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2021 is going to be the summer of cities

The pandemic changed how we think about urban space. Now that people are congregating again in those spaces, we’ll see the real benefits of their transformations—and how we can push them further.

2021 is going to be the summer of cities
[Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]
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In my post-vaccinated state, I recently reentered the world of travel with a trip from Washington, D.C., to New York City. I hadn’t used planes or trains since March 2020, and the sheer excitement—mixed with a tinge of anxiety—of being back on a train again and headed to a city I love was incredible. As the masks come off, cities are beginning to reemerge from the forced hiatus of lockdowns and restrictions that became necessary to fight against the pandemic scourge. Now the summer of cities is upon us.

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Arriving in New York at the beautiful new Moynihan Train Hall belied a crispness to the city that I never felt on my walks out of the old Penn Station, with its claustrophobic, basement-like feel. It always felt like someone was saying, “Welcome to New York, now get out of my way.” Instead, what was striking and a little disconcerting—even with the nicer departure station—was the limited number of people milling about.

This feeling followed as I left the station, with fewer people by far than I have ever seen in New York City. Where there used to be sidewalk traffic pushing people into the streets, now there was space. It was almost luxurious, even if it felt wholly unnatural. For the length of the pandemic, cities have had to fold into themselves to keep people safe, almost as if they were in a cocoon. But now with vaccinations—particularly in urban areas—hitting such a high rate of adoption, cities are ready to open and flourish once again.

The policy changes cities made during the pandemic make such an incredible difference. The sidewalks and streets taken over by restaurants, here in Washington, D.C., up there in New York, and all around the country, are utterly glorious. Space once meant for cars is now so much better used by people. As I explored Manhattan, the side streets were lined with restaurants spilling into the road. Streets across the city—more than 67 miles at last count—were fully and partially closed, making me feel less like I was in New York at times and more like I was in Paris, where outdoor cafés are spread throughout. The importance of this policy change alone could be transformative if New York and all of the other cities that have undertaken similar projects continue to allow this long term. It will be a win for people everywhere, plus a boon to the restaurants that sorely need a way to make some extra money. Ultimately, it will help create cities for people.

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[Photo: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images]

Use Federal ARPA funds to build inclusive cities for people

The federal government is here to help cities make sure that they build back better. Through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), cities have had $65 billion directly allocated to them to rebuild their shattered economies. The restaurant industry has been hit hard, and even though we are finally starting to see green shoots, with more and more people making reservations, there is still a need for long-term support. The Small Business Administration’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund has been established to help support restaurants directly. Another key way that we can help restaurants and build better cities is not only to make outdoor dining permanent, but in fact to expand the policies that made it possible during the pandemic.

The ARPA funds are meant to help cities grow economically, so what better way to do this than to better activate our most underutilized existing government property: our city streets. City governments can extend sidewalks and bump outs, calm traffic, implement accessibility measures, refund permit expenses to restaurants, and more. Better yet, so many of the outdoor structures for dining are clearly temporary due to their slapdash design. What if we had design competitions to create more permanent outdoor dining facilities that interact directly with placemaking goals already instituted in many cities?

Research is already showing that closing streets during the pandemic is leading to increased economic outcomes. The business case is strong that restaurants in cities where streets have been closed have seen much greater growth than where they have not been closed. Tied together with research pre-pandemic that clearly shows the efficacy of car-free streets, it is time to move further on these policies. Utilizing ARPA resources, city leaders will want to focus on economic opportunity for small businesses, and what better opportunity can we offer a hard-hit sector like America’s restaurants than to provide them with additional seating capacity in space-constrained high-rent cities.

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Going in this direction, a primary goal of ARPA—and many city leaders—means building back more equitable places. Qualified Census Tracts, defined as those areas in our cities with a poverty rate of at least 25% and at least 50% of households at income levels lower than 60% of the median income within that community, are specifically called out for support in ARPA. As a result, cities would do well to focus not just on their hard-hit downtowns, but on hard-hit populations, particularly communities of color, who have felt the brunt of COVID-19 on their health and economic position. Car-free streets, wider sidewalks, well-designed outdoor seating areas, transit upgrades, and housing improvements can make a huge difference—helping to lift people out of poverty and share in the positive direction cities are headed in.

Build 15-Minute Cities

The pandemic has also laid bare the inherent human need for connection and engagement and has reinforced the need to build resilient neighborhoods that are more connected with better access and resources nearby. We need to think regionally: The post-pandemic era will see a continuation of people utilizing not just downtowns, but also the full scope of our metros. Many office workers are slated to move into hybrid schedules, working downtown a few days a week and in neighborhoods throughout metro regions otherwise; it will be necessary to create more 15-minute cities so that people can access what they need where they are.

The 15-minute city concept posits that all of your desires, wants, and needs should be located within a 15-minute walk or bicycle ride from your home. As such, 15-minute cities require more neighborhood schools, better food access, good third places, additional housing, improved walkability, more holistic density, and loosened regulations that let creativity flourish. The 15-minute city idea builds on long-standing new-urbanist concepts that similarly seek to create the ability to navigate everything you need on foot or bike—not via automobile. It’s seen its most success over the last few years in Paris in the last few years due to the leadership of Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is pushing nearly every single aspect of Paris’s built environment to make it an even more people-first city.

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Truly building 15-minute cities at scale creates huge implications for not just the way we get around, but where we live and how we live. COVID-19 served as an accelerant moving existing trends rapidly ahead—and there is currently a space for reorienting approaches and reimagining priorities. Utilizing federal ARPA funds, reorienting streets for people instead of cars, and centering equity and proximity in decision-making will lead to optimal outcomes. So many cities throughout the United States are already or will soon be fully reopened. As we begin to put the pandemic behind us and build back communities better than before, let’s all have some fun, and enjoy our great urban places. This will be the summer of cities.

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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