How Urban Industry Can Contribute Green Solutions for COVID-Related Health Disparities

The best nature-based solutions on urban industrial lands are those that are part of a corporate citizenship or conservation strategy like DTE’s or Phillips66. By integrating efforts such as tree plantings, restorations, or pollinator gardens into a larger strategy, companies begin to mainstream biodiversity into their operations. When they crosswalk the effort to other CSR goals like employee engagement, community relations, and/or workforce development, like the CommuniTree initiative, the projects become more resilient.

Air quality in urban residential communities near industrial facilities will not be improved by nature alone. But nature can contribute to the solution, and while doing so, bring benefits including recreation, education, and an increased sense of community pride. As one tool to combat disparate societal outcomes, nature is accessible, affordable and has few, if any, downsides.

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Urban Living Might Just Survive Coronavirus

“How will cities survive the coronavirus?” a New York Times opinion writer recently asked. “Can New York avoid a coronavirus exodus?” the Financial Times chimed in. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many have predicted the demise of U.S. urban living — where physical proximity is the norm, social distancing complex, and lockdowns in sometimes cramped apartments decidedly uncomfortable.

A new report by City Observatory researcher Joe Cortright, made available as an interactive dashboard, suggests that such hand-wringing may be premature. Searches for urban properties on real estate website Zillow increased in 29 of the 35 largest U.S. metropolitan markets in April, compared with April of last year. Data from another website, Apartment List, show that more people were looking to live in New York City during that same month, the darkest one in terms of lives lost in New York, and much of the northeastern U.S.

”The broadest base, real-time indicator of what people are looking at indicates that they haven’t turned away from cities,” Cortright said, cautioning that the urban exodus some are predicting could still come to pass. “We’ll have a definite answer to this question several years from now,” when new census numbers are available, he said.

For the past two decades, cities have held increasing appeal to well-educated young adults, whom Cortright calls the “young and restless” in his research. They are between the ages of 25 and 34, have at least a bachelor’s degree, and are most likely to move across state lines. Not only are they the powerhouse of the U.S. economy, he writes, but they have increasingly become fans of city life.

“We found that 25-to-34-year-old college graduates were among the most likely to move of any demographic group, and that they were systematically moving toward some places and away from others,” states to the report, Youth Movement: America’s Accelerating Urban Renaissance. “To an apparently unprecedented degree, those moves seemed to be motivated by a desire for urban living.”

In the 52 largest U.S. urban centers, the population of well-educated young adults has increased by 32% since 2010, in close-in neighborhoods — within three miles of a central business district. The rate of growth in four out of five of those cities accelerated faster than during the previous decade, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

Cortright timed the release of the report to a moment when many have reported a flight from major cities during the pandemic. While some wealthier neighborhoods in New York City temporarily emptied out as the coronavirus swept into the city, Cortright predicts that pattern is unlikely to hold. He cited the resurgence in urban living that followed previous calamities, like the Spanish flu of 1918 and the 9/11 attacks.

“Cities adapt in ways that can make them better or stronger,” Cortright said. “I don’t think this challenge is different from the ones we’ve faced before. It’s the sort of thing that cities evolve and adapt to.”

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Amid Protest and Pandemic, Urban Parks Show Their Worth

During this extraordinary time in America’s cities — weeks of coronavirus lockdowns followed by mass protests against police violence and racial inequality — one theme runs through the twinned crises: the power and value of public spaces.

The nation’s parks experienced a surge of use during the pandemic that closed stores and businesses and kept so many Americans isolated in private. Since March, when coronavirus restrictions in the U.S. were enforced en masse, still-open city park facilities saw soaring numbers of visitors. Popular trails in Dallas, which tracks visitors, saw usage climb from 30% to 75% in march. In Minneapolis, during the still-cold month of March, trails experienced summertime levels of usage. Erie, Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle State Park saw visitor numbers jump 165% year-over-year during the third week of March.

“Parks are the most valuable resource in the city at this point,” says J. Nicholas Williams, director of the Parks, Recreation and Youth Development Department in Oakland, which has also seen an uptick in visitors in the last few months.

Then came the protests over the killing of George Floyd on May 25, triggering a wave of mass demonstrations that, in venues such as Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., and Cal Anderson Park in Seattle, are using these same public spaces as stages for protest. That, too, is part of the critical role they play in urban life.

“The thing I tell people about parks and public spaces is they can be platforms for equity, and the events of the last week in America show the public realm is the essential platform for equity,” says James Hardy, Akron, Ohio’s deputy mayor for integrated development, who focuses on parks and public space. “It’s especially evident when the press and disregarded members of our community need these spaces to communicate truth to power.”

But amid this rediscovery of the value of parks, steep budget cuts now loom: City tax revenue is drying up, the need to provide additional protective gear for staff is expensive, and funds from special permits and fees, from athletic events to large outdoor concerts, may be small or non-existent during this socially distanced summer. The ongoing protests against police brutality and inequality both highlight the importance of public space for civil action and engagement and likely add to repair and maintenance costs.

A survey from the National Recreation and Park Association in mid-April of more than 300 park commissioners found half had been asked to make budget cuts this year between 10% and 20%, and many have already instituted hiring freezes or laid off part-time and seasonal staff. New York City faces a $61.3 million cut in its park budget. Coming shortfalls may mean delayed maintenance, shelved plans and deteriorating facilities.

“This is a critical time for public space, perhaps more than we’ve seen in past decades,” says Bridget Marquis, director of the Civic Commons Learning Network, a national nonprofit initiative focused on public spaces. “We’re seeing the gaps and how we’ve let them erode in many places.”

