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The future of cities is walkable, healthy, resilient places

COVID-19 will reshape the city, but the bounce back could make them more livable.

The future of cities is walkable, healthy, resilient places
[Photo: k5hu/iStock]
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Cities throughout time have faced challenges, vast changes, and civil strife, but our future—much like our past—will be urban. The nature of humanity and progress is that we need to be around one another to think collaboratively, create what is next, and collectively drive toward the future.

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Even as the COVID-19 vaccine starts to be administered, the pandemic is still racing through the country—with the highest rates we have seen since its onset. Most cities are challenged in ways that they have not been for a generation, with businesses shuttered or near closure, people out of work, and the cold weather making outdoor activities increasingly difficult in much of the country. A hollowed-out feeling permeates the downtowns of many major American cities as office workers continue to stay at home and the service industry ecosystem that supports them sees overwhelming challenges. What will the future hold? When—and how—will we bounce back in our cities?

While of course the future cannot be fully scoped out amid a crisis, it is safe to say that the pandemic will greatly accelerate certain trends already happening. Other trends will be shaped anew. All the predictions pointing to the end of the city and the rise of the suburbs will be proven wrong again. In the end, shifts will have happened: Some people will move out of larger cities and to other places. But many short-term trends of movement of people to suburbs and other smaller places will be just that. Cities—particularly superstar cities, due to their scale and inherent attractive factors—may even grow and strengthen on the other side of the pandemic, even if that growth looks different from what the previous trajectory may have looked like.

We must continue to build more livable places where commerce can thrive and people can use bikes, scooters, and their own two feet to get around

Our neighborhoods have become even more central to day-to-day life during the pandemic. Trends prior to COVID-19 on street closures, congestion pricing, and dedicated space for cycling and micromobility point in the direction that only grew in 2020. In the United States, the closures—a little more than a year ago—of 14th Street in Manhattan and Market Street in San Francisco opened up space for people and foretold a stronger domestic conversation around how we could utilize the limited space we have in our densest urban places for people, not cars. The announcement of New York’s congestion pricing plan further pointed in this direction. In both instances, our overseas urban counterparts in places such as London, Singapore, and Copenhagen helped point the way forward.

[Photo: Timon Schneider/iStock]
The trends toward street closures rapidly increased during the pandemic as many cities first temporarily closed streets so that pedestrians would have space to navigate in the new environment. This has led to permanent closures in cities such as Seattle, Oakland, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, and more to create space for people to enjoy the city while at the same time opening further safe, open-air spaces for commerce and dining. The outcome of these closures is now beginning to be analyzed so that we can evaluate how people are using these recaptured spaces in cities, and how we can continue to enmesh these urban planning principles going forward.

At the intersection of creating more space for people has been the rise of the concept of the “15-minute city.” Global cities including Paris; Melbourne, Australia; Detroit, Portland, Oregon; and Ottawa are all pursuing the concept. It requires more neighborhood schools, better food access, more “third places,” better housing access and more housing, improved walkability, viewing density as more than just adding high-rises, and loosening regulations that stand in the way of more creative, community-centric urban design. Having all these services and the ability to navigate them on foot creates huge implications for not just the way we get around, but where we live and how we live. An unstated implication of a 15-minute city is that we will need to address the very real housing shortage and affordable housing crisis, and the intersection of housing with access to quality education, job opportunities, and food access.

The concept of 15-minute cities gives us a very real chance to change the way our cities are structured. Density will necessarily be a priority as a result and serves a dual purpose by not only being good for supporting the 15-minute city, but encouraging conversations around affordable housing and sustainability.

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The environment and health need to be front and center as we rebuild and reimagine our cities

Most importantly, we need to retrofit and build future cities with environmental and public health resiliency front and center. Airflow and ventilation will become increasingly important in the world of the built environment. As we are in the era of hyper-sanitization, people expect the places they inhabit and visit to be healthier, and care more about air quality.

Americans spend more than 90% of their lives inside, where, according to the EPA, indoor air pollution is two to five times worse than outdoor pollution (indoor pollutants such as smoke, dust, mold, and chemicals from certain paints, cleaners, and building materials are particularly harmful). In addition to the touted benefits of environmental sustainability, increased well-being, increased productivity, biophilic design is taking on an incredibly important role as cities and companies think about how the economy will make a comeback and workers will return to offices. Frankly, convincing staff that it’s safe to return to the office is one of the biggest challenges that employers now face—refreshing the workplace is one of the clearest signals that employee welfare is a top priority (e.g., natural lighting, improved air quality)—and through design, people can be both socially distanced and closer to nature.

COVID-19 has made high-end air filtration systems so popular that HVAC systems are selling out nationwide. Pre-pandemic, buildings were designed to be sealed well to reduce the cost of heating/cooling, but now the need for increased healthy airflow challenges that thinking. As a result, architects will need to balance the need for extremely healthy buildings and extremely sustainable buildings. COVID-19 has bolstered corporate interest in redesigning work spaces to simulate nature, have better air filtration systems, and use more sustainable materials.

These changes, however much needed, will raise the issue of environmental inequities. The companies that are looking to not only update their HVAC systems but introduce biophilic design are, quite frankly, companies with the extra cash to make the up-front investment in these amenities, and are mostly companies that employ white-collar workers. Inclusive policies driven by communities who have historically been left out of policy-making decisions will be paramount—to make sure that those who have suffered the most from climate injustices in the past are not left out of the future.

COVID-19 has forced us to rethink the way we live, and we need to seize on this appetite for change. Technology will continue to shape and change our lives all throughout cities with bifurcated outcomes on the workforce and everyday life. Quite frankly, we need more intentionally environmentally health-conscious city design to address not only the very harrowing reality of now, but the far-greater impacts climate change—and future disruptive events—will continue to have on our cities, and on all of us.

About the author

Brooks Rainwater is the senior executive and director of the National League of Cities' (NLC) Center for City Solutions. He drives the organization’s research agenda, community engagement efforts, and leadership education programming to help city leaders create strong local economies, safe and vibrant neighborhoods, world-class infrastructure, and a sustainable environment

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