Coronavirus: How cities can adapt to Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic is presenting difficulties to everyone in the US right now, but some of the biggest challenges are being faced by cities. Normally hives of social and economic activity, cities have been forced to shut down almost completely.

Even in shutdown, though, people still need to remain active. Cities still need usable spaces that can accommodate physical distancing. Meeting those needs presents an incredibly urgent and disconcertingly novel set of problems for city officials.

To talk through the ways that cities might rise to meet these challenges, and what things cities ought to be doing that they aren’t doing yet, I turned to long-time urbanist Brent Toderian, previously the chief planner for Vancouver, British Columbia, now a consultant and speaker.

In 2017, he and I had a long, five-part conversation about urbanism in the 21st century. Lately, he has been thinking through ways that cities might weather the virus and come out on the other side stronger, so I thought I would check back in with him.

We spoke on April 10; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

David Roberts

What kinds of challenges is physical distancing posing to cities?

Brent Toderian

There’s a communications challenge, for starters. We keep hearing “stay at home,” and even more powerfully, “lock down.” Both are important messages, and everyone should follow the specific directives of their public health officials, but often, even in places that are in official lockdown, there’s an allowance for people to get out of their homes, carefully, infrequently, and close by, for short distances and short time frames, to get some exercise, fresh air, and mental respite.

There are significant negative implications to complete lockdown — physical health implications, mental health implications, issues of domestic violence, issues of depression and suicide. Public health officials are considering the risks associated with the virus, but also the broader public health issues and risks of extended isolation, especially in very urban settings where folks don’t have back yards and such.

The problem is, when people do leave the house, they are frequently confronted with too-tight situations. There’s often not a lot of space for walking and biking while staying two meters [six feet] apart. There’s too little space for people on streets, in parks, almost everywhere. The pandemic has revealed for everyone what some of us have been struggling with for a long time: Cars have taken up so much space. There’s not a lot of room left over for people.

Cities have come up with rules to address crowding — not density, mind you, but crowding — by banning assemblies above certain sizes and such. Those are the relatively easy things to address. But it’s tougher to address the general reality that we’ve designed streets to be too tight for daily use by people by making them too generously sized for cars.

Safety signage near the Interstate 5 freeway in Commerce, California. Many US cities have been designed for cars, resulting in little space for walking and biking.
David McNew/Getty Images

David Roberts

So what are cities doing, other than just locking down and freezing up?

Brent Toderian

The biggest thing happening in city after city is the closing of streets to cars and vehicles while opening them up to people, to create safe space for those staying at home to occasionally get some sun, fresh air, exercise, and social connection, albeit at a minimum of two meters apart. The whole street might be transformed, or it might just be parking lanes or some drive lanes, in order to widen sidewalks or add bike lanes.

Cities that were already routinely doing this kind of thing, converting space for cars into space for people, had a head start, a culture and a skill set for it. Hopefully as new cities try creative things during the pandemic, they can develop that skill set.

Bogota might have been first out of the gate. They announced four weeks ago that their Ciclovía [a 120-kilometer network of streets turned over to bicycles one day a week] would be extended to all week. Then they opened up 117 kilometers more of temporary space for bikes and pedestrians by taking away car lanes. The speed and size of their action was inspiring.

Other cities have started to follow suit: Minneapolis, Berlin, Paris, Denver, Vancouver, Montreal, Winnipeg, Portland. Most recently, Oakland got everyone’s attention by announcing the transformation of 72 miles of their streets. That’s 10 percent of their total — remarkable leadership.

A lot of it comes down to whether your city is creative or risk averse. The best illustration of that distinction involves cities that are closing parks because they’re too crowded, instead of realizing that they are too crowded because there is too little space and you should open more. They are taking a bad situation and making it worse.

With the measure “Oakland Slow Streets” the city is closing 74 miles of streets to vehicles to create more space for people to get outside for safe social distancing.
Jeff Chiu/AP

David Roberts

What are some things cities ought to be doing that they aren’t doing yet?

Brent Toderian

Running buses and trains more frequently, with fewer people on each and mandated space or seats between people. Waiving public transit fees. Most of all, lowering local speed limits, to support the use of streets for people.

Traffic speeds are not getting enough discussion in all this. We know there are fewer cars on the road, but they are speeding more. That’s one reason pedestrians going off the sidewalk in order to physically distance isn’t safe.

The best solution would be designing streets for low speeds. But in the meantime, cities should be temporarily instituting lower local-street speed limits, with enforcement to go along with it. We can’t afford to have the usual number of injuries and deaths from car crashes affecting our hospital capacity right now.

David Roberts

What kinds of systems should cities put in place to be more resilient next time? We know there’s going to be a next virus, to say nothing of climate shocks.

Brent Toderian

I talk about “density done well,” the things that can make density livable and lovable — better design, more amenities, and transportation choices that move more people using less space. There are at least five or six ways cities will need to change to do density better and be more prepared next time.

First, I think this will heighten the conversation about complete communities, what Paris has started calling “15-minute neighborhoods,” where you can do and get what you need locally, on foot or by bike. Melbourne has used similar language, as has Vancouver. Neighborhoods like that have proven to be more resilient.

Second, density done well builds in more breathing space. You can have dense neighborhoods and still have space, nature, and respite. We have models of how to do it successfully, we just need to ramp it up. We need to rethink details like sidewalk widths on key streets, more useable balconies, and better multi-purpose delivery space for buildings.

Third, we have to rethink mass transit in terms of funding, operation, and design. We have to be able to accommodate more trains and more buses that are less full and more frequent. Jarrett Walker has said for years that “frequency is freedom.” Frequency is the key to transit being the alternative to the car. And it’s key for safety during a pandemic — no need to cram a train when another is coming soon.

