The Trader Joe's on West Alabama in Houston is located in the former Alabama Theatre, which opened in 1939. 
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Making the cities of tomorrow more resilient to pandemics and other threats won’t require completely rethinking planning and design as we know them, but it will require functional problem-solving, practical solutions, better data mining and analysis, and more flexibility. All of which have helped the beloved grocery store chain improve its bottom line during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a city planner, I thought the days where I had to ‘sell’ the benefits of urban living to my clients and the community were largely over. For job opportunities, diversity and access to culture, few would deny that ‘city centers’ have been the focus of urban growth in the past couple of decades.

That has all changed with the pandemic. The documented benefits of urban living, such as a 2017 study that found city living was linked to lower levels of obesity than the suburbs, have been supplanted with daily updates showing exponential growth in infection rates in many urban centers. Do we perceive the city as a healthy place anymore?


This post is part of our “COVID-19 and Cities” series, which features experts’ views on the global pandemic and its impact on our lives.


As infection rates are currently peaking in my city and others across the country, planners are thinking about how we can help urbanites be more confident about urban living. Where to turn? As part of my research, I became fascinated with the role that grocery stores play in the life of cities.

Although grocery stores are considered high risk for spread of COVID-19, we all still have to eat. And even with remote shopping services like Instacart, food passes through many hands before we consume it. That said, people still seem to love one grocery store chain in particular: Trader Joe’s. In general, grocery stores struggle for brand loyalty, but TJ’s is the only one listed on the vaunted Brand Relevance Index (BRI), which charts customer loyalty to top brands throughout our economy. TJ’s customer base has remained loyal during the pandemic, and it continues to provide consistent shopper numbers that are outperforming other grocers — without relying on online shopping services like Instacart.

With alternatives to in-person shopping so readily available and popular, and with infection rates higher than ever, why would anyone venture out of their house to shop for groceries at all?

Overall, about 20% of grocery store employees have contracted COVID-19. By comparison, TJ’s infection rate hovers at about 2.4%. They have done well by focusing on mission-driven shopping and a well-managed experience that makes customers feel safe.

Trader Joe’s has effectively managed the pandemic and strengthened its brand in local communities at the same time. It provided the infrastructure necessary to guide its shoppers to make effective choices in the community’s interest. Its stores not only have stayed open but are showing pre-pandemic sales numbers. Trader Joe’s has figured out a way to expand its business by focusing on transforming shopping culture into a safer, more accommodating customer experience, without huge investments or retrofitting stores. They have remained relevant in a crisis.

Why cities are so important

We cannot ignore the importance of cities to our economy. City centers in particular are ‘collaboration machines,’ forcing diverse points of view together and generating the creative energy essential to innovation.

“This is a critical time for city leaders across the United States and around the world. Cities are increasingly understood as the places where humanity’s greatest challenges, from climate change, (to human health), migration to inequality, impact the most people. They’re also where ambitious leaders are stepping up to think creatively, not only about the catalytic role local government can play in solving these problems — but how, in a time of rapid technological, social, and economic change, (how can) they keep their communities ahead (of the curve),” Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, told Bloomberg Cities for a recent article on city innovation

The debate around the safety of city centers versus rural areas during the pandemic is a false choice. The spread of the virus has been much more closely linked to personal behaviors around hygiene and social distancing than style of living. The question that planners must ask is: “How can we work to promote healthy behaviors in cities that allow collaboration to occur without compromising health and safety?” 

Cities have survived many pandemics throughout history, and they’ll survive this one. There already have been six pandemics this century, and it seems certain characteristics of urbanity (hyper-mobility, overcrowding, access to sanitation) can leave us more vulnerable. In recent years, calls for cities to focus on health in their planning have been growing. “For the resilient, sustainable cities we all want and need, urban plans need to be designed, evaluated and approved using a health lens,” said Layla McCay, director for the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health.

We cannot ignore the importance of cities to our economy. City centers in particular are ‘collaboration machines,’ forcing diverse points of view together and generating the creative energy essential to innovation.

 

The modern urban lifestyle has been designed largely in response to market forces without accommodating for changing issues around health and wellness. More than 50% of all U.S. residents live in what could be described as an urban or suburban center, and this trend will continue into the next century. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, as much as 68% of the global population will live in cities by 2050. Many predict basic services, such as proper sanitation, will be stretched to the brink.