According to Parks and the Pandemic, a report issued last month by the Trust for Public Land, cities are repurposing this open space in ways that aid the civic response to the coronavirus. Toledo, Ohio’s botanical garden, for example, has been transformed into a Covid-19 test site. The report also highlights how the coronavirus, and the nation’s response to it, has accelerated existing divides and inequality. Despite big investments in signature parks like the reconstructed Brooklyn Waterfront or the $100 million expansion of Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas, a widespread lack of equitable access to green space remains. That gap stands to widen further with Covid-related budget cuts.

But there’s some cautious hope here, too: This convergence of crises could ultimately help convince local leaders and the public to reconsider the importance of public space, and even see parks as part of a broader plan for economic and social recovery.

“We’re optimistic and excited around the top-to-bottom interest in this issue,” says Benita Hussain, director of the Trust for Public Land’s 10-Minute Walk campaign. “There are challenges, but there is a lot of hope, because the will politically to make public space and parks remain a priority is there.”

Hussain leads the Trust for Public Land’s signature initiative, which calls for making sure every American is within a 10-minute walk to a public park or green space. That goal is far from being realized, with 100 million Americans, and 27 million children, lacking such access. In some cities — such as Charlotte, Oklahoma City, and Mesa, Arizona —  less than half of residents live that close to a public recreation facility.

“We haven’t been investing in civic infrastructure, parks, and trails,” says Marquis. “I hate to say there’s a silver lining to Covid-19, but it’s a time to recognize what we prioritize in this country. I hope part of the legacy will be an equitable and resilient investment strategy in the public realm.”

It’s not hard to find examples of the public’s new appetite for public space in the midst of a pandemic. While so many places to congregate have closed or changed, parks and public spaces still provide places to relax and decompress while maintaining social distance.

“The Covid-19 response, while clearly necessary, created a huge burden of cabin fever, loneliness, anxiety, stress, and personal loss,” Howard Frumkin, professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health, told the report’s authors.

Before the coronavirus crisis hit, park finances were on the upswing, according to Charlie McCabe, a city parks researcher with the Trust for Public Land. Public funding for city parks hit roughly $8 billion nationwide in 2019, a slight increase from the last few years, as the robust pre-pandemic economy allowed some cities to invest in improving and reconstructing parks, McCabe says, spending money on newly popular amenities such as dog parks and splash pads, as well as recreation and senior centers.  

This resurgence was long delayed: After increasing 15% between 2003 and 2007, city spending on parks plummeted 22% as the Great Recession arrived in 2008, according to the NRPA. Spending was slow to recover. By 2013, parks represented just 1.9% of local government spending, down from 2.2% in 2000.

Coronavirus has forced city park departments to respond to fast-changing public health rules and needs. In addition to opening up trails, adapting space to social distancing, and converting golf courses to parks, a third of park and recreation departments are also offering emergency services, says Kevin Roth, vice president of research, evaluation, and technology at the NRPA. This includes converting recreation centers to shelters, delivering meals, setting up testing sites, and providing day care to children of first responders and health care workers.

“It’s really quite challenging now,” says McCabe. “Many amenities, especially the ones that have been invested in heavily in recent years, have closed due to concerns over close contact, while parks have needed to quickly adapt to provide enough access to walk and bike on trails and open fields, which often get crowded.

Hussain says many park departments are cutting costs by engaging citizens to help; Rochester, New York, has instituted a pack-in pack-out trash policy, similar to what’s seen at national parks. There’s also a legislative push in Congress to get the Great American Outdoors Act, which would add $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and help address the maintenance backlog for the nation’s parks.*

Demonstrators observe a moment of silence during a protest over the killing of George Floyd by in Brooklyn’s McCarren Park on June 3. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Still other park advocates and staff see this moment of crisis as the right time to make the case for parks as key parts of larger economic recovery, and community investment plans, especially commercial corridors hard hit by both the pandemic and damage during ongoing protests. It’s not just savvy political thinking, but a smart way to integrate smaller, community-focused green space in neighborhood-level development.

In Detroit, where the city faces a $348 million budget shortfall over the next 16 months, park officials point to the ongoing Strategic Neighborhood Fund, a public-private initiative focused on building up commercial corridors across the city, as a model that can help make parks part of broader initiatives. The program, which has made parks and streetscape improvements pillars of the process, aims to make green spaces part of inclusive economic development; that may mean including parks in housing programs, and looking beyond traditional standalone “trees and recreation” thinking to figuring out how parks can fit into larger projects.

“The city just emerged from bankruptcy five years ago, so we’ve been doing economic recovery here ever since,” says Alexa Bush, a design director for Detroit.

Akron’s newly created Office of Integrated Development also focuses on making parks part of larger investments in neighborhoods and civic infrastructure. Hardy, the city’s deputy mayor for integrated development, says that parks programs by themselves can struggle to get funding but fare better when included in larger programs about job access and the quality of public space.

Despite facing an estimated 20% decrease in municipal funding this year, Akron plans to focus on projects and priorities in traditionally redlined and lower-income neighborhoods first, says Hardy. It’s all about being strategic and prioritizing the places that need it the most. Parks, community centers, and libraries are always the easiest to eliminate, Hardy says; he cautions that policymakers desperately need to do the opposite, doubling or tripling investments in public space. He fears that city leaders may look at the protests of the last week and see parks as a thing to cut, to limit the liability that comes from mass civic action. That mindset will only deepen the inequality.

“Part of the reason people have been protesting is disinvestment in public spaces to begin with, especially in black neighborhoods,” he says. “Parks and park access are part of the large narrative of racism and discrimination against African Americans.”

To the extent possible, Akron is trying to say no to cuts, and view recreation as an essential public service. That’s a paradigm shift, and one that, post-Covid, park managers hope becomes standard practice.

