Municipal Priorities for 2020 and Beyond: Part Two

By Michael Fenn and John Matheson, with contributions from members of StrategyCorp’s Municipal Practice Team

In our recent article, our review of the impact of the events of 2020 ended with the questions: Where does this leave municipal governments? What does the future hold? What items need to be on the action agenda of municipal governments? We said that there were at least eight developments on the near-term horizon, and we described two in Part One (changes to the municipal workforce and new models of policing and public safety). There are at least six other sets of priorities for you to consider.

 New directions in community planning and housing

The nature of land use planning in Canada will need to meet new imperatives. Working remotely seems positioned to be the “new normal” for many employers. If employees have the freedom to work from wherever they choose, where will they choose to live, if jobs are no longer the reason people cluster in large urban centres. Policy alone will not constrain people using more employment options and improved inter urban transit to seek better housing value and prices outside major urban centres.

If remote work is here to say, will municipalities try to attract a new generation to move away from cities? What inducements and amenities will they offer businesses and millennial families? How should major urban centres respond? Municipalities and provincial authorities will need to accept that facilitating “de concentration” is a higher priority than trying to contain “sprawl”. But how do they do it by revitalizing slow growth communities and while preserving our agriculture, natural heritage, and urban core vitality?

 A new look for transportation and mobility

With the post COVID impact of remote work and de concentration, we may see highways and city streets with less gridlock. Roads may still be busy but may be below design capacity. However, single passenger automobiles may increasingly be displaced by a wave of new types of transportation, especially if a vaccine or mitigation measures make it safer to share vehicles. As automated vehicles, ride sharing, ride hailing (e.g. Uber) and vehicle sharing make up a greater share of commuting and travel, we will need less space allocated to parking individual motor vehicles, both at home and at community/commercial centres. Automobile and pick up truck ownership may decline. Gas station sites and car dealerships and plazas with acres of roadside parking will be progressively displaced by innocuous rapid charging stations, internet-based vehicle acquisition, and retail formats not focused on shoppers arriving in their own cars. Anticipating this liberation of ‘stale’ land uses, municipalities should plan to free up prime urban real estate locations for creative place making.

Rapid transit will be increasingly automated and integrated, along with its fare paying regimes and ‘fare media’. In public transit, many under patronized suburban bus routes and rapid transit ‘feeder’ bus systems should be supplanted by a range of jitneys and ride hailing services, overcoming a barrier to increased transit use by reducing the elapsed time to the train station or other major destinations. If municipal governments manage the transformation creatively, it will expand mobility options for workers, adolescents, seniors, the economically disadvantaged, the disabled and remote residents. Existing zoning by laws and density targets should be re evaluated to meet the market driven housing demands of Baby Boomers and Gen X families, neither of whom seem to favour dense, costly, urban core houses and condominiums. In the case of aging seniors and those with chronic disease, provincial and municipal land use planning, housing, and healthcare strategies should aim to avoid both hospitalization and traditional models of long term care, while new models of seniors’ housing and nursing care evolve.

 Renewing local democracy and public engagement

Digitally enabled public engagement has been a novel feature of the ‘lockdown’ for municipal councils and for their efforts to reach their constituents. In fact, digitization has had a salutary effect in many instances, enhancing the quality of local democracy. Online engagement with the public allows a broader consultation in real time, discouraging the occasional theatrics of traditional public meetings, while ensuring that a broader range of voices can be heard.  Online meetings dilute the ‘loudest voice’ effect at the public forum. They also appear to favour more digitally assisted advance preparation by decision makers.

Digital engagement overcomes one of the fundamental shortcomings in contemporary public consultation, since citizens who are disenfranchised, commuters, busy parents, or the peripherally involved, can participate equally and equitably. In other words, this digitally enabled wider consultation helps to balance the vested interest (like NIMBY) against the broader public interest, highlighting more diffuse benefits that might accrue to the community. All of this makes it quicker and easier to organize and hold public meetings, with a corresponding improvement in the timeliness (and often the quality) of decisions. As we have seen with the Black Lives Matter movement, it also facilitates social media driven marshalling of like minded people to demonstrate in response to events and to advocate for reform, often without requiring formal organizational structure or traditional issue leadership.

