How the Coronavirus recovery is changing cities

2020-06-22

If one thing is certain, it’s that our definition of normal has changed. After months in lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, cities are reopening — some with masks and social distance, others with still growing numbers of infection. It’s unclear what cities will look like in a year or more, but in many areas the landscape is already starting to shift.

Bloomberg CityLab has compiled and illustrated some of the most noteworthy changes that are already happening in communities around the world. From temporarily widened sidewalks to larger patios for socially distanced restaurants, these changes will transform the urban streetscapes of at least some communities. And not all of the shifts will be by intentional design. 

With everybody spread further apart, the crux of many of these changes is space. Most people will need more of it, posing one of the great design challenges of the period for already built-up, congested cities. There will be a premium placed on repurposing outdoor space so that more gathering activities can take place in the open air. “We will need to transform the link between indoors and outdoors, to reshape streets as the prolongation of indoor areas,” says Carlos Moreno, professor of territorial entrepreneurship and innovation at IAE Sorbonne and adviser to the city of Paris.

To be sure, some communities may be defined by little change at all. If a vaccine becomes widely available, we may see much of the before environment return — but some cities are seizing this as an opportunity to invest in much needed infrastructure. And the recent U.S. protests against racism are fueling other policy changes across American cities. 

Even in the most resistant places, there are some almost-ubiquitous changes that are built to be low-tech and easily removed: paint stripes on the sidewalk as a social distancing guideline, and hand sanitizer dispensers outside stores. “We won’t need to create new infrastructures,” says Moreno. It’s more about using existing ones more effectively.

Fewer Riders at Rush Hour

Before coronavirus, high-capacity transit systems made the basic math of dense urban populations work: It would not be possible to move through streets of cities like New York, London, Tokyo, and Mexico City if their millions of daily transit riders took to cars instead. Subways and buses were the lifeblood of those urban economies. Coronavirus now casts that role in a troubling light. Standing in crowded spaces for prolonged periods of time, whether on a subway platform or on a long commute by bus or train, could expose riders to the deadly disease. While few cases around the world have been linked to transit thus far — two separate studies of infection clusters in France and Austria failed to trace a single case to a shared commute — emerging survey results suggest many riders will try to opt for other modes.

During the pandemic, transit agencies around the world saw ridership decline by as much as 92% as many workers stayed home or found other ways to get to work; some set up signs and cordons instructing the remaining riders where to sit and stand in order to maintain social distancing. Several cities enacted mask requirements for passengers and did away with fares on buses so that passengers could reduce contact; others, like Boston, are hastening upgrades to contactless fare payment systems to do away with hand-to-hand transactions entirely. Cities like New York have also ordered rider capacity limits on transit vehicles, while others such as Milan are hoping to stagger commuters over the course of the day. It remains to be seen how these protocols will be enforced.

Even less certain is when, or whether, transit ridership is likely to return to its previous levels. With white-collar commuters potentially continuing to work from home or picking up bikes or car keys instead, the people riding transit for the foreseeable future are likely to be poorer than the average urban resident. They could be in for a bumpy ride with service cuts and potentially more crowding if agencies can’t overcome budget shortfalls from gutted ridership. “If you don’t have that big load of people moving at the same time, transit becomes really expensive and not a very effective way to move people,” said Brian Taylor, a professor at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. In heavily transit-reliant cities like New York City and London, route reductions and slower frequencies would impact people of color the most, since they are generally less likely to own cars or hold jobs that allow work from home. And switching to fare payment systems based on credit cards or smartphones could present a barrier to unbanked and under-banked people who, again, may be more reliant on transit than the average citizen.

But transit lovers shouldn’t give up hope, for not every bus is bound to be ghosted. The environmental and congestion-relieving effects of these systems is still clear to riders and voters, even in cities that haven’t been so reliant on transit historically. In May, voters in Cincinnati approved a sales tax bump to pay for transit improvements, the first time in nearly 50 years locals had given the green light to any transit-oriented tax. And in the few parts of the world that have essentially stamped out new coronavirus infections, such as Taipei and Auckland, transit ridership is swinging back toward what it used to be.

More Deliveries, More Essential Workers

Delivery drivers, grocery store clerks, health care workers, and transportation operators have long been doing the essential work of keeping people fed, housed, healthy and moving, but Google search trends data show that the term “essential workers” was barely used until the start of March. Now, with the weight of a locked-down society on their shoulders, it’s impossible to ignore their contributions — though recognition hasn’t immediately translated into labor rights and protections. Allegations of protective equipment shortages, inconsistent testing, whistleblower retaliation, and wage theft have been levied at companies employing this workforce; among gig economy workers, the public health implications of low pay and nonexistent benefits have become increasingly apparent.

