COVID-19’s first known arrival in the U.S. was in Seattle, making it an early epicenter of the pandemic, and the city’s planners have played an essential role in assisting with the COVID-19 response.
As Seattle shifts to recovery, planners are using data and a big-picture framework to plan for an equitable, resilient recovery that is anchored by a race and social justice lens.
APA's Ann Dillemuth, AICP, spoke with Sam Assefa, director of Seattle’s Office of Planning & Community Development, about the planning department’s role in Seattle’s coronavirus strategy.
Ann Dillemuth: How has the planning department in Seattle been involved in the city’s immediate COVID-19 response?
Sam Assefa: Our initial role has been providing support to the Office of Emergency Management and other departments — from economic development to housing and human services — that are on the front lines, engaged in mitigation measures focused on vulnerable populations throughout the city.
So small business stabilization, food distribution, housing assistance, health tracking of unsheltered populations, for example. We're not the primary frontline responders, but we’re supporting response efforts.
We provide data and GIS support to make sure that the city’s response is data-informed but also based on the city’s values and principles around equity. We’ve been mapping out locations of where vulnerable populations exist — seniors, immigrant communities, low-income renters — to help target actions like wellness checks, small business stabilization assistance, or food distribution. That kind of data has been a primary backbone to support other departments.
We’ve also been doing research; for example, soon after the response was started, we realized that the county didn’t have data for the impact of COVID-19 on people of color, especially African Americans.
So our city demographer has been working to provide demographic data on COVID-19 impact by race and other information as needed on employment and vulnerable populations. Because we report each year on the equity outcomes of a number of our policies — from the comprehensive plan at the highest level to specific programs such as equitable development initiative grants to vulnerable communities — we have a lot of that data already available.
One very successful project has been an interactive online map to support small businesses citywide developed by my GIS staff working with IT— it helps communities see what restaurants they have access to in their neighborhoods. You can click on a neighborhood to see what restaurants are open and offering delivery or pickup, and you can order from them. It has been incredibly effective and other counties are starting to use it as well.
AD: It sounds like the transition to thinking about long-term recovery has started to happen in Seattle. How you are approaching that transition?
SA: We started thinking about recovery right away as part of a bigger framework. There are three major areas that are shaping our thinking.
The first is budget. The city is already projecting a revenue shortfall of about $300 million by the end of this year. We started thinking about not only this year, but 2021 and 2022. What work items do we need to prioritize from a budget perspective? What work items have a direct impact on recovery? What work items are required by statute? We’ve prioritized the 15 or so work items that we had listed for 2020 and 2021 into four categories.
Priority one is for immediate COVID response, priority two is other critical activities, and then priorities three and four are work plan items we can defer or delay until after the public health crisis has passed.
2. Mayor's Executive Order and Priorities
The second thing shaping our thinking is the mayor’s executive order, which provides a very specific framework and outline for reopening and recovery. It directs all departments to start thinking about reopening — what do we need in terms of the nuts and bolts of reopening the planning office and going back to work? And it also lays out the first steps for thinking about what recovery looks like through three primary mayoral priorities.
The mayor's first priority is economic recovery — focusing on direct support to jobs and small businesses and starting to think about how we grow the new economy. The second priority is community resiliency — creating a more equitable and just city and focusing our recovery thinking on the communities who are most impacted.
The mayor's third priority is civic resurgence — taking what we learned from COVID to imagine the future of our community and using our infrastructure and built environment to support a better recovery. Those three primary areas are shaping how each department is thinking about what the immediate and longer-term recovery functions and priorities ought to be.
3. Planning’s Role in Recovery
The third major area shaping our thinking is self-initiated. About six weeks ago, we started internally brainstorming. I asked staff to form a nine-person team from multiple planning disciplines — economic development, community planning, data, and urban planning — to meet regularly and reflect on our unique role as planners and community developers. What expertise are we bringing in supporting current functions, and what should we elevate as a planner’s work as we start thinking about recovery?
As a team we affirmed what we stand for based on our previous vision and mission. The planning and community development perspective offers important themes and a big-picture framework for recovery. We are working on putting that framework together; that will get plugged in to the city’s framework and then planning will be part of that recovery structure.
AD: What are some of the themes you've been brainstorming that are going to shape planning’s role in the recovery?
SA: Well, one is data and information. We need to ensure that data-informed decisions are driving recovery efforts. This means really understanding what the impacts of COVID have been and determining how that should shape the short, mid-term, and long-term focus.
Another is community. What are the things that we need to focus on and prioritize as part of our department’s community development function?
And a third is more place-based. How do we look at land-use policies in a new and fresh way, learning from COVID?