“Parks are as important as roads and bridges, they’re not something to get to later,” Hardy says. “They’re where people from different backgrounds come together and find themselves on equal footing. They’re essential to the American experiment, and this is a great opportunity to make that argument.”   

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story did not accurately describe this legislation.

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The Social Distancer’s Guide to Urban Etiquette and Ethics

Say you’re walking down the street to get some fresh air while you’re practicing social distance. You’re attempting to stay six feet away from those around you, as public health experts advise. You pass someone on your right. You want to give them a smile and a greeting, but you avoid eye contact for fear of some accidental spray of droplets, however asymptomatic you appear to be. Then you see as they walk by that they’ve dropped their hat. You bend to pick it up — but wait. The germs! Your normal impulses are totally thrown into disarray.

For many, the long-developed norms about how to be a good neighbor and urban citizen have been entirely upended by the rules of coronavirus. When we develop habits, the simple gestures we’re accustomed to happen without effort, and redirecting them requires a conscious recalibration. The very term “social distance” suggests that you not engage in normal interactions with other people. And yet the strains of a global pandemic demand that we give our best selves to other people if we can.

Whether you’re performing essential work; volunteering; taking necessary trips to grocery stores; caring for relatives; or just stretching your legs, venturing out into the world introduces new ethical and social dilemmas. If I get really sick, how do I responsibly get myself to the hospital? Should I pick up furniture from the side of the road? Can I just sit on my curb?

To get solid advice on how to navigate a few common etiquette questions of the social distancing age, CityLab spoke with four public health professionals; two from the University of Berkeley, one from the University of Washington, and another who runs a digital health platform. Remember: Depending on one’s occupation, location, and personal needs, the rules for day-to-day living might vary.

Should I go outside at all?

For those who have the choice to stay inside, it’s not an easy call whether simply leaving your home puts others at greater risk.

Getting fresh air is not only allowed, it’s encouraged to boost mental health and strengthen immune systems — but only if walking, running or hiking can feasibly happen without impeding on someone else’s six-foot zone. And on many dense streets, crowded parks, or narrow hiking trails, that can prove challenging.

“It’s very unlikely that even if someone comes within six feet of you if they’re running right by you, that you’re going to get much of a viral exposure,” said John Swartzberg, a clinical professor emeritus at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health — but you could get some.

Some states have stricter edicts than others on what outdoor space is accessible, mostly brought on after too many residents congregated outside. In Washington state, for example, the government closed state parks and national parks; some city parks, where kids gathered to play basketball; and some beaches, where people sat together in the sand. Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Joshua Tree are all closed. So is Muir Woods.

“I’d recommend that people walk around or run around their neighborhoods,” said Marilyn Roberts, a professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and an adjunct professor of Global Health at the University of Washington. “But they need to make sure they give people six feet.” If you don’t know how wide six feet is, imagine a person is laying down across the sidewalk. Do not step on them.

Using this metric, make a calculation based on your surroundings about whether it’s safe and appropriate to go outside: In my San Francisco neighborhood, I may want to go outside at 6 p.m. after work, but I shouldn’t, because that’s when everyone does; in the most populated cities, you’d benefit from choosing a less-trafficked time, like late at night or early in the morning. Same goes for hiking: Is the parking lot full? You should probably turn around. Is it less-traveled, and accessible without encountering crowds of people on the way there? Enjoy it, but stay vigilant.

What’s the best practice for walking and running when other people are around?

Be compassionate! That goes both for the exercisers and the ones who judge them.

There are a few tactics you can practice to keep six feet apart from your fellow travelers. This one should be a given: If you’re traveling in a group of two or three people you live with, switch to single file when passing others.

Perhaps less intuitive, though: You may have to do more than sidle over slightly as you pass someone by. On many sidewalks, walking past another person or group of people on opposite ends of the pavement won’t allow for enough distance. In places like New York City, this is partly a geometry problem: In a small survey of New Yorkers, Motherboard’s Aaron Gordon found that the majority of their neighborhood sidewalks had fewer than six feet of truly walkable space. Mayor Bill de Blasio has resisted calls to shut down more streets to cars, which would allow folks to spread out more safely.

Absent sweeping urban pedestrianization projects, consider your options: Scoot to the farthest edge of the pavement you can, or walk on the grass or dirt.  (The grass “is not hot lava,” noted Eleanor Barkhorn, an editor at the New York Times, on Twitter). Also consider walking into the street (if cars aren’t coming), or onto the opposite sidewalk, if it’s safe to cross. Or, at your own risk, onto someone’s front yard. And give special deference to people in wheelchairs or walkers, or with strollers. They won’t have the same options to get out of your way.

Another good suggestion comes from Linsey Marr, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech who specializes in airborne disease transmission and told The Atlantic’s Ed Yong: “When I go out now, I imagine that everyone is smoking, and I pick my path to get the least exposure to that smoke.”

Runners bear extra responsibility. Because people may not be able to avoid you as you speed into view, it is even more incumbent on you to anticipate and avoid them. That will in many cases mean hopping off the sidewalk for a moment as you pass, or just stopping for a second so pedestrians aren’t taken by surprise.

“I don’t want to discourage people from running,” said Swartzberg. “I just want to discourage people from being close to each other while they’re doing it.”

When I see other people, can I greet them?