At first, it felt like the only thing unifying these workers was the danger they were put under, said Katie Wells, a postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. By deeming them essential, “it lays the ground for their sacrifice,” she said. “That being said, there is a silver lining, and a possibility, and a ray of hope: that people will identify with the idea that these workers deserve something more than applause.”

Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic is also fueling a long-simmering workers’ rights movement among lower-wage workforces. Isolated strikes and nationwide walkouts have flared at Amazon warehouses, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods grocery stores, and among Instacart and Target delivery workers. Old legislation designed to protect gig workers from exploitation is growing teeth: After ride-hail and delivery companies spent months avoiding compliance with a California bill that would grant gig drivers full employment rights and benefits, a coalition of California city attorneys and the state’s attorney general are trying to sue Uber and Lyft into submission. And entirely new protections may emerge: Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congressman Ro Khanna have introduced a package that includes affordable health care and child care, and pay premiums for essential workers. At the city level, New York City lawmakers are championing a local Essential Workers Bill of Rights that would protect whistleblowing health care workers from retaliation and grant sick leave to independent contractors.

“We’re going to need economic innovations through this pandemic and on the other side of this pandemic, and things are going to evolve,” said New York City councilmember Brad Lander, who co-introduced the proposed legislation. “It would be nice if that didn’t come along with making it harder for the workers to survive?”

Everything Al Fresco

To bring restaurants, cafes and bars back online, owners face a steep challenge: How can they accommodate the number of customers they need to serve in order to meet razor-thin margins while also guaranteeing a safe and socially distanced experience?

The solution is to grow — to literally increase the size of restaurants in order to put more space between tables. In the cities and states where restaurants have reopened so far, owners have looked to expand their dining area by claiming the outdoors for more seating. What little scientists know about the pandemic suggests that coronavirus transmission is more likely to happen indoors, especially in sealed environments. Moving restaurants into outdoor “streeteries” means a dining experience that is socially distanced and likely less risky.

That’s why establishments with porches and patios were at the front of the line when it came to reopening. Many cities, like Paris and New York, have closed traffic along commercial corridors to drivers in order to give restaurants the space to spread out. With fewer drivers on the road and people itching for more options for spending time outside, open-air food courts are a no-brainer.

Al fresco dining presents some logistical challenges for the service industry. Tradeoffs emerge by geography: Restaurants in southern climates are more likely to have the parking lots and patios where business can expand, but they also suffer from scorching heat that may put diners off. In other areas, the weather might be amenable to patio dining all summer long, but vacant lots or under-used streets are harder to come by.

Additionally, rainy weather can’t be discounted as a factor that could easily wreck projections for whole weeks out of any given month, and even a sunny brunch atmosphere doesn’t very well suit the likes of dive bars and sports pubs. A resolution can’t come fast enough, but between take-out service and patio dining, restaurants may have the tools they need to get by until a vaccine arrives.

Rat Wars

From deer in Tokyo to foxes in London, urban wildlife took advantage of the lockdown orders to explore their empty cities. But not all sightings are welcome, as empty garbage bins and the lack of scraps outside eateries also sent hungry rats flooding into the streets looking for food in the early days of the pandemic. Eventually, their noses will send them straight to residential neighborhoods.

People have already reported rat infestations — and roaches — in their backyards and gardens, near garbage cans and even inside their kitchens. “You can expect rats to start showing up in places where there weren’t any before because plenty of them will start moving to look for food, just like any mammal,” says rodentologist Bobby Corrigan. Some populations that thrived in commercial centers are taking a hit as the scarcity disrupts reproduction, and as stronger members cannibalize the young and weak. But many, in survival mode, are becoming bolder and more aggressive, traveling farther from their burrows to areas where they compete (sometimes violently) with existing colonies over food waste generated by families now eating at home.

Meanwhile, pest control professionals tell Corrigan, who consults several cities on rat abatement, they’re seeing fewer rodents in commercial centers. And the meal baits they continue to put out now actually attract the desperate kleptoparasites who take it back to their burrows — whereas before, the creatures ignored them in favor of food scraps. The two observations drive home a crucial point in the urban fight against rats, Corrigan says: If cities have better measures in place to keep rats from accessing trash, then exterminators can actually control the vermin population.