Vancouver and other cities are starting to create small pockets of neighborhoods within cities where you can get what you need by foot or by bike.
Liang Sen/Xinhua via Getty Images

David Roberts

Having spare transit capacity that you can bring online when you need it is expensive.

Brent Toderian

Public transit is not nearly as expensive as we think it is when you compare it to how much money we put into excess capacity for cars, or when you compare it to the costs and consequences of not investing in transit. We’ve been building excess capacity for cars for over 50 years and it’s been shockingly expensive.

Fourth, we need to remember how to design higher-density housing better. I say “remember” because we have historic buildings done in the context of previous pandemics that illustrate a lot about how we should be designing new buildings.

The good news is that many of the building design improvements that will help with greener performance will also help make buildings safer from viruses. It can include things like more space in hallways, which are essentially the sidewalks of buildings; better and wider staircases; more space and opportunities for natural elements inside and even on the skin of buildings; natural ventilation for better airflow; more usable amenities like personal balconies and shared courtyards. Buildings with well-designed courtyards have been a real benefit for people during this pandemic, but we have allowed them to become rare.

And here’s a big one: space that’s actually useful for working from home. I anticipate that’s going to be one of the lasting legacies of this pandemic, and the spaces we’ve been designing for working from home are almost as bad as our balconies.

Fifth, there are a lot of small details in cities around how much we touch things, from “beg buttons” for pedestrians at intersections to automatic doors and touchpads for financial transactions. We’re likely to have a whole conversation coming out of this about touch-free cities.

David Roberts

It sounds like best practices for virus response in city design are substantially similar to best practices for public space in general.

Brent Toderian

Yes and no. What we have done in terms of best practices for public spaces in recent decades has tended to be about creating destinations that draw crowds. And once we attract the people, we worry about how to make those places “sticky,” meaning that, once they’re there, people want to stay longer.

That’s the opposite of what we want to be doing with public space in a pandemic. Right now, we need lots of simple, “unsexy” local spaces that people can get to easily — but not too many people, and we don’t want them to stay too long. It’s turned our usual definition of success on its head.

You’re right in the sense, though, that what we should have as our normal definition of success, if we really believe in complete communities and local resilience, is the creation of hyperlocal public spaces that serve local communities. Yes, you can have destination public spaces; every city can have special places. But they’re not an alternative to the hyperlocal opportunities, they are in addition.

The most local and ubiquitous public spaces we have in cities are streets. We’ve just given too much of that street space to cars.

David Roberts

I want to return to sidewalk width. Obviously I see the problem: most times, they are literally not wide enough to permit six feet between people. But widening even a fraction of sidewalks across cities would be so expensive.

Brent Toderian

We’ve got thousands of miles of urban or suburban residential sidewalks that are 1.5-meter width [just shy of 5 feet], which don’t come close to allowing physical distancing when approaching another pedestrian, without one having to walk out onto the street. And many suburbs don’t have any sidewalks at all, or only have them on one side of the street.

But not all sidewalks are the same. There are important differences in context. Sidewalks on main streets or in urban places, where it’s rare to have anything less than a crowd of pedestrians, are particularly in need. They are usually wider, but often not wide enough.

I’m doubtful that we’ll change every mile of sidewalk in the city, and especially in the suburbs. The standard might increase by a half a meter or so as a result of this. But we specifically need to think about breathing space on sidewalks in our most urban places.

Will it cost more? Yes, for cities and for developers who will have to give up more of their land in setbacks during development. But streets that are more successful generate more taxes, jobs, etc., so the costs of such things need to be put in that context.

We have to remember that the crises we faced before this pandemic we’ll still face after this pandemic: the crisis of affordability and homelessness; the crisis of infrastructure costs tied to low-density sprawl; the public health crisis of preventable diseases tied to car-dependent cities and suburbs; and in particular the crisis of climate change. We will still badly need solutions for better density and better public transit, while applying the lens of physical distancing.

David Roberts

All these things people are doing differently in their cities, right now and throughout the pandemic — how much of it is going to stick?

Brent Toderian

My answer to that is: I’m a city planner. My goal is that we plan and decide what sticks and what doesn’t. Otherwise we’re just reacting, and if that’s the case, then some of the things that stick will be quite bad for our future, and some of the things that don’t stick will be missed opportunities. The point is to determine the answer, not just try to guess what it’s going to be.

We need to make sure that the short-term damage to public transit doesn’t stick. We need to make sure that the learning around wider sidewalks, more bike riding, and better usable space in homes, does stick.

Therein lies the problem, particularly for you folks in the United States. Your political narrative often seems to be that planning and governance stand in the way of individual freedoms or unfettered market choices. But the truth is, the cities that have responded to this pandemic better are the cities that didn’t just let things happen.

That’s indicative of how cities will succeed or fail in the context of almost all changes. Are you just going to let it happen, and at best react? Or are you going to choose your own adventure, your own future?

Commuters keep their distance on the subway in Beijing, China, during rush hour on April 13.
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

David Roberts

Any final messages to city officials and city residents during this grim affair?

Brent Toderian

We cannot afford to be passive. Sprawl advocates are already using this pandemic to champion more single-use, low-density, spread-out suburban development. Car companies will use this pandemic to convince us that cars are safe and transit isn’t.

If what we get out of Covid-19 is more sprawl and more car dependency, our future will get much darker. We have to be loud and persuasive about real consequences and better solutions, or else our already shaky decision-making around cities will get worse because of this pandemic, not better.

One of the things climate change is expected to produce is more and worse pandemics, so we simply can’t afford that.

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