Urban planning students apply lessons in scenario planning to COVID-19 crisis

by Rachel Teaman

Published June 3, 2020

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“As planners we have to ask ourselves, is the COVID-19 a ‘one and done’ or should be plan for recurring pandemics of different forms and intensity? Some may argue that these ‘when’ and ‘ifs’ are too costly to prepare for, but COVID-19 has shown the value and potential scenario planning can hold.”
Stephen Still
Professor of practice with UB’s Institute of Sustainable Transportation and Logistics and visiting Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning

Graduate urban planning students exploring how to plan for complex, highly variable challenges got a timely, real-world lesson this spring with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most disruptive crises to hit the globe in decades.

The course on scenario planning prepares future urban planners to develop regional action plans for global-scale issues with high levels of uncertainty and wide-ranging impacts – for example, climate change and autonomous vehicles.

It was an ideal vehicle for addressing the current global context, according to the course’s instructors, who decided in March to adjust the syllabus and add pandemics to the list of scenario planning topics.

“Suddenly this dimension of pandemics is on the scale of importance with drivers like climate change,” says Stephen Still, a professor of practice with UB’s Institute of Sustainable Transportation and Logistics, who served as a visiting professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning this semester.

“As planners we have to ask ourselves, is the COVID-19 a ‘one and done’ or should we plan for recurring pandemics of different forms and intensity?” he added. “Some may argue that these ‘when’ and ‘ifs’ are too costly to prepare for, but COVID-19 has shown the value and potential scenario planning can hold.”

Screen shot of a zoom class meeting of urban planning students studying scenario planning.

A graduate urban planning course on scenario planning  served as a an ideal vehicle for addressing the COVID-19 crisis, according to course instructors Lisa Kenney and Stephen Still.  

Indeed, the term has become part of the lexicon of government leaders today as they plan immediate and longer-term responses to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic.

Scenario planning builds in alternative assumptions and possible outcomes to enable flexible, long-range planning for highly variable vectors. Consider the regional implications of mild-to-severe climate change impacts, from temperature shifts and the frequency of extreme weather events to the movement of “climate refugees.” Similarly, autonomous vehicles and other smart city and transportation technologies could change the face of urban infrastructure, roadways and parking, and mobility overall.

Lisa Kenney, a planner with the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council and adjunct instructor of urban planning, co-taught the course with Still. She notes that some aspects of planning for pandemics fly in the face of principles driving urban development today – densification.

“We had imagined scenarios where autonomous shared shuttles would lead to urban densification, and create new efficiencies. Now imaging a future with recurring pandemics could lead us to separate not densify. Transportation solutions might lead us to individual pods – rather than shared shuttles and transit. Our scenarios should now incorporate this new dimension of uncertainty.”

Students in the course were asked to select one of these challenges, and then imagine urban development for a micro-area within the Western New York region based on a mild and severe scenario.

Megan Koury, a second-year MUP student, says the COVID-19 crisis has made clear the need for scenario-driven planning.

“Scenario plans must be in place for the ‘best, bad, and worst-case scenarios,’” she says, noting in particular the gross inadequacy of the market in addressing supply chain needs for emergency supplies. “Reactionary responses and stationary plans no longer hold a place in today’s society.”

Fellow MUP student Joshua Wilcox adds that scenario planning must be embraced at all government levels to build trust, and ensure the effectiveness of those plans. “Having a unified response to a situation that doesn’t cast doubt on one institution’s ability to combat a pandemic over another has a much better chance to influence human behavior positively, without the threat of fear or chaos.”

Kenney says students were encouraged not only envision new futures, but to adopt a planning process that brings together stakeholders across a range of disciplines. Health care experts need to be at the table along with climate and technology experts – and of course the public.

Oshane Patterson, who enrolled in the course from UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, says scenario planning can be employed at the governmental and institutional level for hospitals, essential services and workplaces, noting that preparedness assessments should be conducted regularly.

“Future pandemics can be planned for based on what we did right and wrong in this one. We did not believe it was going to happen with the coronavirus but it was always a plausible future that many chose to ignore,” Patterson said.

Still and Kenney plan to repeat the course in spring 2021, which will be adaptive itself, incorporating both the lasting effects of COVID-19 and the rapid advancements in transportation technology.   

Adds Kenney: “We hope that students leave the course with the skills to help local governments and organizations think differently about planning for the future--how to be flexible, resilient, adaptive and prepared."