As restaurants begin to reopen, Corrigan says cities should rethink their waste management infrastructure — this time with rat control at the forefront of their strategy. The rats may start returning to commercial centers, though he can’t say for sure how soon and how vigorously. That will vary block by block, he says, adding that the rats that stayed in their territories or close by may return fairly quickly — and reproduce rapidly — while others that ventured farther away may not come back until the food is abundant again.

“We don’t know with certainty how each individual rat colony has ‘changed,’” he says, “But in general, if a neighborhood had rats prior to the Covid-19 shutdown, and we humans resume the same food refuse practices that we were using, it is a very good bet the rats will be back sooner or later.”

Parking Lots Are the New Parks

Parking lots. Golf courses. Cemeteries. Busy streets. If it’s open-air and empty, people are probably trying to gather there, as evidence grows that coronavirus is less likely to spread aggressively in outdoor space and the public health threat of police brutality and racism galvanizes masses of protesters.

What makes a park a park? Cities are starting to expand that definition, macgyvering public recreation areas out of unexpected acreage. Some of the best candidates are parking lots, where spaces outnumber the nation’s cars at least 3 to 1, and demand reportedly dropped 90% in just the first month of the pandemic, according to the parking app SpotHero. Paired with burgeoning Slow Streets movements, once-busy intersections could become sites of outdoor play as well as routes for safe commutes. Asima Jansveld, vice president of the High Line Network, says members are partnering with restaurants and bars to encourage al fresco dining.

Meanwhile cemeteries, which inspired the 19th century parks movement, will return as “places to comfort the living as well as honor the dead,” said Liz Vizza, the Executive Director of Boston’s Friends of the Public Garden. “We often say that parks are not amenities, they are a necessity,” she said. “This has put it into stark relief.”

But even as the mental and physical benefits of green space grow clearer, coronavirus could leave park budgets thinner: Proposed cuts in New York City would reduce funding for park maintenance by millions; in California, the governor plans to spend just a fraction of what was once planned to open a new state park. When the National Recreation and Park Association surveyed more than 300 park commissioners about their spending, many had already instituted hiring freezes or laid off part-time and seasonal staff, and half had been asked to cut their budget by as much as 20%.

As they push for more spending, Jansveld says parks advocates should prioritize underserved corners: 100 million people in the U.S. have to walk farther than 10 minutes to find a park, and facilities are unevenly maintained across racial and class lines. And even where they’re plentiful, green respites won’t be enjoyed equally by Black Americans so long as they are viewed as threatening, or, at best, with suspicion in public spaces. Recent killings by police have only reinforced this notion.

Seeing a Show … From Home

In the era of social distancing, theaters and concert venues will have to become more flexible. Filling rows of seats with spectators won’t be possible, and packing venues tightly with people for music shows even less so. Live-streaming of drama and music will be ever more common — something that has already begun in earnest with online DJ marathons — like the ever-popular #verzuz series — and live concerts on social media. Meanwhile, theatrical experiences may migrate out of standard venues into spaces such as parks or parking structures, where larger audiences have space to spread out as they watch — something that has already begun for movie-goers with the current resurrection of drive-in movie theatres. Many major motion pictures will skip large-screen theaters altogether and instead head straight to homes via streaming services such as Netflix and Apple TV.

These conditions could propel an upswing in creativity, but traditional venues staging live performances will face challenges. Limiting their audience size to maintain social distancing may make a sector often operating on a shoestring financially unviable, and only heavily subsidized venues will be able to survive with thinned-out audiencesTime-slot theatre, in which small, socially distanced audiences attend shorter performances, staged and restaged as a form of performance marathon, may be an option that keeps venues functioning for their original purpose. However, many venues may need to find alternative uses until close social contact is again safe.

Some are already doing so. In Britain, box office staff at Inverness’ Eden Court Theatre have taken on an interim role running a local Covid-19 helpline. A London theater company working with vulnerable women, meanwhile, is now exploring plans to repurpose its space as a refuge. This kind of creative re-use might keep cities’ cultural infrastructure in place for when the clouds part, but may mean that in the medium term, theaters don’t bear much resemblance to their pre-pandemic selves. As Rufus Norris, director of Britain’s National Theatre wrote to other practitioners in the theatrical publication The Stage: “More than ever, we need to explore everything from the perspective of what we can do, not what we used to do.”

