The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Future of Sustainable Cities in the USA

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An opinion piece by Alan Mallach, FAICP, Guest contributor for the Second Edition of CSU NEWS

First things first. Nobody knows how it’s going to turn out. The uncertainty is multilevel. We don’t know whether there will be one, or two or more waves of the coronavirus, we don’t know if and when a vaccine will be available, and we don’t know whether this is a black swan or the precursor of equal or worse pandemics to come at intervals over the coming decades. Whatever the answers to those questions, we don’t know how society and the economy will respond to any scenario except the most positive, which is the one that assumes we get things under control fairly quickly and return to the status quo ante. Assuming that doesn’t happen, we don’t know how it will affect residential choices, work patterns, leisure activities, basically all of human behavior. And finally, drawing any inferences from past disasters, whether the Black Death, the Spanish Flu or 9/11, is trivial. This one really is different.

That said, the weight of the evidence seems to be challenging. People weren’t flocking to New York or San Francisco for the apartments. If masks, social distancing and the atrophy of crowded theaters, bars and rock festivals become the new normal, that could  sharply reduce the extent to which the young college graduates who have thronged to America’s cities and driven urban revitalization since the end of the 20th century continue to do so. If more and more of the jobs they covet become remote, that could further exacerbate the trend.

One scenario might see some rural small towns being transformed into Millennial magnets, something like 1970s Vermont but more upscale, where remote workers would create new models of smaller scale, lower density but still walkable scenes to replace the Tribecas and Williamsburgs they left behind. More risk-averse empty nesters may follow them, or more likely, may just abandon their thoughts of leaving their suburban homes for high-density urban neighborhoods. Alternatively, it’s possible that as soon as it’s legal to do so, young people will flock back to their previous haunts despite risks and warnings. Either could happen.

The second potential challenge is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Barring a lot of luck and well-targeted federal intervention, neither of which seem likely, economic recovery is more likely to be slow and uneven. And if that’s the case, one thing that sadly can be predicted is that it will hit low income people and their neighborhoods – many of which had not recovered from 2007-2009 when the pandemic hit – a lot harder than it will more affluent people and the places they live. With more people and businesses living close to the edge, more may fall off. Businesses may close, landlords who can’t pay their bills may walk. Unemployment may remain dangerously high for years. The gulfs between rich and poor, wealthy neighborhoods and struggling ones, which in most cities are also racial gulfs, may grow wider yet. And if large numbers of the affluent decamp and corporations abandoned their leases on downtown office space, the cities overall will become poorer, and less able to provide even modest services to their lower-income neighborhoods.

This is bad news for sustainability. Yes, thinner cities will use less energy and generate less pollution than before, perhaps, but energy use is likely to be displaced to places where it will be used less efficiently than in cities. Less frenetically overcrowded cities may be better places to live for many people. And, whether the result is a greater gulf between rich and poor, or the increasing impoverishment of the city, or some of both, neither is a sustainable or just outcome.  

Is this inevitable? Of course not. Rather than a prediction, it is an extrapolation of possible outcomes and trends, as they may play out in the absence of a societal commitment to have it come out differently. Design can make a difference. Many architects, all over the world, are thinking about how to design human environments that simultaneously reduce virus transmission risk while fostering livability, and up to a point, social interaction. Yet, the tension between the separation that may be dictated by risk concerns and the level and nature of interaction human beings seek with one another may be too fundamental to be bridged by even the most sensitive, ingenious design solutions.

Second, design in the final analysis is the handmaiden of capital. Architects have a great deal to contribute, but to the extent that design solutions can help resolve the tension, they will only be invited to do so if American society, and the wielders of power in that society, want them to, and are willing to invest the money in retrofitting our built environment around principles that are more socially and economically as well as environmentally sustainable. And that goes many times over with respect to the inequities that may be inflicted by the pandemic’s aftermath on America’s lower income people and communities of color, for whom design issues, if hardly irrelevant, are far from the top of the priority list.  

About the author: Alan Mallach, FAICP, is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Community Progress in Washington DC and a visiting lecturer in the Graduate Center on Planning and the Environment of Pratt Institute. He is the author of The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America, as well as many other books on planning, housing, urbanism and Italian opera.