Sunday, April 12, 2020

What now?

Tokyo at night. Will future cities look like this?
Photo by Wiki Commons

by Gregory Saville

The local kids were out again after sunset tonight howling like timberwolves at a full moon, a show of solidarity for stressed healthcare workers. Millions of apartment dwellers in cities around the world bang pots and pans and now these suburban kids, ancy from weeks of quarantine, perform their own nightly ritual. In the words of John Lennon: Imagine all the people, living for today.” 

I have wondered of late how pandemics affect urbanization. Jane Jacobs tells us epidemics are defeated within cities and with new medicines, innovative planning, and science. But, as we’ve blogged over the past month, we are threatened not only with a deadly disease, but with an aftermath of social distancing, social isolation, and a future that is gated for some, exclusive for others. Fear is a powerful motivator for change. How can we make things right?


We should not be running away from urban areas into isolated rural enclaves. Some say we need to re-suburbanize and separate – permanent social distancing. They ignore our basic human nature to connect – to howl at the moon in gratitude for others.

Some claim density spreads disease, a statement that confuses density with crowding. High-quality urban design promotes connectedness and avoids crowding; Low density is not the answer.

Population density is different from crowding

Consider Taiwan and Louisiana. Population dense Taiwan, with 23 Million residents has (at time of writing) 380 confirmed COVID infections and 5 deaths. The rural state of Louisiana with 4.6 Million, suffers a horrific 20,014 infected and 801 deaths.

Taiwan no doubt has a better public health system. It probably has better governance. It has the luck of island geography (although the Philippines infection rate suggests otherwise). Perhaps they should have cancelled Mardi Gras in late February? Yet, none of those things are about density.

One thing is certain: A cohesive, well-informed and networked community like Taiwan moved much faster to curtail COVID-19. If you recreate that cohesiveness, education, and networking at the level of the neighborhood, you create a city of networked urban villages. We wrote about a city of networked urban villages in SafeGrowth: Building Neighborhoods of Safety and Livability.

Neighborhoods will look different


What steps do we take to get there? With so much infrastructure already in place, how do we modify cities to create something healthier, more livable and more pro-social? Remember, there are elections all over the world later this year. What should you demand for your candidates? How about demanding they start working on the following steps:

City politicians – Stop approving low-density commercial “strips” where it is difficult to walk from one shop to another. Sprawl forces residents drive to distant shopping plazas and it separates them. When the pandemic fades, we won’t need more separation! We cannot learn neighbor skills if we cannot find our neighbors. Try clustering developments into common areas where ‘strangers’ can become friends, what architect Ross Chapin calls Pocket Neighborhoods.

And for goodness sake, put pro-social urban design ahead of new expressways and road widening.

Architects – Stop building multi-family developments without involving the users. Conduct design sessions to give everyone a say before construction begins. If you want people to truly care about their neighborhood, let them share their dreams and aspirations. And stop building such ugly townhomes. In SafeGrowth we conduct search conferences to create shared community visions. How about asking residents what best fits their lifestyle? Would they prefer a community woodwork shop or a workspace for crafters? What about a co-working office?

Crowding in Denver multi-family townhomes. We can do better!
City leaders – Stop fighting Smart Growth development policies because you think fewer property tax dollars accrue. You do not have to reinvent the development wheel to do something different, just attend a Smart Growth conference or read some books on the topic. Try Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.

Bankers – Stop making it so difficult to lend to Mom-and-Pop stores. They are the blood pulsing through community life. Local stores cannot match the conglomerates for prices, yet they support local families and they better respond to local needs, like sponsoring community barbeques or craft markets in front of their stores. They need your help to reduce costs and remain a vibrant part of neighborhood life!

Mortgage lenders – Change your lending practices and encourage collaborative housing – a form of community-building that helps citizens work together, especially during crises like pandemics. One example is private equity co-housing, a proven form of neighborhood living in which residents create their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, speculation and inflation have shut down too many cohousing projects. Lenders – You can help!

Co-housing provides elegant multi-family design and pro-social spaces.
Photo Wikimedia Commons
Transportation managers – Stop wasting fossil fuel by sending huge, empty buses from one vacant bus stop to another. People avoid buses because they are inconvenient, unpleasant, and take forever. Any new, healthy configuration for a city should be designed around networked urban villages and they will need radical innovations to bind them together. Uber figured how to use the internet to transform cab service. Why can’t we do this with public transit? How about supplementing regular routes with smaller, comfortable, shuttles-on-demand, ordered online and paid by e-commerce? And smaller shuttles for regular routes too!

Educators and school trustees – Get your students into the community. Get them to learn history, social science, geography, and science by learning how to work with residents on real community problems. The problem-based learning movement does that and it is already in many high schools. They will learn face-to-face social skills they cannot learn on troll-infected social media. Educator and thought-leader Gerard Cleveland is a guru in this movement.

Organizers/social workers – While residents socialize superficially, after decades of computer screens and social media they have lost the deeper skills of managing conflicts and solving problems together. They desperately need shared communication and problem-solving skills. Please, help! For example, look up our friend Evelyn Zellerer who teaches peace circles and restorative justice.

Nihilists, doom-and-gloomers – Stop fearmongering! Yes, we will suffer but this pandemic will end. There might be a paroxysm of political rage, maybe economic turbulence. And as before the pandemic, we still must reverse our environmental damage before we reach criticality. Despite it all, people are not inherently evil and progress is already underway. If you doubt that, read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

Inexorably, in fits and starts, we will build a better future.