All this would seem pretty rude and awkward in another era. Literally turning heel and getting the hell away from your neighbors is the opposite of whatever community mindfulness we’ve been told to practice, especially at a time when everyone needs the support.  Sometimes, you’ll dodge left and the other person will dodge right, introducing a new awkward shuffle to daytime walks. But Swartzberg reminds us that there is “no data to suggest that opening the mouth to say ‘Hi’ is going to expose you,” if you’re the requisite six-plus feet away, despite the fear that it could lead to an accidental exchange of fluids. And eye contact — even a crinkle of a smile above a masked nose and mouth — is entirely non-threatening.

In fact, pairing an awkward escape off the sidewalk with a greeting, a smile, or a wave may smooth things over. “People need to keep people’s spirits up,” said Roberts: Stand on your porch and sing, or put stuffed animals in your window. Chat with friends six feet apart, and bring out your dog so it can wag at people. “Those kinds of activities should be stressed,” she said. “It maintains social distancing but allows some people to look forward to something other than eating.”

Much like passing someone on the sidewalk, though, standing six feet apart from someone while in conversation doesn’t place you inside an invisible force field; and there are plenty of situations where face-to-face contact gets you even closer. The Los Angeles Times’ Julia Wick gives the example of stopping to thank a grocery clerk for their essential work. The impulse is excellent — but the proximity between the register and customer is inherently too small.

The thing about wearing a mask

Here’s another thing you can do, particularly for your local grocery and other front-line workers: Wear a mask.

There’s been a lot of mixed messaging on masks. But so long as you’re not hoarding the ones that are in short supply for medical workers (and you should donate those to your nearest hospital), wearing even homemade face coverings on trips outside can have multiple benefits: If worn correctly, covering your mouth and nose can prevent you from contracting the virus, spreading it, and touching your face. Even the CDC has since revised its skepticism, issuing a national recommendation on April 3 for everyone in the U.S. to start wearing them in public.

Especially for those who are interested in being good urban citizens, it’s worth noting that homemade masks are more beneficial for protecting other people than protecting yourself. People who may be more susceptible to a fatal case of the virus than you. People like front-line workers who may be getting far higher amounts of potential exposure, which could make a difference in the severity of their case.

To understand the role a mask plays, Roberts points to the example of a choir in Washington state. Sixty members of the group rehearsed on March 6, and not one felt or appeared sick. By the end of the month, the L.A. Times reported, “45 have been diagnosed with Covid-19 or are ill with the symptoms, at least three have been hospitalized, and two are dead.” They hadn’t hugged or touched, and they hand sanitized upon entrance. But they sang. “That allows for more spray,” Roberts said.

And here’s another thing. You know all these protocols we’ve been covering about staying six feet apart? Well, some experts say droplets from strong coughs and sneezes can travel 20 feet. So if you just distance and you don’t wear a mask, well, you do the math.

The important thing, experts stress, is that wearing a mask cannot act as a replacement for other social distancing and personal hygiene practices.

Here are a few helpful guides on how to sew your own mask, how to fashion one out of T-shirts or bandanas, and how to (and how not) to wear one. (Pulling up a scarf or hood around your face is another makeshift solution.) “Soon,” writes Joseph G. Allen, an assistant professor of exposure and assessment science, in the Washington Post, “not wearing a mask will seem selfish … The true badge of honor is someone wearing a homemade mask.”

Picking things up

Back to the hat example. What if someone drops something on the street, and you want to pick it up? Wearing latex gloves can help protect you from the virus, and works well if you’re picking up litter or something else you’ll immediately discard. But the outsides of the gloves can still transmit and carry the virus, meaning touching something that you’re going to hand to someone else could be unwise. In some cases, you’d be better off calling out to them so they can retrieve it themselves.

“Every now and then you see an old lady, she dropped her stuff and you have to help her. You can’t just say, oh well, coronavirus,” said Khang T. Vuong, a Master of Public Health Administration out of the GW Milken Insitute School of Public Health, and the founder and CEO of Mira, a digital health platform that helps the uninsured. That said, every situation is different. “Use your judgment,” he said. “We’ve got to help people.”

Or what if, like me, you find a beautiful chair on the street that you want to bring home and sit in, because now you’re spending all your time in your bedroom trying to type upright. “We know the virus can live on inanimate objects,” said Swartzberg. “Given that, if you want to pick up something on the street, make sure before you touch your mouth, eyes or nose, you wash your hands.” The virus probably doesn’t live longer than three days on most anything, he says; on more porous objects, like cardboard, it lives about 24 hours at the most.

Mail, for example, is very unlikely to be contaminated, says Roberts. “I’ve brought mail [in] and put it in other people’s mail boxes because sometimes you get different people’s mail,” she said.

“The only way the virus can replicate is getting inside of a cell. If there are no live cells on that object, then the virus is going to die in three days or less,” said Swartzberg. “What you can do is you could pick up something and not touch it for three days, and then you can feel very comfortable that the virus is dead.”

Telling people you have coronavirus

If you start experiencing symptoms of coronavirus, and suspect you have it — even if you’re unable to get a test — there’s the inevitable fear that you’ve infected someone who crossed your path recently. Should you inform people? How? Who?

First, you should call your local health department, says Roberts, so they can determine whether you need a test or not. If they suspect you have the virus, they may conduct contact tracing, and where relevant, alert local restaurants or stores that you’ve entered. Contact tracing means figuring out who you came into “close contact” with — that’s defined best as more than 10-15 minutes of face-to-face proximityand alerting those people to your symptoms. In some countries like Singapore and South Korea, this has been done through extensive monitoring and technology. In the U.S., official use of the tactic is much spottier, and so far, lower tech.

“The problem is that many of the health departments are so overwhelmed, and doing contact tracing can be difficult,” said Roberts. Where it’s possible, it’s important to do your own makeshift contact tracing, by reaching out to people in your own network who you’ve been in close contact with over the last 14 days: This might include activities like having lunch with someone, seeing them at work, or going on a long walk — even one that’s socially distanced. Tell them with a (sensitive) text or a personal call.

