A once in a generation excuse to make our places better
The Death of Cities has been greatly exaggerated.
Covid-19 temporarily suspended much of what makes urban life so great. Overnight, those things we enjoyed most —cross cultural connection through food & experience, nightlife & world class entertainment, serendipity in chance encounters, and general person to person contact — became the very things we could least afford to do. Temporarily.
As the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel appears to be shining brighter, we have an excuse to create better places. Excuse, because opportunity is so often overused, and so rarely taken advantage of. Opportunity requires drawn out studies, reports, consultants and 7 layers of Dantean bureaucracy to get through. An excuse requires nothing more than the will for something to be done.
What’s the excuse? We’ve spent much of the last year physically retrofitting our cities towards people, and socially adapting to this new reality. Tactical urbanism has been deployed to realize creative solutions that maximize usable open space. People seem to be enjoying the changes quite well. Why fix what’s not broken (as opposed to refusing to fix all that’s been broken within cities for decades)? While tactical urbanist interventions are temporary, they’re meant to serve as stepping stones for more permanent solutions. As their success has been resoundingly proven, we must lock into this new trajectory, and lean into building for people more forcefully.
There’s a wide ranging analysis to be written somewhere in here about the societal implications of building for people as opposed to massive infrastructure at enormous (and potentially insolvency-inducing) cost for cars. But as this moment is an excuse, and not an opportunity, we need look no further than what’s already been working well, and just do more about it.
Before we look at some examples, a note. I don’t mean to reduce the significance of the time we’re living in. Economies have been upended. Families have struggled immensely. Lives have been lost and irrevocably altered. We have been in a year long state of collective mourning. In a time like this, we need to focus on tangible things that can make our lives better in small, but meaningful ways. Hitting people over the head with data is neither appropriate nor desirable. A people focused, anecdotal approach, feels more apt for this piece. After all, this Pandemic has ultimately been a tragedy at the most intimate, personal levels of our society. The solution should be the same.
Perhaps the most visible impact of Covid-19 on our cities has been the emergence of outdoor dining. In response to not being able to host inside, restaurants have taken to the curb. They’ve built out innovative additions in the form of food & beverage parklets. During the summer, these parklets offered shade and stress relief from life cooped up in our homes. In the fall and winter, heat lamps were rolled out to offer cozy dining outside, a joy few get to experience when the temperatures dip below sweatshirt weather. While heat lamps may not seem important on their own, they have saved many from hibernating in solitude without much human, or natural, connection.
As most streets have seen reduced traffic, or have been closed to cars altogether, we’ve been exposed to just how much we can do with the 25–30% of land dedicated to them in cities. The possibilities are as inspiring as they are endless. Tales of people getting to know their neighbors for the first time (human and otherwise), by simply having the space & ability to walk around, have abounded. Sociability has prospered where we’ve safely encouraged it to exist, something few could imagine at the beginning of an outbreak that has forced us to become anti-social beings, contrary to our nature.
In opening streets up to people, we’ve incentivized more walking, biking, and economic development than we otherwise would’ve been able to do. By enabling people to take in fresh, Covid-free air, we’ve built upon the slow progress of stitching healthy lifestyles back into the fabric of our cities. Healthy lifestyles extend beyond physical mobility. In what should be an affirmative signal for us as humans, wildlife is flourishing in previously befouled cities, thanks to cleaner air & water from reduced vehicle emissions.
We shouldn’t go back to polluting our atmosphere to such an extent that life is repelled, or isolating ourselves so completely from our surroundings that we don’t even know our neighbors’ names. We have a once in a century excuse to move forward without our destructive Pre-pandemic ways. Seldom do global inflection points occur where entire societies’ priorities shift to such an extent that wiping the slate clean is possible. And yet we’ve been gifted it, a remarkable silver lining in this dark time.
Remote work, the oft mentioned reason for why no one will ever interact face to face again, has the potential to be an incredible value generator for cities. As people will no longer be restricted to living in the few markets where creative and professional workers could historically find employment, gains will accrue to the places that offer the most livability to people, independent of work.
