The past month has been unprecedented, and the decisions made in the coming months will impact public policy and everyday life for an entire generation. This future uncertainty has spurred lots of discussion around the future of urban life, mobility, and public health.
Here is the Urban Environmentalist’s take on the future of cities. Spoiler alert - now is not the time to run for the hills!
Cities will Continue to Lead in Resilience
In recent weeks, ridiculous claims have been made about the “death of cities”. While it is true that a virus will spread more quickly in a densely populated area, what we should be concerned with is the poor public health response, the lack of testing, and the lack of preparedness and general mismanagement on the part of our federal government and many of our state and local governments. As Scott Wiener notes in a recent Politico piece, “this contagion is not about whether you live in a densely populated area or a less densely populated area; it's about whether you have a good public health response to a pandemic and Hong Kong and Singapore had a fantastic response”.
For context, Singapore’s first reported case was on January 23, yet thanks to its contact tracing, early testing, and quarantining of suspected cases, the island nation has only reported 879 cases as of March 28, without implementing a lockdown.
Singapore’s population density of 8358/km² is similar to New York City’s 10,194/km². Given that NYC now has over 43,000 cases, it’s clear that density is not the key issue here.
In Italy, and most likely in the United States in the next few weeks, many deaths will occur in rural hospitals with limited response capabilities. Doug Saunders notes that, unlike in previous centuries, rural areas are not safe havens. In his opinion piece, he writes, “modern travel and prosperity mean the disease will soon hit countless towns with one-emergency-bed hospitals and hundreds of residents older than 80. Their only hope is to get shipped to a larger city".
Cities are Here to Stay
Urbanization is a global trend which will continue for the next few decades. By 2050, 68% of the world’s population is expected to reside in urban areas, up from 55% in 2018. This will mean an additional 2.5 billion people will be living in cities.
Many of these individuals will move to newly minted megacities, such as Bogota, Chennai, and Luanda, as well as other large cities across Africa and South Asia. It is laughable to consider all of these individuals purchasing a car and moving to subtropical suburbs to avoid disease. So why take similar proposals seriously in the United States - especially once we consider that our cities are already some of the sparsest by world standards?
Besides legalizing more housing in built-up areas and using public transportation, another way to reduce emissions is to simply commute less. With traffic now essentially nonexistent in Los Angeles, the two-hour trek up the 405 from Long Beach to Santa Monica takes a previously unimaginable 30 minutes. Furthermore, buses are crossing the Bay Bridge and traversing the MacArthur Maze in record time, improving transit reliability for health care workers and other essential employees. Air quality has improved dramatically, allowing residents to get a socially-distanced breath of fresh air. In short, the current crisis has shown us what could be in the most drastic of ways. We suspect that, when things begin to return to the new normal and traffic returns, that the calls from previously-jaded commuters to improve our transportation systems and to request more flexible remote work opportunities will be louder than ever.
Improved Internet Access
We must also consider the fact that the majority of employees cannot work remotely.
Restaurant workers, construction workers, and hospitality employees have no choice but to commute. Furthermore, between 21 and 42 million Americans do not have broadband access at their home, and many more cannot afford monthly internet payments. Most of these individuals reside in poor urban neighborhoods and rural areas. As schools switch to online courses, children lacking broadband access will be left behind. And individuals with health issues may not be able to safely see a doctor, order groceries online, or FaceTime their family from a safe distance. We believe that funds should be allocated to achieve the goals of the ConnectALL program that was launched by President Obama in 2016.
While public transportation is taking a huge hit (BART has reported an over 90% decrease in ridership), the amount of cycling has increased. According to the New York Times, Citi Bike, New York City’s bike share program, saw demand surge by 67% before local shelter-in-place orders took effect. With car-free streets and clean air, many city residents are now able to safely exercise, commute, or grab groceries by foot or bike in their neighborhood. Many streets in cities around the world have closed off select roads and parks to cars, providing families with a much-needed space to get some fresh air. In the long run, safe streets, reduced driving, and clean air will save countless lives.
More Stimulus Investment in Sustainable Infrastructure
We should be taking advantage of the current lull in transportation use to perform a massive overhaul of our biking, pedestrian, and public transit infrastructure. As Laura Bliss mentioned in her recent Citylab article, we should expect a massive jobs and infrastructure bill to be proposed soon, to help fight the imminent spike in the unemployment rate. Work will need to be done to ensure state and federal funds are spent on building cities that are resilient, affordable, and healthy. Specifically, investments in affordable housing, public transportation, seismic retrofits, high-speed rail, and flood control would pay dividends for future generations, whereas highway expansions and suburban sprawl would be harmful.
The current state of affairs has demonstrated the superiority of a coordinated regional response to a crisis, superseding local control. The six counties in the immediate Bay Area were the first in the nation to pass a mandatory shelter in place order (March 16), which has shown promising results and has bought the region precious time to prepare for the impending outbreak.
Now, about two weeks later, over 25 states have followed our lead.
The coordinated response has now extended beyond shelter in place. California has delayed mortgage payments for up to 90 days, and the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors banned evictions for multiple months for the entire county, without hesitation.
Imagine if the same urgency and coordination could be harnessed to tackle our climate crisis, our homelessness crisis, our affordability crisis, our wildfire crises, or any number of longer-term dilemmas that the Bay Area and California face. The current situation has ripped the band-aid off the gaping wound that is our emergency response capability, health care system, and safety net. Yet it has also shown how quickly and courageously our elected officials can act under pressure.
The lessons we will learn by taking a data-driven approach to emergency response, contact tracing, homeless shelter, and financial relief in the next few months could serve as a helpful guide as we move forward and continue to tackle our biggest challenges.
As the saying goes, never let a crisis go to waste.