“There has not been any research on this, but it’s been our hypothesis that one of the biggest underlying catalysts for the spread is the stigma,” said Vuong. “People not telling others, but feeling a little sick and feeling ashamed.” He suggests making a list of people to tell, and writing a script. “You don’t have to tell them every single detail,” he said. “Say, I have been having symptoms; I don’t know if it’s coronavirus or not, but I’m in the process of getting tested.” Give them space to process, and update them with test results if they become available.

But stop short of contacting every store you’ve entered to report your case, Vuong advises. Given the other potential adverse consequences of disrupting its operations unnecessarily, leave that to the health professionals, and above all, STAY HOME.

If you live in an apartment building, you don’t have to put a sign on your door explaining your symptoms, because the odds of transmission in, say, the stairwell are not high enough. “Keep to yourself and don’t even leave your house. Take precautions,” said Vuong. The purpose of telling people you’ve been more intimate with is not to scare them — it’s to remind them to be more careful themselves.

“People can have symptoms and not realize that they’ve been exposed,” says Roberts. “If they have been exposed, they should really be self-quarantining for 14 days, which means not going to the grocery store, not going out, and if you live with other people separating from those people if at all possible.”

What’s the ethical way to get to the hospital if symptoms gets worse?

You’re home alone and you’ve been having symptoms of the virus. You think it’s time to get to the hospital, but you don’t have a car. How do you get there?

This was a hard one for the experts. Calling a Lyft or an Uber will put the driver at risk for transmission; hopping on public transit will, too; and if it gets to the point that you need a doctor, Roberts says you likely won’t be able to walk. But ambulances can cost upwards of $1,000 a ride, and most people would prefer not to take one unless their emergency is acute enough. While Cigna and Humana announced they would waive coronavirus-related fees like ambulance costs, and even the uninsured will likely get some financial help with hospital bills from the federal government, relying on that coverage may still be a roll of the dice. As Vuong points out, what happens to that protection if you take an ambulance and it turns out you do not test positive for coronavirus?

All the public health experts stressed that going to the hospital was the worst-case scenario: If you can isolate at home, you should do so. If you have quarantined for a while only to have your symptoms get markedly worse, the first thing you should do is call your care provider — or an urgent care clinic, if you do not have one — and talk through your symptoms, then ask what steps to take.

“If you have really, really severe symptoms — which means you can’t breathe, you’re having pneumonia symptoms — call 911,” said Vuong. “They’ll be at your doorstep right away.”

If you do call an ambulance or a paramedic, Roberts says to make sure you tell them that you think you have Covid-19 so they come prepared with the right personal protective equipment.

“It really freaking sucks,” said Vuong of the lack of good, affordable options for transportation.

Keeping others accountable

What do you do if you see someone acting in a way that’s, in your mind, selfish or reckless? Hesitate before passing judgment. Understand that we’re all experiencing different realities right now.

The people at the fish market that you think are clustering too close together could be gathered to use their new allotment of food stamps right at the time of the month when the funds become available. African Americans who aren’t wearing masks may fear that racial profiling can be more dangerous than the disease. That group running close together could all live in the same group house, swapping germs all day. The people crammed on the subway are contending with commutes made harder by limited service. You or your fellow traveler may be operating under wrong assumptions gleaned from non-peer-reviewed science circulating on Medium. Guidance changes quickly, and access to information varies.

That’s not to say give everyone a free pass, but it’s a reason to start not with blame or shame, but with compassion. Don’t take pictures of people in the park and tweet them. Read up on how to spot coronavirus misinformation. Agree on rules with your roommates. If the situation demands it, speak up. Lead by example.

Roberts said she’s seen younger people shop during seniors-only hours at the grocery store, for example, and struggled over whether to confront them. “The problem is, these people are often in high stress and one never knows if they’re going to blow up,” she said. “If it’s somebody you know, it’s one thing. If it’s someone you don’t know, you may be playing Russian Roulette, because people are really stressed.” She says unless you’re the manager of a grocery store, with the authority to ask someone to come back later, it might not be worth it to start a confrontation.

Behave as if you’re sick

It should be clear that if you’re experiencing symptoms of coronavirus, many of these rules fly out the window, and quarantining begins. But research shows that people can have Covid-19 and remain completely asymptomatic.

In the Los Angeles Times, Julia Wick writes about her experience with the disease — she suspects she contracted it a full week before she started losing her sense of taste and feeling increasingly ill. She endlessly replays the days leading up to the presumptive diagnosis, thinking about all the ways her attempts to help may have hurt. The cycles of fear may be familiar to many: What if, when I dropped groceries at a friend’s mother’s house around the corner, I also left the virus? What if, when I volunteered to package meals for seniors, I was boxing up a disease that would lead to their death? What is the right balance between nothing and something?

Wick’s advice should act as a lodestar for anyone wondering how to move through the world right now as a benevolent force: “[Act] at all times as if you already have the virus. Because you very well might.”

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The Post-Pandemic Urban Future Is Already Here

The harrowing reach of Covid-19 has prompted a surge in big urban thinking. Some of this has been cautionary in nature —  warnings against long-term changes in privacy norms or reactionary rethinking about densification. Haunting images of empty cityscapes seem to embody the fear that urban space will be permanently marked by the ravages of the disease. Others see an equally radical vision of hope: As lifestyle and consumption habits have transformed overnight and governments have committed trillions of dollars of investment in national economies, perhaps the challenges of overcoming the coronavirus pandemic might ultimately foster a more equitable, sustainable urban future.

