Pandemic Urbanism

May 22, 2020

Community engagement during COVID-19: Insurmountable disruption or a catalyst for greater justice?

By Rachel Berney (
Assistant Professor, Urban Design & Planning, University of Washington

Coauthor: Olivia Baker, University of Washington MUP student

The author will give this presentation at the Pandemic Urbanism Symposium in the closing plenary session, from 4:30 – 5:30 PM on May 29, 2020.

Does community engagement during and after major societal disruptors such as COVID-19 look different than our previous practices? The answer is both yes and no. The pandemic has exacerbated exiting inequities, making many lives even more precarious than before. How can we use the disruption of COVID-19 as a catalyst for positive changes in practice? Could COVID-19 be used as a lens for identifying and prioritizing our most vulnerable neighbors?

We briefly present principles for engagement and illustrate them through ongoing projects. Principles include Action, Authenticity, Consistency, and Creativity. There is an immediate need to act and meet precarious/vulnerable populations’ needs where they are. It is essential to engage authentically, with transparency and honesty, for meaningful process and outcomes. It is crucial to be consistent and dependable. It is necessary to be creative and flexible, to ”shake out” old approaches, and combine engagement tactics in ways that work for specific populations. There is a unique opportunity to partner with students and other young people to bring digital and analog tactics to the fore.

We will draw examples from one or two current mobility projects. One is a class project supporting Central Seattle Greenways’ and SDOT’s community engagement efforts to transform the surroundings of the Central District’s Bailey Gatzert Elementary to become more child-friendly. Second is research coming from a PHI-funded PATHSS Study-Participatory Active Transportation for Health in South Seattle, examining how residents of South Beacon Hill are experiencing mobility challenges generally and during COVID-19 restrictions on movement.