Open Letter to Citymakers: 10 Key Implications of the COVID-19

March 19, 2020 — The Big Picture

On January 21st, I traveled from Shanghai, my adopted home, via a one-day layover in Los Angeles, on my way to spend several weeks in Boston for some non-critical medical treatments. The next day, the first case of Coronavirus hit Shanghai. Four days later, my husband, who owns an import-export business joined me in the Boston burbs, where we’ve been in a sort of pandemic exile since.

As the virus spread through Wuhan, Shanghai, and the rest of China, we followed the news incessantly and got daily updates from our Shanghai friends about how this then-epidemic was taking hold of our beloved city. A city normally bustling with near endless numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists, people waiting for their daily “jianbing” (the delicious equivalent of a Chinese breakfast burrito), delivery scooters whipping by, little old ladies dancing in public squares (both official and make-shift), and restaurants and bars buzzing was, in effect, deserted. Our friends shared pictures of dead public spaces, abandoned streets, shuttered stores, empty subways. We were shocked, saddened, mystified as to what would come next.

The only constant was fluidity and a never-ending wheel turning inside my head about what this might mean for public spaces, public life, placemaking, urban design, now, and moving forward. What would my role – as an urban design researcher, professor, and entrepreneur – mean, require, demand of me right now? But these thoughts never quite amounted to more than a rambling, incoherent mess of not-quite concrete ideas in my head – nevermind got inked. But today, after nearly two-months of thinking, processing, and now witnessing how this public space plague has sadly arrived on US shores in full force, I’m finally ready to put pen to paper and share with you my still-preliminary answers to these questions

First, to answer these questions, all of us citymakers must examine how and why we embarked on our collective journeys to help make better places…

For me, before I knew urban design was a thing, I was torn between two seemingly unrelated disciplines – psychology and architecture. I loved helping people and I was obsessed with cities – the good, the bad, and the ugly. While the links between my “dueling” passions are obvious now, it took me a while to figure out that I was destined to devote my life to fixing places as a vehicle (pardon the term!) by which to – well – fix people. I ultimately found my way to the field of environmental psychology, and obtained a PhD in Urban Planning with a focus on urban design and behavior – a link that’s ever pertinent in light of this crisis.

Fast forward two+ decades, and I – we – again find ourselves facing a seemingly insurmountable conundrum in the light of this unprecedented pandemic: if our job is to make cities “people-magnets” and yet there is now a near-universal call (that must be heeded) to avoid places that are indeed magnets for people, what is our purpose now?

It wasn’t until NYU (where I’m a research professor and where I’m currently teaching an online course) decided to move to 100% remote instruction one week ago that the ramifications of the virus on public spaces became personally unavoidable.
The course, entitled the Value of Urban Design, which I’ve taught since 2008, is centered around the relationship between the built environment and behavior – and how that creates value, across multiple dimensions – and this semester, I began teaching it online. While I was all set on the online front, the class’ marque project (around which all class assignments and final paper is centered around) – a classic William Whyte-esq in-person, environment-behavior observation study – was now a no-go. I would not require my students to go observe public spaces during a pandemic, plus, there wasn’t going to be much to observe…

“People crave other people and they need places to gather. It is part of the human condition, and yet, so too apparently, are pandemics.”

But that’s where we all are right now. Our public spaces are barren. Our streets are deserted. And the fact that pictures of empty places are being virally shared across the world is a global tell that we are all collectively mourning the loss of public life. The public realm is yet another victim of this pandemic. And we are all living casualties suffering at the hands of this loss. The only evidence you need of this is the spontaneous performances of singers and musicians erupting out of Italian balconies much to the delight of otherwise weary quarantined audiences. People crave other people and they need places to gather. It is part of the human condition, and yet, so too apparently, are pandemics. So here’s how I think we should regroup, rethink, retool, and rebuild per our roles as citymakers – as those whose job, and purpose, it is to spark joy by creating places people love…not just despite global crises, in spite of them:

1. Don’t forget the basics. As I teach in my value of urban design class, there is a two-way street between the (physical) environment and behavior. Urban design (should) facilitate certain behaviors and feelings, and we in turn can (or should be able to) shape the built environment. When we do this right, when we understand and encourage this relationship, when we properly consider the contexts around which this connection occurs, it creates value – economic, social, environmental, health, individual, safety. Right now, we are missing the person part of this equation, and so the whole thing has collapsed. But the question is why? Perhaps we, as urban designers, have not sufficiently provided the “affordance” – the ability – to adapt public spaces to all contexts. For example, the call for social-distancing doesn’t necessarily preclude us from using parks, or sitting in a plaza. Even New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, suggested that people – especially families with the kiddos at home, likely facing cabin fever, go out to one of the City’s many public parks. If we’ve designed public spaces well – if we allow for moveable chairs that folks can rearrange to befit distancing recommendations or design-in both active AND passive uses, were the latter are pre-designed to allow for more “privacy” while still engaging publicly – this can actually act as a refuge, as a place for restoration, or as Cuomo implied, as a place not to go insane!
Yes, I know there are implications – if everyone shows up to take refuge, eventually, you cannot actually keep to the recommended physical distancing requirements. But that’s a management issue that can be handled – I’m sure with some relatively simple apps. The point is, we must consider the fundamental equation that the environment <-> behavior = value when configuring public spaces, and ultimately broaden from a small d design to a big D Design (thinking) framework to build more resilient and adaptable places that can spark joy, no matter what!

