As the dreaded coronavirus bolts across the globe, city after city has locked down, transforming urban business centers and suburban malls alike into veritable ghost towns. Our cities can’t stay in lockdown indefinitely. The economic costs — never mind the toll on our society and our mental health — is just too devastating. But the reality is we can’t just hit a reset button and revert to how things were before. This pandemic, like all great pandemics, threatens to reappear in subsequent waves over the next year to eighteen months, until we find a vaccine or develop herd immunity. Even as cities focus on a full-out mobilization of required health and medical resources to cope with the first phase of this pandemic, it is important they get prepared safely and securely for the future, too.
There are several key changes states and cities, mayors, governors and community leaders must focus on, based on research I conducted with my colleague Steven Pedigo of the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs, to get back up and running.
First, a number of transportation adaptations will be crucial. Transportation infrastructure is the circulatory system and lifeblood of the economy. Airports not only connect cities and enable the flow of people and goods across the world; they are key drivers of urban economies. They cannot be idled indefinitely. We will need to get them up-and-running again. That means mobilizing like we did in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, adding temperature checks and necessary health screenings to the security measures that are already in place. It also means taking steps to reduce crowding and delays: Painted lines on floors and stanchions can promote adequate social distancing in waiting areas, as well as making masks and hand sanitizer available. Airlines will need to reduce their passenger counts and keep middle seats open.
Buses, subways, and trains get people to work. Beyond emergency infusions of cash to keep the systems solvent during this first wave of the pandemic when ridership is low or nonexistent, design changes in stations and seating will be needed when they are back in service.
Streets may need some retrofits, too. In the midst of the crisis, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called for pedestrianizing New York City streets to promote social distancing. Some changes like this should become permanent. Bike lanes will have to be expanded and better protected, and bike and scooter-sharing programs refined and expanded for when public transit is compromised. Sidewalks, especially those in crowded business and commercial districts, may also need to be widened to promote needed social distancing.
Second, we need strategies for altering how we use other forms of large-scale infrastructure – stadiums, arenas, convention centers, performing arts centers, universities, and schools. Because they bring together large groups of people, all of them will pose risks until the virus is stamped out. City leaders must act to pandemic-proof these assets as much as possible. Class sizes may need to be reduced in schools and audience sizes reduced in theaters, with many seats left open. Masks may need to be required and made available to patrons as needed, and temperature checks carried out. The sooner such large-scale civic infrastructure can be safely reopened, the faster our urban economies will rebound.
Third, we need strong and proactive steps to protect the core of our local economies. Main Street is taking a devastating hit from forced closures. Some projections suggest that as many as three-quarters of barbershops, restaurants, mom-and-pop stores, and the like will be bankrupted before the first wave of the pandemic is over. In the short run, it is imperative that our small businesses, which generate so many jobs and lend our communities so much of their character, survive. They need whatever support they can get, in the form of mortgage, rent, and tax relief; zero-interest loans; and more. In the interim, cities need to provide assistance and advice to help prepare these vital small businesses to reopen safely.
The creative economy of art galleries, museums, theaters, and music venues, along with the artists, musicians, and actors who fuel them, is also at dire risk. Cities must partner with other levels of government, the private sector and philanthropies to marshal the funding and expertise that is needed to keep their cultural scenes alive. Once they are allowed to reopen, they will also need to make interim and long-term changes in the way that they operate. Cities should mobilize to provide advice and assistance on the necessary procedures — from temperature screenings, better spacing for social distancing and the like — for these venues to reopen safely.
Fourth, we must take proactive measures to protect the people that animate these economies and spaces. Now is the time to upgrade how we value front-line service workers with better protection, higher pay, and more benefits. Nearly half of Americans work in low-wage service jobs, and a considerable percentage of those are on the front lines of this pandemic. Supporting them in their work will help protect us in future crises.
For others, we should make remote work more available and accessible. We are in the midst of a massive experiment in telework, and learning from the experience can help cities understand how to better support this workforce — and perhaps even offer an opportunity for some cities to lure new residents who move further away from their offices.
We should not forget one takeaway from this crisis, which we already know from history: Concentrated poverty, economic inequality, and racial and economic segregation are not only morally unjust — they also provide fertile ground for pandemics to take root and spread.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. In a matter of months, our cities will begin to come back to life; in a year or two, we will see a return to a new normal. Eventually, we will go back to work and school and send our kids on play dates again; we will gather in restaurants and theaters and sports stadiums. In time, our great cities will rise again, as they always have after great health crises and pandemics.
But they just won’t pop back to normal. We need a readiness and preparedness plan for getting our cities and communities back up and running, and the time to start is now. What we do over the course of the next 12 to 18 months will matter greatly to the safety of our cities, the public health of our workers, and to our economic rebound.
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