What will the future city look like after the pandemic? As political leaders around the country debate when to safely reopen the economy, city planners and designers have been pondering the implications of the pandemic for the future design of cities. Some suggest reducing urban density, while others predict a second wave of “white flight” as families flee cities for more spacious suburbs. Planning for a post-pandemic city may seem premature or far from more pressing needs, but initiatives underway now can shape the city and urban life beyond COVID-19.
The recent introduction of “Stay Healthy Streets” in Seattle, following similar efforts by cities like Oakland and San Francisco is a step in the right direction to provide people with much needed access to open space while maintaining social distancing. Fewer cars on the streets also mean more fresh air, less pollution and carbon emissions. But temporary measures are not enough. A growing list of cities including Berlin, Milan and Paris are making plans to reallocate street space from cars to bicycles and pedestrians to reshape the city beyond the pandemic.
Transforming streets to better serve people over vehicles is an opportunity not to be missed during the pandemic, and it is not the only one. We must act now to support community resilience; invest in critical infrastructure, including open space; and address long-standing social disparities.
Rather than dwelling on urban density, for instance, we must focus on building capacity for community resilience and disaster preparedness. In Seattle’s Chinatown International District, decades of community struggles have forged a network of organizations and individuals ready to support the community in times of need. As soon as neighborhood businesses experienced a decline under COVID-19, local organizations stepped in to help, including fundraising. Volunteers also mobilized food deliveries to serve the predominantly senior residents during the lock down.
In Seattle’s sister city, Kobe, Japan, the rebuilding of the city after the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake showed that better-organized communities were also more capable of engaging in the planning process for reconstruction and recovery. This is a common lesson found in other cities and communities that have experienced major disasters. The current pandemic presents an opportunity to witness and examine community resilience in action. There is not a more opportune moment to mobilize support networks and build a social infrastructure that can last beyond the pandemic.
What if we use the stimulus funds for building long-lasting infrastructure at both community and regional levels? A city-level Green New Deal, already on Seattle’s’ agenda, would allow us to invest in building sustainable energy and transit networks, protect green spaces and habitats, bolster biodiversity and climate resilience, and address historical disparities while creating jobs for a new economy. As the current crisis makes broadband internet indispensable as critical infrastructure, we must take the opportunity to address the digital divide.
Seattle is fortunate to have invested significantly in parks and green spaces through multiple tax levies in recent decades. What began in the 19th century as a “modern” invention to bring light and air into crowded cities, parks and green spaces has become more important during the pandemic, as people seek relief from social isolation and stay active physically. Following the sudden park closures earlier in April, the city introduced a more sensible approach to managing park use rather than closing down entirely. With greater recognition of the importance of urban parks, we must do more to manage, safeguard, and even expand such critical resources, especially for communities that are underserved.
The actions we are taking today can have a profound influence on the future life of cities. Rather than temporary responses, we must approach the current actions as steps toward fundamental changes in our urban landscapes, starting with the streets. More than providing short-term economic relief, we must seize the opportunity to build long-lasting infrastructure for social and environmental resilience. While we may not know when the pandemic will end, we do know that building a post-pandemic city must begin, now.