Recycling Retail

Coronavirus is likely to hit stores hard. Even when lockdowns end, many customers may have less to spend than before the pandemic and be far more wary of public places. Even in Germany — which reopened shops with a floorspace of less than 800 square meters (8,611 square feet) in mid-April and has thus had a shorter retail hiatus than most — the German Trade Association expects 50,000 bankruptcies of retailers.

Businesses, and the premises they use, are still finding ways to adapt. Since lockdowns began, many smaller stores have started local home deliveries, feeding a skyrocketing demand by using their shopfront locations more as distribution centers than destinations for customers. Stores — and not just food and convenience stores — may also open later, a timetable already being encouraged by the mayor of Milan — so that customers can visit without crowding or waiting in line. Meanwhile, many major retail stores may remain popular with customers who come not to browse, but to pick up orders made online, saving themselves both prolonged contact with other people and time waiting for package deliveries.

Empty units may find other uses, as community hubs and social centers — a process already underway in many places to counterbalance longstanding retail blight. In the U.K., vacant units on or near rundown high streets are already being retooled (with part-public funding) as spaces for artists, micro-entrepreneurs and community groups, creating an attractive atmosphere that boosts customers to other businesses nearby. In some cities, versions of these social centers might emerge informally (and more controversially) in former stores as squats, a process that in 1990s Berlin helped fast-track the restoration of rundown neighborhoods. This kind of community takeover could sow the seeds for a steady recovery. As Vidhya Alakeson, chief executive of community business development trust Power to Change told CityLab. “There’s a really good track record of community organizations animating empty space. They’re really good at taking on disused properties, carrying out refurbishments to make a building workable again then creating activities to draw people in. Indeed, they will be critical in not allowing town centers to have that sense of permanent decline.”

The Home Office, School, Gym and Day Care

In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, the public health strategy was simple: Stay home, whenever you could. Work from home, school your children from home, cook your own meals at home, exercise at home. Even for essential workers, who by necessity ventured out each day, the home became a locus. And even as states and countries begin to open up, the importance of housing — and the precarity of keeping it — will only become more stark.

The closing of offices, schools, and thousands of child care centers — with few daycare alternatives — has had several families struggling to juggle work and the demanding task of parenthood. Making the task even more challenging is the digital divide, in which some 15% of families with school-aged children lack broadband access, according to a Pew survey, and many more are without enough computers for the entire family. Combine that with insufficient lesson plans put together by teachers with no remote-learning experience, and America’s existing homework gap has only widened as underserved students are left further behind.

In the foreseeable future, families may have to continue to navigate these challenges as schools and offices are expected to be among the last to reopen. A recent USA Today/Ipsos survey suggested that 1 in 5 teachers are unlikely to return to the classroom in the fall, while 6 in 10 parents with K-12 children are seeking home-schooling options.

Phasing back into the white-collar workplace will be slow. Those who do return to the office — by choice or by force — will likely find themselves navigating a transformed office environment. (Fewer elbow-to-elbow benches, more ventilation, hand sanitizing stations, and a continued dependence on Zoom.) Some companies are already giving staff the option to work remotely for the rest of the year, allowing those who live in pricey cities to dream of cheaper pastures. (It’s too soon to tell whether those dreams will materialize.)

Remote workers are not the only ones who may find themselves in a different place than where they started the pandemic. Hordes of young people, ejected from college with few plans or stalled from pursuing burgeoning careers, have moved home with their parents. And unemployed, underemployed and low-income renters may struggle to keep roofs over their head as emergency eviction moratoria expire. (Some cities, like San Francisco, have made it it permanently illegal to evict a tenant for missing rent due to coronavirus-related income interruptions, while other jurisdictions are bracing for a tidal wave of eviction filings come summer.)

These moves, along with other changes like shifts in our food distribution system, could add up to a new overall direction for urban planning and design: a hyper-local model, where people access everything they need as near as possible to where they live. “A lot of us speculate that we may be seeing the emergence of the 15-minute-city,” says Phillip Rode, executive director of LSE Cities, the urban research center of the London School of Economics, “where because of the importance of non-motorized transport as a safe means to get around, you will have to ensure that the facilities for your daily life – and also maybe your job – are closer to home.”

Groceries at a Distance

After having dealt with a frenzy of panic buying, grocery stores are facing a long-term challenge: How to protect employees and customers from contracting a virus that seems to be here to stay, and can be transmitted by touching contaminated surfaces or breathing in infected droplets. And it is no easy feat.