There are valid reasons to look at historic crises as moments for dramatic urban change. Nineteenth-century pandemics helped usher in developments in water and sewage systems. And there can be no doubt that, in the immediate future, the economic and demographic health of major cities will suffer enormously.

But if we are to look forward optimistically, we must start by grappling with a difficult pattern: Urban history may be more about continuity through crises than about transformation.

Consider a couple of the defining historical events of the last 100 years. Together, the poverty and violence of the Great Depression and World War II shaped two decades of history and created the contours of international relations for the next 50 years. But the urban dimensions of the Modernist movement that did so much to define postwar urban thinking preceded most of that history. Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM) was founded in 1928 and authored its most famous policy statement, the Athens Charter, in 1933. The International Style, with its massive reach in the liberal West after the war, was effectively launched at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932.

We can also look more recently to the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. The Great Recession struck economies around the world but failed to radically change the overall trajectory of most urban areas. In China, for example, Shenzhen’s urbanization patterns proceeded. Dubai’s unique urban experiment was not ultimately derailed or radically transformed. Skyscrapers around the world continued upward; wages in cities like Manhattan continued to grow along with inequality. And as Michael Cohen, Robert Neuwirth and others have argued, the downturn of the 2000s favored the informal sector that already defined, and will continue to define, day-to-day commerce in much of the Global South.

Historical analogies are a dangerous and difficult game, and the combination of a public health crisis with an economic downturn cautions that they should be deployed carefully. The coronavirus stands to deliver big surprises and innovations in policy, politics and space. But even as an imperfect guide, history suggests one should not wait on a dramatic post-pandemic revolution in urban space. Why?

There are a number of explanations for the force of historical inertia in urban spaces. The creative classes and politics that give shape to the built environment require expertise, organization and trusting relationships, all of which take time to build. The bureaucratic institutions that ultimately manage these spaces are, by intention, rarely revolutionary in nature. Even new technology, as the historian David Edgerton has illustrated, rarely ushers in immediate change. And finally, there is the intersection of urban areas and the wider economy. Whether cities are shaped to attract investors or businesses or are shaped as much by them, capitalism has shown itself capable of both adapting to and shaping new forms of space.

For those hoping that we might at this moment be shocked into some historic urban transformation, the story of continuity will not be welcome news. Our path as a species was unsustainable before the myriad challenges, expected and unexpected, that will be wrought by this pandemic. There is also hope, however. The urban story of the last two decades includes a number of developments, from the highly local to the global, that, like pre-WWII Modernism, could rise in prominence and shape our urban futures long after their initial appearance. Consider five continuing developments that will be central to shaping the post-pandemic urban world.

First, leading architects, and the international prizes that champion them, have prioritized new and innovative approaches to affordable housing. Bauhaus is trendy today not only because of the recent anniversary of its founding, but also because of its commitment to style, accessibility and the integration of social thinking into urban design — principles carried forward with important innovations by architects like Alejandro Aravena, B.V. Doshi and others.

Second, new materials and practices developed over the past couple decades, such as ultra-strong timber towers and biophilic design, promise to make cities more sustainable without necessarily sacrificing density.

Third, regional or metropolitan approaches to challenges such as housing and transportation have gained momentum. Michael Berkowitz, the former head of 100 Resilient Cities, recently noted in CityLab that “governors seem to be having much more impact than mayors during this pandemic, because they’ve been able to have a remit across various administrative boundaries.” Local leaders led the earliest and most meaningful coronavirus responses: Before shelter-in-place orders went out across California, seven counties in the Bay Area issued an order simultaneously. Such cooperation, already built and now strengthened, is likely to continue.

Fourth, networks of cities, such as Metropolis and scores of others, are enabling urban voices to be heard collectively on the global stage, while organizing local action against challenges like the climate crisis. These networks have built strong relationships between mayors and are already showing themselves nimble enough to pivot to the coronavirus challenge. They are, in other words, well organized to meet an emergent crisis without totally losing sight of the continuing ones.

Fifth and finally, much of the global urban community in the form of networks, research institutions and civil society has increasingly turned its focus to cities and urban areas in the Global South. The Centre for Livable Cities in Singapore, the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town, and the Indian Institute for Human Settlements stand as three of the premier institutions that combine research and practices; Shack/Slum Dwellers International has over the last two-plus-decades led the development of civil society engagement, knowledge building and urban mapping in informal areas. The history of Covid-19 in urban areas with high levels of informal housing is being written now. Those histories may very well be frightful, but the resilience therein and reconstitutions thereafter will be furthered by expertise already developed.

None of these movements should be breaking news. That is the point. They are potential throughlines from the pre-pandemic urban world to the post. Innovation will no doubt occur, but it is the work of the past decades that must continue and that must find a place of prominence and efficacy in a changed world.

There is something of a paradox to living in a city at a moment such as this. Everything feels to have changed. The city seems suddenly different. Long-standing routines are disrupted. Improvised urban practices and ad-hoc solutions abound. And yet things have also stayed the same. We all already know much of what we will find and have to work with on the other side.

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Heat Action Planning is Tackling Urban Heat at the Hyper-Local Level

A participatory heat action planning process, Nature’s Cooling Systems, identified urban heat mitigation and adaptation strategies that focus specifically at the neighborhood scale. The framework is called the NCS Heat Action Planning Guide. The core team, consisting of The Nature Conservancy, Arizona State University, and Maricopa County Department of Health, selected three heat vulnerable communities based upon heat intensity, strong community identity, health risk factors, the presence of development projects planned or underway, and other factors. The three neighborhoods involved in heat action planning are Edison-Eastlake and Lindo-Roesley in Phoenix, and the Mesa Care neighborhood in Mesa.

