis.

A majority of cities have taken steps to defer fees for both residents and businesses, with many also providing other supports to one or both groups. These have primarily taken the shape of property tax and utility bill deferrals without penalty, and rent relief to small businesses and non-profit tenants in city facilities. Typically, the largest cities have been the most active in offering assistance.

Finally, the governance of cities has been significantly impacted.

Interestingly, cities have taken very different approaches with city council meetings. Based on the latest data, Toronto, Edmonton, Brampton and others have cancelled council meetings entirely; Calgary, Ottawa, Surrey, Winnipeg and Vancouver, among others, have shifted to virtual or teleconference meetings; while a smaller group including Montreal continue to hold in-person meetings. Formal venues of public engagement and participation, such as resident advisory committees and public meetings, have generally been cancelled, with a handful of cities shifting to virtual formats. This is understandable given the social distancing imperative, but raises questions about whether communities can represented and have voice through the crisis.

Despite the cancellation of events and public meetings, some local governments have found other ways to keep residents informed and engaged. Since the middle of March, Hamilton has been hosting weekly virtual town halls to answer resident questions about the virus and the City’s response. Vancouver’s municipal dashboard helps residents keep track of local response efforts and the status of vital public services. London’s Deputy Mayor ran an at-home civics class for children. To support collective mental health, the City of Newmarket launched a #StandApartTogether campaign, appointing “community positivity ambassadors” to spread stories about Newmarket’s “bright side” and perseverance during this time.

Cities have also quickly spun up governance models to respond to new and emerging needs of their most vulnerable residents. The City of Toronto established a City-Community Response Table with 30 community agencies to identify and respond to emerging issues facing vulnerable residents, a Community Coordination Plan with dedicated coordinators at the neighbourhood level, and a portal to solicit charitable donations from the community. In Vancouver, Mayor Kennedy Stewart announced safe drug supply for the roughly 20% to 30% of vulnerable drug users not connected to the healthcare system.

Cities are creating governance models to plan for coordinated responses and post-COVID-19 recovery as well. Local economic recovery task forces in places like Gatineau are bringing together local leaders to come up with place-based solutions to business continuity and recovery. The City of Calgary has introduced a COVID-19 Governance Structure to take a holistic approach to planning within the city administrative structure and with external stakeholders. Online campaigns like Calgary’s #SupportLocalYYC and websites like Hamilton’s Hometown Hub are connecting residents with ways to support their favourite local establishments from a distance.

What Cities Need to Focus on Looking Ahead

While this helps to paint the picture of how cities are responding to the crisis, we are still likely much closer to the beginning than the end of pandemic response and recovery.

Already though, media and the policy community have begun breathlessly prognosticating about the “restart” as the curve flattens and turns, and social distancing is gradually reduced. When is the moment to begin reopening? What local business and services should be reopened first? What are the implications for myriad city services? If there’s no return to “business as usual” quickly, if ever, what will it all mean? There has been some thoughtful city-focused analysis (iciici et ici), but it has frankly been hard to find the “signal in the noise,” as analyst Nate Silver put it.

Rather than contributing to the rapidly escalating noise about what governments should do to reopen and recover, we’re going to focus more on how cities should approach it. We propose a few principles that should guide cities in their continued response and recovery planning.

First, double down on collaboration and coordination across cities and governments.

While there are unique circumstances and contexts in every city, there are many more commonalities than differences in responding to the crisis. Building this connective tissue, horizontally across cities, and vertically with provincial and federal governments, will be essential in planning, navigating and rapidly troubleshooting on the path ahead. The more practical, the better: cross-government coordination forums for staff to share ideas; joint data collection, scenario modelling and intelligence gathering; co-creating and sharing draft recovery plans and policies; and mechanisms for rapidly brokering adjustments to limiting laws, rules and red tape.

Second, to be effective, responses and plans need to be locally driven and informed.

In every community, residents and local leaders from across sectors are stepping up and responding with imagination, empathy and resourcefulness. They are also identifying critical gaps and the need for better solutions. The answers are coming from the ground level: businesses, faith groups, neighbourhood associations, nonprofits, arts and culture organizations, and community members. In fact, many responses from local governments —from crowdsourcing aid, and online platforms for sharing information, to different forms of financial and social support for the most vulnerable — have been inspired and informed directly by community-based efforts. These efforts for cities to work with, support and resource civic actors closest to the community should deepen to continue to build civic resilience.

Third, an updated “city finance deal” must underpin the continued response and recovery.

While the full impact on city finances will depend on the timing and shape of the re-opening and recovery, it’s clear already that it will be large. In the near term, cities will lose revenue from deferrals of property taxes, reductions in user fee revenues from city services and transit, and revenue losses from local hydro, water utilities and parking. In the longer-term, factors like housing market resilience and property assessment, or the recovery of main streets and local economies, will have more structural impacts on local budgets. Already, cities are projecting massive shortfalls, with Toronto forecasting multi-billion dollar budget holes and Vancouver contemplating service cuts and asset sales.

Cities, which are constrained in their ability to run deficits, simply can’t plan and act effectively without some financial certainty. It is incumbent on the three orders of government to quickly hash out a medium-term “city finance deal.” Creative contributions and sacrifices are required of local, provincial and federal governments. Moreover, as our colleagues at the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance have observed, the crisis has created a chance to renew the intergovernmental conversation about how resources for municipalities should be raised, and how to strengthen municipal fiscal health going forward.

Last, leave space for innovation in urban affairs that can have longer-term impact.

It now sounds cliched, but much has now become possible that simply wasn’t pre-crisis. Policies and financial transfers once dismissed as ‘not feasible’ have been rapidly put into place. As described above, we have seen this already with aspects of the response, such as rapid repurposing of city facilities, assets and public spaces, or new governance set-ups and working arrangements. Which of these things are needed permanently to put cities in a more empowered and sustainably resourced position going forward? What new innovations in service design and policy, governance and finance, planning and design, will be needed to carry cities through the crisis and chart a more resilient course coming out? City leaders, administrators and partner governments, with civic organizations, business stakeholders and residents, need to be deliberate in creating time and space for this.

André Côté is Principal of a mission-driven public affairs consultancy, and Selena Zhang is Director of Strategy and Special Projects with the Canadian Urban Institute. Both worked previously as Manager of Programs and Research for the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG), at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.