No Predictions, Just Observations

We're all just guessing what comes next.

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Hello! It’s been quite a while since this little newsletter has landed in your inbox. A whole lot of tragedy, confusion, and, quite frankly, callous behavior has been on display across America these past couple of months. Of course, we’ve also seen heroics, selflessness, and hope creep into the national consciousness in spurts as well.

If you’ll allow me to get slightly personal for a moment, I can tell you that the COVID-19 pandemic has worn on my mental health. I am lucky and privileged in that I have been on furlough for the past eight weeks, staying at home, out of harm’s way physically.

But the constant stream of sad and scary news has often reduced me to a ball of anxiety and fatalism, capable of accomplishing little more in a given day than bathing and napping. I worry about my loved ones and I hurt for those who have experienced terrible loss throughout this crisis.

I’ve also experienced moments of anger and rage, both at the national elected officials who have shown incompetence and indifference at seemingly every turn, and at the situation in general, the amount of needless suffering that has swept the globe.

Sometimes being an empath is a bum gig.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Enough about me, though. I hope that everyone reading this newsletter is healthy, safe, and doing their best to cope with the uncertainty of the moment. Whether you’ve been furloughed like me or working throughout the crisis, I’d imagine these past couple of months have had an impact on you.

Besides my personal reasons for not having written, I must admit that putting together any coherent thoughts on the future of cities in the Rust Belt has been next to impossible given that we largely still don’t know what the long term implications of the pandemic are going to be on the region and the country as a whole.

There have been a slew of pronouncements from thought leaders and experts; everything from the death of the city and density to the death of the suburbs and auto-centric development.

I even (foolishly) read through a long thread of replies on Twitter to someone who made the argument that Jane Jacobs’ classic tome on urbanism, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a terrible book (more on that next week).

Basically, no one knows anything right now. We have some ideas of trends that may accelerate or decline based upon the pandemic, have witnessed promising new models for moving forward in more equitable ways, and formed opinions on what we believe should come out of this time. But everything is just a guess.

About all we can know for certain is that most of our predictions will likely be wrong. Or as Yascha Mounk said in an article in The Atlantic, "I wouldn’t rule out truly historic transformations — just our ability to know what they will be."

With that in mind, I’m not going to make any predictions today. But I am going to offer a few observations based on how our lives and cities have been affected and what we think we know right now about moving forward with the virus still very much a risk.

We need parks

Whether urban or suburban, the importance of outdoor recreational space has been made abundantly clear. Every person should have access to such a space, and cities and placemakers would do well to lay out plans to ensure that all citizens be within at most a mile from a public park.

In addition to the physical health aspects that such plans would help to improve, there are very real benefits to mental health, the environment, and the economy that could be realized.

“High quality public spaces — well-designed, staffed, and maintained — must be delivered to every neighborhood, in every city, as a fundamental human right,” says Reimagining the Civic Commons.

Photo by Karolis Vaičiulis on Unsplash

We need room for people

As social distancing has become a part of everyday life, it has become apparent that much of our people-focused infrastructure is insufficient. Sidewalks are not wide enough to give six feet of distance, walking and biking can present challenges in coexisting, and businesses need more space to comply with new public health regulations.

There is a simple solution to these issues: reclaim public land from cars.

Narrower roads reduce speeds. Congestion reduces vehicle miles traveled. Sidewalks, bike lanes, trails, parklets, patios, and pedestrianized streets put the focus back where it belongs, which is on people. Giving people more and better space for both mobility and socially-distanced congregation may well be a salve for some businesses, with the added benefit of increasing the vitality of street life.

As Sam Gill, senior vice president and chief program officer of the Knight Foundation, said, “These spaces will be key to supporting socially connected, healthy communities.”

We need a smarter approach to development

Local governments are facing the harsh reality of the current financing model for development and services. Tax receipts are taking a massive hit across the country as businesses have been forced to close, and it is probable that a number of those will not reopen.

The monstrous amounts of debt that cities have taken on, both for new development and upkeep of existing development, have essentially rendered most financially insolvent, as explained by Charles Marohn in his book Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.

A new approach to development is needed if cities are going to weather the financial storm of recession (depression?) set off by the pandemic, one in which priority is given to small, incremental improvements.

The cultivation of resilience in our communities is tied to the ability to adapt, which cannot be achieved with archaic, restrictive regulations, huge “silver bullet” projects that mortgage the future, or ignoring the way people and places actually work in favor of abstract theorizing.

“To make our communities not just solvent but financially strong and resilient, we must increase our wealth without increasing — and perhaps even by decreasing — our expenses,” Marohn writes. “Instead of focusing on new growth, we need to obsess about making more productive use of that which we’ve already built.”

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

We need discussions in good faith

One of the sentiments we’ve seen a lot the past few months is that “we’re all in this together,” but that’s a fallacy. Our national politics is a dumpster fire of competing egos, lacking basic human empathy and operating in bad faith. We’re not all in this together, as Washington has made abundantly clear.

So it’s on us, locally, to do the hard work, make the tough choices, and determine what kind of places we want to live in. In order for that to happen, we actually do need to feel that we are in this together. We must have discussions in good faith, be as inclusive as possible in decision making, and create a sense of community.

Simply put, we have an opportunity to come out the other side of this crisis in better shape than when it began, but we must actively choose to do so. We have an opportunity to make our cities more livable, more prosperous, and more open to people of all walks of life.

It will not be remotely easy.

It begs the question of whether we’re even capable of working in concert towards a better collective future anymore.

I’m not certain that’s the case, but for the record, I hope we find that that’s a question we can answer with a resounding “Yes!” I hope we can find a way to be in this together.


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