Right now, as I work out of my house in Los Angeles, I have found it’s an ideal moment to contemplate how this disaster fundamentally challenges urban living in its present-day form. Although urbanism is clear and strong as a preference for lifestyle and investment for many, the issue that people in close proximity increases the chance of the virus spreading should give us all pause.
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.
There has been a rush by many in the design and planning disciplines to justify urban density de facto; however, while ordered to shelter in place, some deeper critical thinking is appropriate to consider how well-suited cities are to a post-COVID-19 world.
How prepared we are to handle a health crisis in the future? How can we use what we have learned to improve the quality of life in cities?
The good news is that planners and government officials have dealt with health crises of significant impact before. Some examples are eerily similar to our situation now. In the 1870s, a worldwide Cholera outbreak killed more than 600,000 people over the span of about 10 years. The key to finding a solution then was the use of data.
Planners were able to prove that overcrowding and substandard sanitation had to be alleviated in order to eliminate the spread of the virus. Starting in urban centers, the disease spread through the shipment of goods and movement of people along trade corridors. From urban centers with tenement housing, it spread to port towns, and from there to small towns along riverways and train lines.
Political leaders showed incredible commitment in forcing reforms that ultimately saved lives and improved the quality of life in urban centers, port towns and rural hamlets alike. All kinds of modern reforms — from how cities are planned to how buildings are built — came from the response to this health disaster.
Although (granted) our current situation is more complex. This crisis has exposed real weaknesses in our health care system, our food supply, the global supply chain, how we move around, access to information, open space, air quality, the sharing economy and more.
So, in the light of the moment, I offer a few provocations for planners and urbanists to contemplate toward real societal benefit.
During WWII, private victory gardens produced 40% of all the fruits and vegetables consumed by U.S. citizens. Just when it appears that more Americans are showing an interest in growing more of their own food, our leaders are encouraging us to order more drive-thru fast food. With 4 in 10 Americans considered obese already, is this the right message?
As we rely to a greater degree every day on the global supply chain for seemingly everything, what can be done to improve our food insecurity? In addition, by 2050, U.S. farmers will have to produce 70% more in order to accommodate the additional 2.2 billion people in the world. Has the time come for us as a nation to get serious about vertical farming, food co-ops and community-supported agriculture? There are huge opportunities.
Like Houston, L.A. is a city notorious for its sprawl. A staggering 14% — more than 70 square miles — of L.A.’s land area is dedicated to surface parking. With car ownership less and less a priority for urbanites, can at least some of this parking be used for food production? In a recession, urban farming might be a great way to keep people working until the nation gets back on its feet.
Urbanist Jan Gehl talks eloquently about the human scale’s importance to the vitality of cities. His points have less to do with the height of buildings and much to do with how humans use buildings. Much of his thinking focuses on basic human needs — their ability to interact with each other, the importance of direct access to light, air and views.
But often, important points in his arguments are missed. First, he emphasizes that people need to collaborate to get work done effectively. Secondly, he shows how different people collaborate in different ways. Despite the challenges they are facing right now, cities are a collaboration machine. Granted, some will thrive in a completely virtual environment, but many others will still need some percentage of in-person interaction in order to collaborate effectively.
Perhaps the future will combine some percentage of both, with office buildings acting as collaborative hubs and work-from-home (WFH) being a place for focused singular tasks. Still, the office building has significant challenges moving forward. Elevator cabs will need to be rethought, with provision for ‘touchless’ access. Office workers will be much more conscious about air quality. In fact, studies link air quality to productivity — the more access to fresh air, the better workers perform. Green walls have the double benefit of improving air quality and worker psychology.
There also seem to be regional differences that might have a fundamental impact on development in the future. Many tech companies, especially those on the West Coast, are predicting precipitous declines in office-space use and are now employing aggressive WFH policies. Perhaps neighborhood-based collaborative spaces will pop up for use by private companies on an as-needed basis.
In the 1920s, Clarence Perry and Clarence Stein did ground-breaking work showing how the neighborhood unit could provide all the essentials of urban life — a place to live, essential shopping, recreation, community and educational services — within a five-minute walking distance. Today, almost 80% of Americans shop online at retailers such as Amazon and stores such as Target and Walmart.
However, people are currently waiting for staples such as toilet paper, bleach, hand sanitizer and even masks to be delivered on backorder from many of these online portals. Whatever happened to the neighborhood convenience store? Their death is often attributed to the prohibitive cost of real estate along commercial corridors and free-market dynamics, where the perceived convenience of online shopping is strong. But in a moment when everyone has the same idea to shop online, is it really more convenient? Studies have shown that local retailers are important to maintaining social cohesion. To their credit, some industrious restaurants are converting their dining rooms into bodega-style markets in Los Angeles, providing staples in addition to take-out food. I think we will see a resurgence in this type of local neighborhood market as more people are choosing to WFH.
