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What Should Cities Do with Their COVID-Era Pilot Programs?

Global Insight by Paula Pelletier

Global Cities intern Paula Pelletier examines what cities should do with programs formed in response to COVID-19.

COVID-19 pushed city leaders to implement experimental, temporary, “quick-build” programs in response to the pandemic’s challenges. From pop-up bike lanes and open streets programs to outdoor design interventions for struggling restaurants, these programs have featured responsive, innovative, and environmentally sustainable policy initiatives. 

But as some cities look to post-pandemic recovery, questions about these programs abound: How should they decide whether to keep or take down these projects? What processes should determine whether provisional bike lanes, open street programs, and targeted investment—among other interventions—become permanent? 

Program evaluation and assessment can help. These methods—such as program and impact assessments, performance measurements, and evaluation programs—analyze what an intervention does, how well it does it, and if it produced the desired results on the communities it was meant to serve. Rigorous program evaluation is key for determining the effectiveness, public acceptance, and long-term viability of urban planning projects. But many cities lack consistent, embedded evaluation programs, which poses special challenges considering the quick-build nature of the COVID-era city programs. 

Cities often conduct program assessments on a case-by-case basis by soliciting help from the private and non-profit sectors. But adopting systems of continuous program evaluations can help meet sustainability and social equity goals, while also reducing inefficiency and costs in city administration and planning. Louisville, Kentucky, for example, created the Office of Performance Improvement (OPI), which focuses on the systemic evaluation and performance planning of the city’s programs. By helping city departments build data collection capacity, focus evaluation plans, and engage stakeholders, OPI increased the effectiveness and accessibility while decreasing the costs for several city initiatives. 

By evaluating the experimental programs that emerged as a response to COVID-19, cities can better understand their impact, assess needed resources, and determine the future of these programs. For example, a recent study on provisional pop-up bike lanes built in European cities as a response to COVID-19 lockdowns showed that, within four months, cycling in these cities increased between 11 percent and 48 percent, suggesting that there is a public willingness to adopt new transport initiatives moving forward. As cities emerge from the pandemic, evaluating the impact of these types of interventions can help city leaders meet larger goals such as those concerning climate, equity, and public health.  

Another example of advancing city goals through program evaluation data is Copenhagen. Leading a digital wave of city program testing, monitoring, and assessment, the Copenhagen Solutions Lab (CSL) implements information and communication technologies—a wide set of data software and digital services—into city program evaluation. This tech-based system allows the city of Copenhagen to assess transportation needs by measuring movement patterns and workflows and decrease exposure to air pollution through air quality data technologies, among other uses. 

Technology and quantitative measures are key to understanding the overall impact of city initiatives. But qualitative measures and public engagement must always be included in program evaluation to keep equity, inclusivity, and community voices at the forefront of urban governance. Program assessment follows specific sets of guidelines and cities can use many frameworks for assessment and evaluation. Traditionally, these are rooted in months, or even years, of community engagement.  

But the challenge for city leaders today is that city interventions were implemented expeditiously as a response to the pandemic, often with limited public engagement. Thus, existing program evaluation structures must adapt to the current circumstances, examining the role of community engagement in determining the future of these quick-build interventions. Qualitative methods of research (e.g., interviews, focus groups, and regular meetings with the community) can help city leaders understand residents’ perspectives, challenges, and needs.  

But existing program evaluation frameworks can adapt to the unique nature of COVID-era city initiatives. By understanding if city programs are producing the results they were meant to produce, city officials could become more efficient, accountable, and better equipped to identify and address inequities along racial, economic, and geographic lines. To invest in program evaluation systems is to invest in making cities more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient to shocks for the long term.  

About the Author
Paula Pelletier
Global Cities Intern