“In 10 years, an estimated 20% of the world’s population will live in urban environments with a limited access to appropriate water, health and sanitation infrastructures … this is where epidemics have the most potential to start and spread,” said Elvis Garcia, an expert in public health and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Weakest links

The modern city — hyper-connected vertically and horizontally — has left us more vulnerable to disease. Planners have taken appropriate action in the past to make cities more responsive to the situation at hand, making improvements such as modern sewer systems and zoning codes developed after typhoid and cholera outbreaks in urban centers in the 19th century. Other innovations in the way we live were responses to market forces. For example, confronted with the high cost of land,  developers built with greater density using the invention of the elevator and the modern skyscraper.

Today, elevators have left us more vulnerable to airborne disease. They’ve been described as ‘the antithesis of social distancing and a risk-multiplying bottleneck.’ Similarly, modern heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems rely on recirculated air to save money, but that leaves us vulnerable to airborne disease. Unregulated air travel, so much a part of modern life, has left us exposed to disease without the ability to contact-trace travelers.

Finally, our social mores need to emphasize personal responsibility in the pursuit of public health. It has become clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, as our infection rates will attest, that Americans must be able to rely on each other to ‘do the right thing’ when sick. Some of these issues are technological and can be solved through design, but some are more cultural and require a change in value systems that might call into play branding and marketing campaigns. Left unchecked, we remain vulnerable.

Trader Joe’s customers are socially distanced while waiting to enter the store.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Greatest opportunities

Currently, we have solutions to the pandemic in the form of a vaccine that’s just beginning to be widely distributed. However, despite its availability, consumer confidence in government is low. What can cities and regions do to restore trust and assure residents that taking the vaccine is a good idea, and the current threat will pass and urban life will get better? What can we do NOW to increase business, to future-proof the city, keep vital institutions open and have residents and businesses feel good about their role in the city of the future? Like Trader Joe’s, how can we incentivize the right, community-oriented behaviors that will keep us safe and improve the way our cities function without changing our basic style of living?

1.      Neighborhoods first

With a footprint of 15,000 to 20,000 square feet, Trader Joe’s are located within local main street formats and cater to a compact trade area of shoppers who live within a one- to two-square-mile radius. Recent experiences have shown us how important local neighborhoods are in the resilience of cities. For example, although cities like New York have large parks that serve as super-regional amenities, such as Central Park, many neighborhoods lack access to a local park or other services that are essential to urban resilience.

Many cities have pivoted toward strengthening neighborhoods and putting more emphasis on making them perform in a more responsive way to residents’ needs, including more amenities, mobility options and services at the local level. Melbourne’s 20-Minute City initiative is one example. But, it’s just the start of what is possible.

The pandemic has changed the way we get around. Over-reliance on infrastructure for the car has compromised other opportunities to build up our urban resilience. For example, in the city of Los Angeles alone, there are over 27 square miles of surface parking lots — that’s larger than the entire area of Manhattan in New York City. All of that impermeable surface contributes greatly to problems such as heat islands, food insecurity and the size of the city’s carbon footprint. 

In the Second World War, Americans grew 44% of their food in victory gardens, and there is a renewed interest in gardening during the pandemic, such as the climate victory garden, which takes underutilized plots of land and converts them to green spaces that can be used to produce food.

The pandemic has shown the value of contact tracing in managing the spread of disease. Further innovations in the tracking of pathogens have occurred at the neighborhood scale. There are significant opportunities with sensors to track the quality of city services, including a study being conducted by MIT students using data samples from the sewer system to track bacteria and other pathogens at neighborhood scale. 

2.      Streets for people

TJ’s does a great job of managing their parking lots, providing a clear path for pedestrians to queue and safely cross oncoming traffic, which is directed in single file. They encourage cycling by providing bike trail connections to most stores, ample bike parking and stations with tables for cyclists to load groceries. Similarly, one of the easiest things we can do as planners is to more intelligently manage the infrastructure we have — specifically, sidewalks, which can be better structured to accommodate passive and active areas, as well as seating and landscape areas.

In the early days of the pandemic, Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsom of California were lobbied by local restaurants to accommodate outdoor dining within on-street parking areas, in addition to parklets, passive seating areas, bike parking, Wi-Fi zones and more. New Yorkers have long complained about a lack of space for pedestrian activity in such a dense city. Around the globe, cities have been reallocating on-street parking areas along the curb line as more space for pedestrians. This does several positive things, including providing more physical space for pedestrians, which slows the spread of the virus, and making more outdoor dining possible, thereby preserving the viability of local businesses.

The city of Oakland, California, has closed more than 74 linear miles of streets for pedestrian and bike access through its ‘slow streets’ program. The program has received significant public support and the city is considering steps to make this a permanent solution.

