Planning for life in cities after the pandemic
April 27, 2020
April 27, 2020
How we can help our clients and communities transition to planning in the post-pandemic world?
We’ve been here before. In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, heavy clouds hang over words like “density” and “urban.” These same clouds took shape in the aftermath of 9/11, when influential articles like a Blueprint for a Better City (Wired, December 1, 2001) proclaimed “Density Kills," and called for a return to safer suburbs. Just recently, the governor of one of America’s largest states publicly questioned whether his state needed to explore lower density models for growth in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Yet density and the lively interaction it brings to urban life has been foundational to the plans so many of us continue to work on—and in many cases are about to publish. We learned important lessons from 9/11—one of which was to enrich our approach to creating increased densities and great urbanism, but not lose sight or our long-term goals of creating more livable, equitable, and resilient communities.
As we continue to plan today in an era of social distancing, we need answers to three critical questions:
The answer to all three questions is a resounding YES!!!
Even in the midst of an unfolding tragedy, we cannot afford to lose sight of “the new norm”—the fundamental realities that will continue to forge a more urban future for our communities over the next decades. These fundamental realities began well before the pandemic and will continue well after this crisis has passed.
Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies projects that singles and couples will increasingly dominate household growth—and steadily increase demand for urban living. Drilling down into this data suggests even stronger market potential for walkable downtowns and urban neighborhoods. Most notably? Better educated (and higher income) households that represent the talent that powers our knowledge economy are increasingly more likely to move to regions with lively downtowns and urban neighborhoods than their peers.
Even in the midst of an unfolding tragedy, we cannot afford to lose sight of “the new norm”—the fundamental realities that will continue to forge a more urban future for our communities.
As “industries of the mind” take center stage in fueling economic growth, a global competition for talent is taking hold. Organizations like the Brookings Institution and the International Downtown Association (with support from Stantec’s Urban Places) report that regions with lively, walkable downtowns and urban neighborhoods are the winners. Even knowledge workers who “tele-work” prefer to live in walkable urban places. Dublin, Ohio (just outside of Columbus) is creating a new higher density, walkable downtown to attract knowledge industry employers—while also attracting talent that wants to work from home. Perhaps more importantly, MIT’s Sloan School of Management reports that attracting and retaining educated workers is critical to a region’s ability to grow jobs across the board.
Today urban dwellers already spend roughly half as much of their disposable income on mobility compared to their suburban peers. The shared and emerging micro-mobility technologies (think Lyft and e-scooters) that flourish in urban cores are reinforcing this advantage. Stantec’s smart mobility planners tell us that future mobility will take the form of shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs) in downtowns and urban neighborhoods with the densities to support on-demand service, increasing convenience while reducing cost.
As we continue to plan for more livable communities in the future, early lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic can enrich and expand the core principles that should guide us:
Crises bring us together as a community, supported by the political will to bring forth bold plans that lead to transformative change. Much of the urban renaissance we have enjoyed over the past two decades stems from the funding put forth to prevent an economic collapse following 9/11, and again following the Great Recession of 2008. As we shift our attention from crisis management to recovery, let’s nurture our newfound collective political will and tap newfound state and federal resources to build an era of more robust, more just, healthier urban places going forward!