2. Consider redefining what we mean by Place+Making. Ultimately, places are a socially constructed phenomena. We imbue them with meaning, not the other way around (or at least that’s the case with good, bottom-up, public spaces). So perhaps we must broaden our definition of what we mean by places. We already have examples of many virtual places – all of social media (for better or worse), virtual workplaces, webinars, augmented places, and even virtual spaces. If our purpose, our jobs, are to create magnets for people, can this also include virtual magnets? Non-physical places? I know these places cannot replace the physical connection we get from real places – but imagine just for a second if there was a virtual alternative to all public places? Like not only could we all just “go” to Central Park or Times Square or your local park like you can now via webcams, but imagine if we enabled these tools with the capacity to virtually interact with other folks “visiting” these places? Imagine how amazing that would be right now with all of us doing social distancing? We could flip this construct around and skip the social part of the distancing and just keep to ruling out the physical aspect of interactions. Imagine what this would mean for the MANY people who in every day non-pandemic life CANNOT already physically participate in these magnets we spend so much time carefully curating? People with disabilities, the elderly, the sick, those without physical means to access places, or people who are not fortunate enough to have these places in their neighborhoods…or heck, even extreme introverts (we exist!). This lack of access is yet another equity issue that already exists and already needs fixing. One important thing to note here – when and if we begin to think about virtual alternatives, we must keep in mind those with disabilities for which the visual aspects of virtual environments are not accessible…

3. Speaking of equity… If the ramifications of this global pandemic do not finally open our eyes to the fact that the way we design places – cities – is inherently, structurally inequitable all around, well, I guess I’ll continue to scream about it. How many holes in the system has this crisis glaringly exposed? For starters, people are avoiding public transit – and biking and walking instead. This is only partially good news. This does not work for those for whom biking or walking isn’t feasible because they live in places not designed to allow for those behaviors or they have disabilities which preclude them from doing so. Even if you argue that fewer people taking transit means that it’s at lower capacity thereby allowing those who cannot walk or bike to use it while still practicing social distancing, they’re still exposing themselves to higher risk, and indeed, populations unable to walk or bike are more likely to be high-risk to begin with. And then there’s all the communities for which transit is not even available. And that’s just equity as it relates to mobility. There’s also the issue of housing. Most people live paycheck to paycheck. And many people are at risk of not getting paid – soon. So we face potential evictions or foreclosures, likely from places that aren’t affordable to begin with, which is part of the reason people are living paycheck to paycheck in the first place. And then there’s the even more vulnerable – people who are homeless. On top of that, there’s food security. Access to health services. As I’ve said before, inherent in the definition of placemaking must be a requirement that we make great places for everyone. We are failing at this. And this pandemic serves as a giant ugly microscope of our collective failure to create inclusive, equitable places.

4. Understand that everything is interconnected – and make places with that in mind. When I was still in grad school pursuing my Ph.D., I solo-authored – and somehow published – a theoretical paper about walkability (which is really freaking hard to do!). I think one of the reasons it was accepted is because it offered a broader way of understanding why people chose to walk – or not. It was based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, positing that some aspects of urban design were more fundamental than others in influencing peoples’ choice of travel mode, namely walking vs. other options. It also framed this within what’s called a “socioecological” construct – that other factors besides the physical environment impacted people’s decisions to walk, how they perceived urban design, and how many urban design amenities needed to be fulfilled in order to be compelled to walk. These other factors included individual differences (like age, gender), sociological level differences (such as religious or cultural affiliations), and geographical level differences. My point was that everything was interconnected, and you could not myopically evaluate how the built environment impacted behavior. Yet, we as citymakers (at the local, regional, state, and federal level) have not been working within the socio-ecological frameworks needed to address the complex organism that is a city. And despite our failure to proactively acknowledge these links, this pandemic “gets it” and has unapologetically toppled our vulnerable house of cards. And we were woefully unprepared. Let’s fix that. I began to chart out all the potential interconnected aspects of citymaking that we need to more intentionally connect to get us started…

5. Heed both the positive and negative unintended consequences. I’m sure many of you have seen visualizations and data regarding the drop in emissions and improvements in air quality in China, Italy, and beyond, as more of the world succumbs to lockdowns, quarantines, and finally adopts social distancing. Well, clearly, that’s (mostly) a positive, albeit an unintended consequence of pretty extreme measures. But wow does this highlight the consequences of our behaviors and choices. The question is, are any of these measures tenable when not facing a pandemic? In answering this, however, we must also consider the negative consequences of such measures, besides the obvious disruptions to our daily lives. Denying ourselves access to public life has serious multi-layered consequences, ranging from loneliness, to lack of physical activity, to not benefiting from the pleasures we get from “third-places,” and others. Let’s face it, humans crave other humans – even us introverts! But I do believe the positive by-products of this virus are significant enough that we must consider how more moderate versions of these measures might be warranted – as long as we consider, account for, and mitigate the negative externalities of such. We have some tough choices ahead…which brings me to…

“So what if we could somehow apply the same sense of urgency this pandemic has engendered, the nimble policymaking, the collective sacrifice, the rapid behavior change, the universal coalescing around one common enemy to tackling the climate crisis?”