Rather than rewarding delay and elaborate process, the new public engagement and digital decision making puts a premium on informed, evidence supported action. It can deliver refreshingly decisive, timely decision making, although it does risk the reduced accountability and due diligence born of haste.

That is not to say it is not without its challenges. Many lament the loss of “human contact,” the ability to “read the room,” and to facilitate corridor discussions to bridge between the differences of parties. Most agree, however, that we have come a long way in just a few months. As familiarity with the use of digital meeting software grows through the population, the potential for their use in municipal contexts continues to grow. Rather than returning to past practices after the 2020 crises ebb, municipalities should continue to embrace and improve the use of the tools they have pioneered. Local democracy will be better for it.

New fiscal realities

Conventional on street or in mall retail will be in steep decline, and many industrial, hospitality, entertainment and office commercial enterprises will shrink in numbers, size, and significance. The real estate foundation of the municipal tax base must evolve. If not, municipalities face the vice grip of a declining non-residential tax base and an inability to tax growing segments of their local/regional economy, notably global digital enterprises (which have small property assessment footprints). The municipal world needs to advocate for a better fiscal framework, based on the new economy.

Development levies will inevitably play less of a role in rebuilding existing infrastructure to higher, more resilient standards, and in building new types of digital and transportation infrastructure to serve the whole community. Municipal fiscal plans and municipal accounting will need to consider more consistently the funding and financing infrastructure over its useful life, based on life cycle costing and beneficiary contributions, as well as employing well designed public private partnerships (P3s) as options.

A new style of municipal service delivery

Municipal service delivery patterns for both ‘hard’ services and ‘soft’ services will increasingly reflect their regional nature and the regional footprint of the everyday lives of their citizens and clients, as will efforts to attract employment creating investment to the economic region. From stormwater to emergency response to social inequality, a regional catchment area and economies of scale will be needed to address increasingly severe incidents like storm events and health emergencies, as well as the corrosive effects of economic disparity, unsupportable housing costs and a discouraging business environment. These events clearly ignore local municipal boundaries and they can only be addressed with an integrated regional approach.

Responding to these new service delivery imperatives calls for new delivery and governance models. To reduce the inherent limitations of any monopoly, the UK and EU have pioneered the practice of “commissioning” public services, whether delivered by public bodies or contracted entities. A commissioning model allows a public authority to hold responsible those who deliver services, ensuring that they meet performance objectives, failing which they can mandate service improvements or change delivery agents. Municipalities should adopt this approach, as a key set of tools to achieve their other post 2020 priorities.

A new, fit to purpose structure of local government

An increasingly unsustainable municipal tax base may also drive municipal and provincial governments into a more fundamental and overdue re evaluation of the roles played by local government. If so, the discussion should not begin with simply a ‘who does what’ reassignment of functional and fiscal responsibilities, as in the past. It should begin with a determination of which responsibilities of government are best planned, managed and delivered by local governments, and then funding them appropriately and sustainably in the new economy. That re examination should extend to consideration of the current and traditional range of local government functions and services, to ensure that obsolescent roles are phased out, current roles redefined, and emerging roles are anticipated and embraced proactively.

After 2020, a prominent consideration in any re evaluation of responsibilities will be distinguishing and coordinating the roles of municipal government and the public health care system. This will include a realistic assessment of their respective abilities to fund their responsibilities in fields like long term care, hospital capital funding, public health, physician recruitment in under served areas, land ambulance, and social and children’s services.

Only after these determinations are made, there should be an evaluation of the ability of existing local government structures to do the jobs they are asked to do: form (and funding) should follow function.

Conclusions

To our list of eight impending changes and new priorities, municipal leaders could add other developments and trends visible on the horizon or unique to their region. The overall message here is not to predict these changes. It is rather to urge municipal governments to be realistic and clear sighted in their expectations. They must be anticipatory and proactive as they organize to deal with them. Municipal leaders must also have the courage to surmount traditional roadblocks to reform, both though vision and where appropriate, through institutional, political, cultural, and managerial reforms.