Before COVID, we were working on several major initiatives: the comprehensive plan, an industrial lands policy, urban design, and public spaces. While the fundamental objectives may not change significantly, how we do them and the things that we need to think about in each of those policy areas will change. For example, for industrial lands we were previously focusing on job creation, but now economic development, distribution, and local production are becoming more important.
For urban design and urban planning, there’s going to be a major shift to consider neighborhoods around the city versus a downtown focus.
People will most likely be working at home for the near future, and that's going to have a significant impact on retail activity downtown. How do we rethink that from an urban planning perspective? And what does it mean to plan for neighborhoods that can meet all daily needs within a 10-minute walk or bike ride? The transit-oriented development idea is going to take a different, even more-heightened focus as part of that.
But we’re also establishing a higher-level, big-picture framework.
Recovery in Seattle should be anchored and directed by a race and social justice lens.
How do we ensure that recovery does not mean going back to “normal” but that our efforts are centered on those communities that have been impacted the most?
It's really easy to fall back to the way we were doing things before — but now we have to think differently about things like public space, housing, and office space. How do we not go back to normal? But at the same time, we can't lose track of the priorities that we had before, which were already centered around addressing livability, equity, and affordability because the city’s unprecedented growth wasn't benefiting everybody in the same way. And now these same groups are being impacted further by the economic downturn.
And we will need to reimagine land-use planning, as public space is going to be important in a new way. For example, during the COVID response, the city initially opened up a few streets so that people could have more space for walking and biking. Now, the mayor has decided that 20 miles of those streets will become permanently car-free public spaces, and they are distributed equitably throughout the city. That's a transformation that was unthinkable before COVID.
What does that mean as we move forward when we think about public spaces? My office has been engaged on a major citywide public space plan from an equity access lens, working with other departments, including public utilities, parks, and transportation, to really think about public rights-of-way and what they mean post-COVID to address economic resiliency and livability — and create spaces for social distancing for the next pandemic.
AD: Do you have any takeaways for other planners in other cities as they start to enter this transition from immediate response into recovery thinking?
SA: One immediate challenge will be revenue and budget. “How can you do more with less?” is going to become a very important question. And how do you prioritize work as planners and planning agencies and put a value proposal around that?
We need to shift our thinking about what it means to engage private and philanthropic work around key areas. For example, with public spaces, especially in a growing city like Seattle, we can't just rely on the Parks Department to provide needed parks because land is becoming very expensive. So we started thinking about how we could add more value by looking at private spaces, university-owned spaces, and public rights-of-way.
We are developing tools through which we maximize public spaces through better connections, better access, and opening up some private spaces for more use. The upcoming budget constraints will force us to think differently about resources that are already existing but are fragmented and have limited access because they're private. How do we open them up? This kind of critical thinking will be important.
Also, the number one lesson from COVID is not only are we more connected than we ever thought, but that the impacts disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in our societies.
As planners, the things that we value most are doing good and improving livability and equity. Planners in every city will need to think about what it means for them to center their work and values and response around equity, race, and social justice. What does that mean for their city? That is going to be important.
Finally, climate mitigation and climate adaptation is going to be even more important now, in that the health of a city is going to be critically affected by how we respond to environmental issues. People who are already affected by polluted areas and industrial areas are some of the most vulnerable. We need to think about our buildings, our streets, and the number of trees and other green infrastructure elements as part of recovery planning.
For example, Portland, Oregon, just announced that equity and climate resiliency will be the two primary frames for their recovery. Planners need to be ready to take advantage of federal and state recovery dollars to build infrastructure that can address climate resiliency but at the same time support livability and quality of place.
Every city has unique challenges and nuances, not to mention different governance and funding structures, but the high-level issues that need to be addressed are the same for everyone.
AD: Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts.
SA: Thanks for doing this as well. Sharing information is important, and I think we need it in so many different forms. When more and more people are engaged in talking about these planning issues and things that we care about, they take on new life and it becomes a way to demand change.
More from Sam Assefa
Hear more from Sam Assefa in the NPC20 @ Home opening keynote, Finding the Way Forward for Planning and Communities. Together with John Porcari of WSP and William Anderson, FAICP, of Arup, he discusses the enormous challenges facing communities looking to plan for the future in a time of transformation.
Top image: Artist Tori Shao with one of the murals she was commissioned to create around Seattle during the retail closures brought about by COVID-19. Photo by Flickr user Seattle DOT (CC BY-NC 2.0).
About the Interviewee
Sam Assefa is the director of Seattle’s Executive Office of Planning & Community Development. He leads four key divisions within the office and is also co-chair of the Capital Cabinet, a multi-departmental body of directors whose departments are responsible for major capital projects and capital investments.