By: Shelby Sommer

As the COVID-19 crisis upends almost every facet of daily life, I’m finding optimism in thinking about how our response and recovery can establish new trajectories and transform approaches for many complex sustainability and climate issues. This article explores a few COVID-19-related trends and observations that present tremendous opportunities to reshape and catalyze approaches to addressing community sustainability and resilience.

Viral Policy Adoption

The climate planning arena has already seen a wave of local and state climate commitments in recent years – a sort of peer-pressure network of advocacy and tools that encourages the adoption of ambitious carbon reduction goals and the declaration of climate emergencies. These policy initiatives have slowly unfolded over months and years.

In the wake of COVID-19, we’re experiencing a massive and sudden shift in the pace and magnitude of public policy. Community leaders are observing and learning from health professionals, neighboring jurisdictions, peer states, and other countries – adopting sweeping policy measures in a matter of hours or days, rather than months or years. Their focus is on their contributions and obligations to address a problem that is global in scale.

We should embrace the current mindset of viral policy adoption – working rapidly, with unprecedented collaboration and leadership across jurisdictional boundaries, with greater emphasis on innovation and progress rather than on perfection so we can usher in a new era of sustainability and climate policy.

Fare-Free Transit

Before COVID-19, we were already starting to see communities like Kansas City, Missouri, and Olympia, Washington eliminate fares for using public transit options – for various reasons including increasing ridership, advancing equity, and avoiding costly fare-collection-system upgrades. Enter a global pandemic, and we’re seeing transit entities like TransFort in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the Metro in Cincinnati, Ohio temporarily suspend fare collection entirely – as a precautionary measure for reasons including protection of public health and reduction in economic hardship for transit users.

Looking forward, communities will likely need to face new realities of an economically vulnerable workforce and waning transit ridership due to public health concerns. Exploring ways to implement fare-free transit systems may help communities mitigate these challenges, while simultaneously supporting sustainability and climate goals.

Housing First

Practitioners working to reduce homelessness have long advocated for a “housing first” approach that prioritizes finding and securing permanent and affordable housing, without conditions, as a first step before layering in other services to support long-term stability.

The COVID-19 pandemic spotlights the importance of a housing first approach for vulnerable members of our communities, including those experiencing homelessness as well as those who are living in crowded group quarters (e.g., long-term care residents and incarcerated populations), those who are temporarily displaced (e.g., tourists and college students whose semester ended suddenly), and those who are in temporary situations (e.g., medical isolation or performing critical jobs and services). Creative approaches like allowing RV occupancy on private property, leasing unoccupied hotel rooms, and repurposing public facilities to serve as shelters can help ensure that every bed is filled and people from all walks of life have a safe place to rest and recharge.

By viewing and prioritizing housing first as a necessity and a precursor to all other societal and economic functions, we can transform the ability of individuals to withstand and bounce back from future shocks and stressors – increasing overall community resiliency and adaptability.

Informal Corporate Social Responsibility

With all of the noise about executive misbehavior and concern about corporate bailouts during this time of economic doom and gloom, it’s important to keep an eye on some of the good happening in the business world. Some businesses are reinventing their products and shifting their operations to serve a community and world in need. Some businesses are rapidly reimagining how teams work together and digging deep to take care of and retain employees. Many of these are informal adaptations and evolutions, driven out of necessity, and reflecting a spirit of entrepreneurism and community goodwill.

These shifts are reminiscent of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices, which emphasize business accountability and awareness of economic, social, and environmental practices. The explosive growth of informal, CSR-like activities and principles during this crisis period will help our communities emerge stronger, more connected, and more resilient. Communities can and should build on this momentum, and should seek opportunities to recognize, amplify, extend, and formalize these amazing and beneficial private sector contributions, and embrace socially responsible businesses as vital partners for community strength and recovery.

What interesting trends and opportunities are you seeing in your work or community? I’d love to hear from you and discuss how can we bounce back and learn from the current crisis in order to create lasting impacts that sustain and inspire our communities and our world.

About the Author – Shelby is a natural leader with 14 years of experience helping to shape the vital intersection between urban planning and sustainability on a national scale. From research to implementation, Shelby’s portfolio of work is transforming the way that communities plan and interact with resources and the natural environment. Her strengths are in navigating complex policy and organizational landscapes and engaging and empowering stakeholders. A skilled and creative project manager, her experience includes sustainability, land use, community energy, and climate resiliency plans and programs for a range of public and private sector clients. Her work in sustainability indicators and dashboards helps ensure plans are implemented and monitored throughout the planning horizon.