6. Objects in the mirror are closer than they seem. While it might have taken longer than ideal, the world has finally come to understand how much of real and present danger this pandemic poses to humankind. And we’re taking relatively swift action. So what if we could somehow apply the same sense of urgency this pandemic has engendered, the nimble policymaking, the collective sacrifice, the rapid behavior change, the universal coalescing around one common enemy to tackling the climate crisis? What would it take to transfer this level of well – (measured) panic – toward the goal of lowering GHGs? Toward meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals? How can we make the consequences of the climate crisis seem as concrete as that of COVID-19? Moreover, how can we translate lessons learned from this crisis and avoid being this utterly unprepared again…in the face of the next ever-menacing, lurking, inevitable threat?

“Indeed, our public spaces often pay fiddle to this, serving explicitly or implicitly as consumer-first spaces.”

7. We need to seriously think about our system of governance and make sure it still makes sense and/or fix it, because it’s clearly broken. I’m sure you’ve seen the memes of pictures of empty shelves with the caption: late-stage capitalism or socialism? I’m certainly not here to advocate for “socialism” (my mom fled communist Cuba) but this pandemic has highlighted just how fragile our system – a system so reliant on consumerism – is. Indeed, our public spaces often pay fiddle to this, serving explicitly or implicitly as consumer-first spaces. Having lived over six years in China – initially as a Fulbright Scholar – I’ve seen the benefits of a system based on the idea of the collective. Yes, when the city of Wuhan, and then other Chinese cities, were put on government-enforced lock down, there’s no question that their top-down system made this much easier to not just implement, but fathom, as a near first-step in curbing the spread of the virus. But you cannot discount the will – and willingness – of the Chinese people to immediately follow suit. For them, it’s their duty; it just goes without saying. There is something to be said for that sense of the collective that I believe would benefit us as placemakers – and would make our jobs easier. I don’t have the answers here – I’m not an expert on governance or political science – but as a citizen and citymaker, I believe the present crisis begets us to reexamine what’s at the heart of our policies, governance, and markets, and ensure they are serving those most at need – and that they are ultimately sustainable.

8. Beware of overcorrections. COVID-19 is not the first time that concerns regarding public health have impacted public life and planning. Indeed, Euclidean zoning was in large part a reaction to the poor health conditions linked to overcrowded inner cities during the Industrial Revolution, where it was not uncommon to have factories abutting tenements that were bursting at the seams with families and children. As a result, we labeled all industry and commerce as noxious and separated them from where we lived and worked, indelibly shaping our communities and preordaining us all to a lifelong commitment to cars. Throughout this crisis, some have conjectured that perhaps dense, compact, urban cities are just not tenable in the face of pandemics, while others have pointed out that many of the original epicenters were in fact suburban places, borne out of the Euclidean order. All that we really know now is that we just don’t know – right now; I’m sure there are countless dissertations and research projects blooming right now that will tackle this subject. In the meantime, it’s important to heed the lessons from history and not hastily implement top-down, blunt policies restricting density or radically changing the face of public spaces. We’ll need a measured, data-driven, transdisciplinary approach that mitigates risks associated with pandemics and the like, while allowing us to access the multitude of benefits tied to the joys and messiness of public life. 

9. Technology has a role to play. In the past, I have warned that tech for tech’s sake is a dangerous proposition for the future of public life – that it must be a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Well, technology has stepped up to the plate during this crisis, from Zoom offering free access for educational users scrambling to put their courses online to delivery robots being rolled out in China to facilitate effective social distancing to health “rating” systems being tied to social media apps to help gauge your risk of exposure. The question is, how can we as citymakers harness the power of technology to keep people safe in pandemics and otherwise, while still allowing people to benefit from participating in public life? We must work with the civic-tech community to come up with potential solutions – and in general, we need to be more quick to the uptake in terms of using technology – and data – to make awesome, safe, resilient places all people can love.

10. Never waste a good crisis. I know this is cliché, but it is so for good reason. We’ve been given an opportunity here – a breather – to take time to think strategically, not merely tactically. As placemakers, many of you are surely charged with managing well, places – and namely, the people in those places. Those people are not in those places right now. You’re not working on marketing your next event; you’re not working on organizing your next gathering; you’re not really able to do all that much by way of business development or sales. So this is the time for a strategic approach to address all of the issues I’ve highlighted herein and to broaden this list out. This is the time to throw out the rule books, think outside the box, engage “non-experts” to both identify additional challenges – and solutions. This is finally the time to adopt a more holistic, socioecological, transdisciplinary, bottom-up, and evidence-based framework for citymaking – that has equity, inclusiveness, and resiliency at the heart of it.

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