Most stores have adopted the use of plastic sheets to separate cashiers from customers checking out. Some use one-way aisles to control the flow of clients, and try to limit the number of customers who shop inside the store at once. In Seattle, supermarkets QFC and Fred Meyer have been reported as using sensors to detect when a store is nearly half-full so that customers and workers can maintain a social distance. Everywhere, lines of shoppers standing six feet apart have become common-sight, sometimes aided by stickers on the ground.

The most dramatic shift from the pandemic may be an accelerated shift to online grocery shopping. Multiple grocers have increased available home delivery slots; Tesco, the leading supermarket chain in the U.K., has doubled them, according to an email from its public relations team. Curbside pickup — where customers shop online, drive to the store, and have a worker load their purchases into the trunk — is also gaining traction.

The U.S. has been slower to adopt online grocery shopping — it accounted for 3% of total grocery spending in 2019 — compared with South Korea or the U.K., where 10% to 15% of purchases were made online. Gordon Haskett Research Advisors found in a survey in March that 41% of online shoppers were buying grocery online for the first time — and out of those “newbies,” 58% ordered through Walmart.com. At Sainsbury’s, the U.K.’s second-largest supermarket chain, there’s been an unprecedented growth in demand for home grocery deliveries. “We’re also seeing customers embracing technologies in our stores,” Sophie Praill, a spokesperson for Sainsbury’s, said in an email. “As more customers use this technology and get comfortable with it, we expect to see these figures grow.”

Empty Hotels and More Homeless

With global tourism reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, hotels have recorded near-catastrophic drops in bookings across the country. Demand has cratered around the U.S., and there are no plans in most places to resume the circuit of conferences, weddings, sports matches, festivals, and concerts that keep reservations on the books.

That doesn’t mean that nobody needs hotel rooms, however. Early into the pandemic, homeless shelters emerged as hotspots for coronavirus transmission, right up there with prisons and meat-processing plants. Using city, state, and federal resources, California moved quickly to relocate people experiencing homelessness into hotel rooms in hopes of staving off a crisis in places such as Skid Row in Los Angeles and the Tenderloin in San Francisco.

Low-cost motel rooms have served as shelter alternatives in different U.S. cities for years. The national movement around Housing First — a philosophy that seeks to provide people with shelter before treating other chronic problems, such as addiction, joblessness, or mental health disorders — often starts with a conversion of low-cost motels into subsidized housing for people suffering from chronic homelessness. Conversions have their drawbacks, as motels are often located far from the amenities that families need, while hotels have neighbors who will strongly object to living near people experiencing homelessness. High costs are another limiting factor for hotel shelters.

Any port in a storm, as the saying goes: That applies to both hotel owners facing an implosion in demand as well as shelter operators looking at soaring coronavirus infection rates. Governors and mayors in other parts of the U.S. are looking to California’s experience as a model for potential quarantine solutions. The pandemic hasn’t put an end to sleeping outdoors in either Skid Row or the Tenderloin (or beyond California), and it seems unlikely that Covid-19 will be the thing to push leaders to find the resources to end homelessness. So help will still be in dire need.

In fact, if anything, homelessness could explode in the U.S. as the nation recovers from the pandemic. The federal expansion of unemployment benefits, which has likely helped millions of families stay in their homes, will expire in July. So does a federal restriction on certain evictions. Housing experts see a cliff later this year that could send millions of tenants over the edge.

If the worst comes to pass, then the tent encampments that have emerged as semi-permanent features in urban parks since the last recession could grow a lot more permanent. Just before the pandemic struck, the Trump administration was inching toward efforts to try to remove tent encampments (or rather to require cities and states to do this work). Instead, the government’s response to the pandemic could lead to growing encampment populations — perhaps even new tent cities.

Reconfigured Streets

That people feel safe stepping into a stream of strangers is one of the marvels of urban street life. Jane Jacobs, famed urbanist and activist, theorized that the repetition of “sidewalk contact” — a request for directions, an appreciation of someone’s dog, a shared glance towards some nearby spectacle — builds up a requisite sense of trust over time. When streets no longer support that kind of organic social exposure — such as the heavily congested, auto-oriented streets of so many modern cities — that trust erodes, she wrote.

But not all proximity breeds trust. People of color, and especially Black people in the U.S., are far more likely to be stopped by police and to be policed in general than other racial groups, a concern that has plagued other types of traffic safety policies. For these communities, stop-and-frisk has given “sidewalk contact” a much more nefarious meaning. And now that everyone must be also wary of catching a deadly virus whil

bloomberg.com, 22 June 2020
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