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Urban Mobility and Access to Transportation in Sub-Saharan Africa

As I started to get into the background for this work, I found that a lot of the writing was heavily focused on technical and infrastructural issues, but didn’t focus on governance, leadership, or what it takes to facilitate transformative change. This question of governance in urban transport and mobility was strongly established in the original TUT-POL project. The expansion of this research into Sub-Saharan Africa allowed us to get an inside look at differences in the governance of urban transport in this region. It enabled us to explore what works and what doesn’t and helps explain why certain places are experiencing challenges and hopefully also shed light on how to solve those challenges.

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Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem

Disease shapes cities. Some of the most iconic developments in urban planning and management, such as London’s Metropolitan Board of Works and mid-19th century sanitation systems, developed in response to public health crises such as cholera outbreaks. Now COVID-19 is joining a long list of infectious diseases, like the Spanish flu of 1918 in New York and Mexico City or the Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa in 2014, likely to leave enduring marks on urban spaces.

For Michele Acuto, professor of global urban politics in the School of Design at the University of Melbourne, the intersection of urban design and public health is an increasingly critical territory. He’s the director of the Connected Cities Lab, a leading center for advancing urban policy development; he’s worked on urban health in a number of capacities, including with the European Commission and the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific Regional Office. While the University of Melbourne scrambles to accelerate a COVID-19 vaccine, the Lab is working to understand the urban planning dimensions of pandemic preparedness.  

CityLab spoke to Acuto about why COVID-19 could change how we study cities — and how we live in them.

Much of the coverage of the new coronavirus feels unprecedented, as if this is the first time urban spaces and global movement of goods and people have given rise to the threat of pandemic. But the stories of cities have always also been those of infectious disease.

Anyone you talk to on the urban or medical side would tell you this is not new. You can do parallels between COVID-19 and many other epi- and pandemics, from the plague to SARS and Ebola. The line of caution we need here is not to draw too many parallels or rushed conclusions without evidence. COVID-19 is not as deadly as Ebola, which had a mortality rate of 60%, or SARS and MERS at 30%.

But if the risk of death is lower, transmission is much higher, and that makes it challenging globally. Quarantines only work insofar as you can identify all dangerous cases, and with COVID-19’s symptoms and delayed onset, you can’t spot it that easily. In that way this is much more similar to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, or a swine flu like the one that inflected 500 million and killed up to 50 million in 2009. The question is whether we are prepared to avoid that.

Looking back, did we miss something in the way we were thinking about the intersection of urbanization and infectious disease? Were we looking in the wrong places?

Yes, to a degree. We have perhaps been a bit too biased toward global cities. COVID-19 is really a story of peri-urban and rural-to-urban connections, in places that are often not on the global map. Roger Keil, Creighton Connolly and Harris Ali recently argued for this suburban view. They tell the story of how the spread to Germany starts with a car [parts] factory in the outskirts in Wuhan. A person travels from Wuhan to Germany to help with training. This is a story of peri-urban Wuhan to semi-suburban, tertiary-city Bavaria. So sure, you have some of the global connections at airports, but it’s a much more complex urban system.

This is a rich point. It’s easy to look at these major cities and global supply chains, and say of course we have an epidemic — this is how globalization plays itself out. But you’re telling a different story — one about non-global cities, tertiary cities and peri-urban areas.

Yes, it’s actually about a much wider set of urban areas. This is the story in Washington state [where COVID-19 first emerged in Snohomish County], or the Italian story, which is still largely suburban.

Part of the history of urbanization is building and managing your way out of infectious diseases, such as cholera outbreaks in the middle of the 19th century. Here’s Richard Sennett on how Joseph Bazalgette and his colleagues went about developing London’s response: “They were not practising an exact science. They did not apply established principles in particular cases, there were no general policies that dictated best practices.” They experimented and learned as they went along, he argues. How do you conceive of the design approach to managing outbreaks in everything from global to tertiary cities?

It’s a bit early to take on lessons learned from COVID-19, but you’d probably have a big conversation about the value versus the risks of densification. Clearly densification is and has been the problem with some of this. COVID-19 puts a fundamental challenge to how we manage urbanization. Hong Kong has 17,311 people per square mile. Rethinking density management is a key for long-term survival in a pandemic world, really.

Part of this means thinking about decentralization of essential services. Singapore had to shut down its main hospitals during SARS. Many countries such as Italy are considering door-to-door testing. But we need to also rethink the ways, perhaps digital ones, we test and contain. How would we manage to do door-to-door testing even just in Melbourne alone, with 5 million residents, and in giants like Shanghai and London with upwards of 10 million dwellers? Bubbling up are some core questions about what we’ve been told is desirable urbanization versus what makes sense from an infectious disease perspective.

Here’s a difficult question. Even Le Corbusier, who prized efficiency and movement, understood the value of people bumping into each other. It gives cities their energy and cosmopolitanism its effect. I wonder if you think this decentralized city — a London of villages, Mayor Hidalgo’s 15-minute Paris — will be part of our response in urban form?

Here’s a way to think about it. SARS got some people to think about cities and their connectivity as a fundamental factor. Fast-forward to Ebola and that got people to think about the coexistence of cities in the Global North and South, and the ferocity of the city itself — the impossibility of just cordoning it off. The city is not a thing: it’s an amorphous blob.

Fast forward to now, and we’ve moved beyond Global North-Global South thinking. It’s one very large system, given it’s really about that connection between, for example, [the Italian village of] Codogno and the outskirts of Wuhan. Hopefully this gets us to think about some fundamental principles.