What other elements will we need to think about as people are looking to their local neighborhoods to provide entertainment, community connection and a place for self-expression? Areas such as Hayes Valley in San Francisco and Abbott Kinney in Venice Beach, California, provide glimpses of what a true neighborhood hub might look like.
What strikes one when visiting these places is how many people are working in informal collaborative settings like coffee shops, sidewalk restaurants and stores with amphitheater seating. Another factor worth noting is how inconvenient parking is. People either walk, ride bikes, park on the street or at a friend’s house. These are true neighborhood hubs. The anchor draw is primarily community connection — the desire to be part of a ‘tribe.’
A park outside your door
When the Olmsted firm designed a bold open-space plan for Los Angeles in the 1930s, our large regional park network was established, preserving large natural land features (the Santa Monica Mountains, Griffith Park, the beaches, etc.) as public open spaces in perpetuity. In fact, L.A. has more open space than many comparable large cities. However, our open-space network is mostly large clumps of land, which causes people to overpopulate these areas, especially on evenings and weekends.
In response, our L.A.’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, closed down all L.A. regional parks because too many people were not practicing physical distancing. This can be explained when we look at the combination of open space and public streets together as a percentage of overall land area in cities.
When comparing the composite percentage to other major cities, L.A. actually ranks quite low. By contrast, cities like New York hover closer to the ideal percentage somewhere between 45 and 50%. Smaller blocks with wider sidewalks make public spaces immediately accessible outside your front door. Public space is more plentiful, safer and easier to access.
The pandemic has exposed just how overdesigned our streets are for single-use cars. Sidewalks are too narrow and lacking tree canopy. However, many Angelinos have rekindled their love of biking through the CicLAvia events on weekends throughout the year. During these events, key streets are to cars and allow bike traffic only.
Perhaps it’s time to rethink our street network and instead use it as public park spaces for at least portions of the week. ‘Shared use’ parkways that encourage a variety of modes and activities (peds, bikes, soccer games, etc.) can take up the slack for larger but less accessible parks that require a drive to reach. Making certain streets are car-free at least for part of the day is an idea New York is instituting through a pilot program that transforms them into daytime-use linear parks. It would have the multiple benefits of providing active alternatives to using regional parks for recreation and provide viable alternatives to automotive mobility.
Cleaner air and healthy commutes (for good)
Studies have shown that poor air quality is a major contributor to the spread of the virus, especially to those with compromised respiratory systems. In 19 of the past 20 years, the American Lung Association has listed Los Angeles as the smoggiest city in the United States. Because of shelter-in-place, L.A. will see multiple weeks of cleaner air. Already, many are noting these benefits as having a real positive health impact.
But the shutdown has caused an economic crisis that will prove to be our first recession in 12 years, with massive unemployment and untold emotional and financial stress to our communities. This is not the way we want to get to cleaner air. I believe this health crisis will be an inflection point for our country and that there is increasing evidence that those communities that invest in health and wellness strategies will do better economically going forward.
How can we get the benefit of cleaner air while getting a competitive edge? I see an opportunity to reposition L.A. and change its perception as a smoggy and expensive city to one that is cleaner, healthier and more affordable. We can do this quite effectively by rethinking the street network and promoting cycling as an alternative form of mobility.
Angelinos already are primed for this idea for a number of reasons. Our social and physical geography — the decentralized land use pattern and flatness of the L.A. basin is well-suited for cycling. Through events like the previously mentioned CicLAvia, people increasingly are rediscovering biking as a fun activity and want to incorporate more of it into their day. Doing quick errands or taking a break from work by getting on a bike is an easy and inexpensive way to get healthier, especially if you are working from home. The near-perfect weather we enjoy all year round promotes biking.
So, why hasn’t this already happened? The primary barrier is safety. A robust cycling infrastructure would provide a viable alternative to major shared-use mobility corridors, which are notoriously unsafe. Pilot projects such as the Great Streets Initiative have proven to increase safety and add real estate value. Although much needs to be done to improve our waterways as public amenities, they can certainly be used in the short term as mobility corridors for bikes and scooters. In fact, portions of the L.A. River and Ballona Creek already are being used that way.
For long-haul bike commuters, cities such as Copenhagen have incorporated a green wave system that coordinates traffic lights for cyclists who maintain a 12 mile-an-hour clip. These improvements in sum could position L.A. as a healthy and progressive city in the post-recession economy. It would attract companies looking to relocate to a great quality of life (oh, and by the way, it would benefit us locals already here as well).
Now’s the time to reconsider the design of urban systems
Of course, all of these issues are interconnected. If it wasn’t clear that urban planning is significantly about the design of systems, it should be crystal clear to all of us now. Those systems can either promote or hurt the health and wellness of our communities. For a variety of reasons, we have created an urban fabric and a system of behaviors that are worthy of reconsideration and, perhaps, redefinition.
The one thing that planners cannot do is absolve themselves from taking responsibility for proposing some workable and common-sense solutions. What kind of future city do we want?
Let’s not let this disaster go to waste.
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.
A version of this post was originally published on LinkedIn.