This doesn’t automatically mean the largest and wealthiest places — these were the winners of a globalized, but centralized, world. In the new globalized, decentralized world, the winners need not compete for fractions of a fixed economic development pie. Winners in the post-Covid city can share in the rewards of a far more expansive competition to offer high quality of life, of which no place holds monopoly. Today, people don’t need CBDs (Central Business Districts, or, alternatively, Consolidated Bastions of Dread) to be productive. They need to be somewhere that speaks to them at an intimate level. The post-Covid city privileges the person — not the corporation, nor the car.
Remote work, the oft mentioned reason for why no one will ever interact face to face again, has the potential to be an incredible value generator for cities.
If you’ve moved to Madison, Raleigh or El Paso with the excuse that you can’t justify the rents or lifestyle of a larger city, or just wanted to go home, you should be excused from having to uproot your life once again. Zoom calls and high speed internet have carried many throughout this past year, and they will continue to be important in the years ahead, albeit with less dependency. Companies would be wise to allow remote work permanently. Cities & towns should make hospitality their calling card, transforming their built environments to meet the existential non 9–5 desires people have. For long struggling places, there is, dare I say, an opportunity to capitalize on this moment. Take whatever your city does well, be it friendliness to small businesses, connection to the outdoors, or cultural prominence, and maximize it to the greatest extent possible. If you don’t currently do anything particularly well, now is the perfect excuse to begin trying. Stealing what works elsewhere is a good place to start. You’ll be excused.
Doubtless, many will still choose to live in large metropolises. I am. But for those who want to live in a smaller city or town, they won’t be penalized for doing so. While Austin and Miami have been the well-publicized winners of this past year, they haven’t been the only places to benefit from 2020’s great decentralization.
This dispersion won’t gut larger metropolises. It will make them stronger, and could encourage former residents of cities like New York and San Francisco — who previously moved away due to prohibitive rents and lack of space— to return. Make no mistake, A 10% drop New York rents isn’t a crisis, or a sign the city is dying. It’s hardly halfway towards the correction the city needs. Prices dropping is a bridge to building more housing, as an excuse to make up for lost yield, with the effect of prices lowering further for existing homes. When this happens, our cities get younger, more creative, and more welcoming. Suddenly, opening a new bakery or home goods store is less of a fantasy than an exciting idea that can strengthen a community.
Like every great tragedy that has ushered in calls for the death of cities, this too shall pass. Our need for inter-personal connection is too strong, and not nearly as ephemeral as a Pandemic. People will go back to music venues and museums. They’ll fill up seats at restaurants, and go back to movie theaters, too. I would say people will go back to bars as well, though they never really stopped going to bars. But instead of grimly mocking my peers who decided not to adhere to social distancing guidelines for much of the last year, I’ll chalk it up to an elemental desire for human connection. After all, that’s what cities do best.
Life in the post-Pandemic city won’t look much different than it does now, but it will certainly feel different. This past year, we’ve felt the intense loneliness that comes without connection. We looked to our cities & towns to facilitate what we needed most when everything else was taken away. With this precept of connection, we can build with more common & social space to encourage contact. Outdoor dining parklets, neighborhood gardens, public squares, and extended sidewalks should be the norm, and just the beginning of our work. Community comes from our common shared space. Without it, can we truly say we have one?
Our need for inter-personal connection is too strong, and not nearly as ephemeral as a pandemic.
The time horizon for excuses is beginning to wane. Cities are talking about action with plans on re-opening bigger than ever before. This just means going back to the old way of doing things. We should reject that, and embrace resilient solutions that have been successfully implemented around the country by making them permanent. These schemes are not grand plans or massive re-constructions. They’re simple, but meaningful, interventions to deliver small joys into people’s lives, alleviating stressors and enhancing connection. There should be no small amount of beauty in these schemes.
Excuses require little more than a “meh” coupled with a shoulder shrug. As this last year has proven, people actually enjoy breathing clean air, knowing their neighbors, and making their city their own, as opposed to feeling like secondary citizens to cars or corporations.
Meh, *shrugs shoulders* let’s just keep it that way.