We need to begin with a new imagination of the urban data we rely on. The best thing a professional probably looks at in this moment is Johns Hopkins’s CSSE aggregator of information. It splashes together data sources from WHO, NHS, and so on. Many national governments’ “official” numbers lag, so there’s better information by aggregating different sources of information.

But this also brings into play the current digital revolution and the challenges of evidence that has different levels of legitimacy. Had this happened not, say, in China but in some place like India with very strong informal settlements, you’d potentially be arguing that something like Slum Dwellers International, which uses local mapping and communities to source data, would probably be the best-suited entity to support the collection of information. You’ve gotten something there about the legitimacy of different types of urban knowledge and the need to rethink who are the right sources of it.

Moving from that information to changes within the built environment again, we know the management of water and waste helped remake cities. Can you predict the area where we might see a radical transformation coming out of this?

We must remember you will be weighing such changes in the context of climate change and sustainability as well. If you spread the city rather than densify, that would have to go with much better connectivity of public transport. What should change — the decentralization of services, better managing of supplies, nets of smaller entities in food delivery, for instance — is different from will. Will market forces sway the things we do towards what’s marketable and economically profitable versus saying this clearly is a call for redundancy in public health and public transport?

One thing I’ve barely heard talked about is the digital response here, which didn’t exist at all at the time of most of our historic parallels. It existed a bit during Ebola, but not in the same size as this. Major services like Tencent and AliBaba can tell you who is sick in your neighborhood, and people are making daily decisions based on the whole digital infrastructure. I come from an hour from the “red zone” in Italy, and family and friends make a lot of decisions based on digital connectivity information.

Modern planning and civil engineering were born out of the mid-19th century development of sanitation in response to the spread of malaria and cholera in cities. Digital infrastructure might be the sanitation of our time.

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12 KPIs to Evaluate Success of Urban Micro-mobility Programs

In the past few years, micro-mobility services have been arriving at unprecedented speed and scale to cities that are oftentimes ill-prepared to manage them. Typically, these services are introduced by private operators and are deployed as a “floating” system, meaning that only the vehicles themselves are physically present in public spaces. Legislation does not clearly define these new vehicles, and new business models do not fit neatly into existing methods of managing private businesses in public spaces.

The transportation community has responded by producing several helpful publications on the topic of micro-mobility, bringing more clarity and understanding to this phenomenon, documenting the growth and expansion of programs in cities, and providing guidance on good practices.

At Ramboll Smart Mobility we wanted to push the discussion away from general statistics about micro-mobility, and towards the identification of strategic goals and tangible key performance indicators (KPI). The KPIs can be measured by any city to better understand how successful and sustainable they are in providing new mobility options to their communities, and where they can improve.

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Across the Globe, Urban Sprawl Is Spreading

A connected street is a healthier street. Neighborhoods with more short links and intersections—and fewer dead-ends and cul-de-sacs—have lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, researchers have found. In part, that’s because they promote walking and biking.

So what does it mean that the world is growing less connected?

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences charts a worrying global shift towards more-sprawling and less-hooked-up street networks over time.

Adam Millard-Ball, a UC Santa Cruz professor of environmental studies, and Christopher Barrington-Leigh, a McGill University public health scholar, examined 28.6 million miles of streets across every continent, using public data from OpenStreetMap as well as historic satellite imagery. They built an algorithm to identify various characteristics of connectivity, such as the number of cul-de-sacs, the length of unbroken street links, and how long it takes to walk to key destinations.

(File this under “the more you know”: There are 10,845,867 dead-ends in the world, at least mapped on OpenStreetMap.)

Combining this information to create an index for street “disconnectivity,” Millard-Ball and Barrington-Leigh then mapped it across the globe. In their interactive online Global Spawl Map, the bluer the area, the more compact its streets tend to be. The redder, the more sprawling.

The researchers’ street disconnectivity index, mapped since 1975, shows a trend toward global sprawl. (PNAS)

Most of the patterns are what you might expect. Cities in Latin America, Japan, South Korea, much of Europe, and North Africa tend to feature more tightly connected streets, while sprawling urban and suburban areas in Southeast Asia, the United States, and the U.K. have looser grids and more cut-off segments. And because the researchers were also able to map changes over time through satellite imagery, they also found a global trend since 1975 towards disconnectivity. Right now, sprawl has migrated from American suburbs and is proliferating quickly in Southeast Asia, India, and other parts of the developing world.

A tool within the map allows users to zoom in on towns and cities with various kinds of street networks, and trace how these networks have grown since 1975. Here’s an example of a largely connected grid: downtown Palo Alto, California, which has only a handful of dead-ending streets (in red).

Downtown Palo Alto, California, has high street connectivity. (Screenshot: Global Sprawl Map)

And here’s a newer suburb outside Atlanta, which abounds with disconnection. The green routes indicate only-way-in streets.

Suburban Atlanta: Cul-de-sacs galore. (Screenshot: Global Sprawl Map)

Who cares? Apart from the fact that spread-out street networks tend to be less healthy for the people who live on them, they also create a greater burden on society, the researchers argue. Developers building new spread-out neighborhoods in fast-growing cities don’t account for the costs—in time, fuel, and greenhouse gas emissions—associated with such car-centric patterns. But those costs exist, and as the map shows, building streets that require them creates a pattern that persists over time. That, in turn, erects barriers that prevent cities from encouraging their citizens to adopt more sustainable ways of getting around, and living.

“If you build a disconnected neighborhood, you’re transit-proofing that neighborhood for the next century,” said Millard-Ball. “If you build a single-family home on a tightly gridded street, a few decades later it’s not hard to change that into a duplex or high-density housing. But if you start with the wrong street, they’re really hard to fix.”

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