Big cities, megaregions and the huge role they will play in response and recovery


Cities need to reject the notion that they are the pandemic problem; rather, they need to assert their collective brainpower, humanity and economies as the solution to emerging from this current crisis smarter, kinder and more prosperous than ever.

Cities need to reject the notion that they are the pandemic problem; rather, they need to assert their collective brainpower, humanity and economies as the solution to emerging from this current crisis smarter, kinder and more prosperous than ever.

When COVID-19 first made headlines, cities as centers of density and global gateways became the antagonist; yet, while social distancing and the closing of borders are the near-term mitigation measure, shutting down global networks and deserting dynamic city centers cannot be the long-term solution.

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.

New York City has become the U.S. epicenter of the virus outbreak, which certainly suggests urban density is a factor. However, timing and coordination of the response have also contributed, as evidenced by the fact that San Francisco, the second densest city in the U.S., and Hong Kong, the densest city in the world have coordinated a much more successful flattening of the curve thus far. Recent reports on the spread of the virus in rural counties further demonstrates it is not only the urban cores of our cities that are vulnerable to the virus.

Impressive response to the SARS epidemic

As an architect who practices urban design around the world, I lived in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic in 2003. I witnessed the short-term response and recovery and have long admired that city’s ability to deliver infrastructure at a pace and scale like nowhere else. Now living in San Francisco, I am working with U.S. cities to respond to COVID-19 and am watching how various models of collaboration between jurisdictions and levels of government affect epidemiological response and prepare for economic recovery.

The existential health threat presented by COVID-19 is challenging us as never before in terms of loss of life and economic devastation. Urban and societal challenges that have been simmering beneath the surface for a long time are now magnified by the pandemic: decaying infrastructure, lack of response to climate change, and growing inequities.

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut governors are coordinating their tri-state COVID-19 response with the federal emergency response. The Regional Plan Association has long advocated for long-term investment in infrastructure and economic development. Yet, over the past several decades, national inaction and fragmented local interests have paralyzed action on key projects such as the Gateway Tunnel across the Hudson or the completion of Lower Manhattan Coastal Protection. Perhaps the tri-state COVID-19 response can serve as a model moving forward to advance the long-term strategic infrastructure needs of the region.

Playing the long game to win in the long term

San Francisco, along with five other Bay Area counties, issued the U.S.’s first shelter-in-place orders on March 16, 2020, paving the way to a statewide policy and setting the stage for California to coordinate its emergency response with federal efforts. Pre-pandemic work by the California Office of Planning and Research restructured its budget to realize economic, environmental and social resilience. This work should be leveraged as the framework for long-term recovery.

How we prioritize, fund and implement these programs will require a debate on new ways to collaborate: reallocate tax revenue to enrich and empower cities and regions to determine, fund and implement strategic programs. This would require taking a long-term look at the ineffective boomerang of sending money to D.C. and the paralyzing effect of local NIMBY (not in my backyard) interests.

Megaregions will play a huge role

The idea of a megaregion is a well-documented. Regions like Boston/N.Y./D.C., SoCal and NorCal, the Texas Triangle, London/Leeds/Manchester, and Hong Kong/Shenzhen are on the frontlines of the pandemic response in partnership with world health organizations. They will be the entities that re-ignite the economy, address climate change and close the inequity gaps. However, they also need to act locally to deliver regional economic opportunities for everyone, not just urban elites.

Leaders are positioning their cities for stimulus funding to address short-term economic challenges and to fast-track infrastructure and social programs. To accelerate and deepen the impact of these stimulus packages, it is incumbent on us to champion ways in which large cities and megaregions are best positioned to guide both short-term pandemic survival and long-term recovery.

Opportunities and solutions for global cities to lead

Coordinate urban and rural development

In China, the central government now requires all cities to develop long-range plans for their urban cores and their rural hinterlands as part of their 10-year plans.

Empower regional authority

The Greater London Authority (GLA) was established in 2000 to allow London to overcome fragmented governance and compete globally. The GLA has powers over transport, policing, economic development and fire and emergency planning. Notably, their platform also has a strong COVID-19 guidance mandate.

In Australia, New South Wales established the Greater Sydney Commission to lead and guide the planning for development, transport and housing to help ensure Greater Sydney will be a productive, livable and sustainable city for all as it adds an additional 1.2 million people over the next 20 years.

Leading through NGOs

In the U.S., non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have proven to be an effective strategy platform for thinking beyond jurisdictions. The Regional Plan Association (RPA) in New York, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) in Chicago, and San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) have become valuable advisers to local and state governments and conveners of dialogues among private and philanthropic interests.

Re-connect the city with the surrounding areas and effectively re-establish a working hour-city.

Successful cities can provide economic opportunity to all their residents within an hour of their homes.

Move away from overdependence on the global supply chain

Early traces of COVID-19 originated from animal-to-person contact in a large seafood and live animal market in China and then spread along global supply routes. This helps us understand the short-term crisis but also shines a light on the fact that much of the world’s inequity and carbon footprint are a result of overdependence on the global supply chain.

No doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic will change how we live in cities. However, to reimagine an urban renaissance in which our public health and local economies are more resilient to future pandemics and we have addressed climate and social challenges with a new generation of infrastructure, cities must move to the center of real economic, social and political power.

Stephen Engblom is an architect, urban designer and an Executive Vice President with AECOM. He received his master’s degree in architecture from Rice University and is a member of Rice Architecture’s William Ward Watkin Advisory Council. This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Stephen Engblom


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