3.      Health is good, wellness is better

At the entry into each of their stores, TJ’s has hand-washing stations available and visible to all shoppers. In city centers, densely populated and hyper-connected neighborhoods amplify the risk of spreading disease. It’s been proven that those areas that have limited access to water, sanitation and hygiene are the most vulnerable to the spread of the disease. In many major cities, hand-washing stations have been set up in areas that are disadvantaged to help stanch the spread of the disease.

And we have to continue getting better at providing these temporary services. In 10 years, an estimated 20% of the world’s population will live with limited access to appropriate sanitation infrastructures. Such amenities should be expanded throughout dense areas of the cities to promote good hygiene beyond the pandemic.

Beyond this, what obligation do cities have to reduce stress and create a sense of well-being for residents? Leading cities are focused on health and wellness in the design, evaluation and approval of all new projects. Singapore has developed a program of therapeutic gardens, which, according to research, provide a ‘range of health benefits such as the relief of mental fatigue, reduced stress and an overall improvement to emotional well-being’ for urban residents. With the growing uncertainty of our time, cities that focus on the long-term health and wellness of residents will enjoy a competitive advantage over those that don’t.

4.      Clear the air (and prove it)

Trader Joe’s keeps its front doors and loading dock entries open during business hours to introduce as much fresh air into the shopping space as possible. Although European countries have strict requirements  about monitoring indoor air quality, much of the innovation in North American buildings has been toward making building envelopes tighter, recirculating indoor air and improving energy efficiency. It’s not surprising that ‘sick building syndrome’ — an issue identified as early as the 1980’s — is a real concern, and was linked to the SARS epidemic in 2003.

Today, Americans are exposed to more pollutants indoors than outdoors because of indoor air circulation systems. There is a growing recognition among building designers and public health officials that the effort to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings has sometimes overlooked the health of the people inside. To that end, there will be investment in “smart” systems that monitor air quality in real time and can be monitored from your desk. Although it might sound like a significant investment to retrofit these buildings, some financial models predict an annual return on investment of as much as 360% when considering the measurable benefits to worker attitude and productivity. Fresh air is better for the health of employees, but it’s also great for the bottom line.

5.      Build flexibly and build it quickly

TJ’s quickly put up tents and other temporary structures with clear markings for social distancing to accommodate cleaning stations for shopping carts and outside loading areas for cyclists. These actions reinforce certain behaviors that keep us safer as a community. As pandemics become a more frequent part of our lives, cities will need to become more adaptable and responsive to changes in need. This could mean building structures more flexibly and quickly. Examples include the temporary Nightingale Hospital in London or the 1000 bed ‘instant hospitals’ built in China in just 10 days to accommodate the surge in COVID-19 cases.

On Feb. 3 of last year, the Wuhan hospital, which was built out of prefabricated hospital rooms, opened and quickly was fully occupied. Sixteen others were built soon thereafter. On April 15, with the pandemic being ‘basically curbed,’ according to Xi Jinping, the hospital was closed.

In Los Angeles, shelters have been going up as part of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s push to improve the homeless situation. Although it has been strongly criticized by some locals, Garcetti’s ‘A Bridge Home’ initiative has been presented as a health and safety program that leads to permanent supportive housing for the homeless while improving neighborhoods.

In efforts to solve short-term housing needs, many companies work with the military and companies in the oil and gas, construction and mining industries to use converted shipping containers as temporary structures.

Don’t miss this pandemic’s lessons

It is essential that planners think about how to manage our cities after this pandemic is over. We must learn from what has occurred in the past year and posit strategies for the future — history tells us it will happen again. We must consider why we have pandemics in the first place, which has something to do with our relationship to nature and our loss of connection to it. This has created imbalances, which result in the spread of disease. 

The pandemic-resilient city must be an economic proposition, but also one of health, safety and well-being for the communities it serves. We must get better at addressing the poverty and inequities in our neighborhoods. We must get better at thinking about cities in terms of serving residents and stewarding the natural systems of our regions. All of this can be done practically, without the need for a game-changing approach. It can be accomplished through functional problem-solving that manages and interprets data, sets goals, implements practical solutions and monitors performance.

Our cities of tomorrow might be much like the ones of today, just a bit less crowded, with access to more resources and managed with greater responsiveness — like your favorite grocery store.

Nate Cherry is a planning director for Gensler's Los Angeles-based Planning and Urban Design group. Gensler is a global architecture, design and planning firm.


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