“Movement focus #3 — Chelsea, New York City” by Andreas Komodromos is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Dear City Officials: an inclusive and green recovery from COVID is in your hands (and budgets)

Like a tidal wave of global proportions, COVID-19 has hit the world hard and its impact will be felt for decades to come. Municipalities have a unique role to play in community response and recovery. They are the front line in responding to community needs, working to preserve human connection, local economy, and community livability. In 2020, this meant finding ways for residents to travel and recreate at safe distances, for businesses to operate amid new guidelines, and for key services to be accessible online.

While COVID has dismantled many of our existing institutions and ways of life, it has also given us the opportunity to pursue a new normal. Few city leaders, if any, imagined community meetings via Zoom, Council hearings at kitchen tables, and, most striking, the changing demands of our infrastructure: local streets turned plazas, on-street parking turned outdoor dining, parking lots as food distribution sites.

The pandemic magnified existing inequities and community vulnerabilities that predate the virus, including social issues, such as housing, income, and food instability, as well as inequitable access to public spaces. It also emphasized the extent of human impact on environmental health. Quarantining populations and restricting mobility reduced emissions[1] and, while temporary, this period has given us a glimpse into a greener, more sustainable future, one we could move towards with investment, policy, and intention.

Moving forward, cities have the opportunity to center equity and environment in their recovery efforts, the urgency of both highlighted over the last 10 months.

While the pandemic brought to light many of the shortcomings of our existing institutions, policies, and systems, it has also given cities the impetus to innovate around community engagement, the use of public spaces, and investments in technology. Here I will recommend solutions to turn the difficult lessons of 2020 into solutions for an equitable, sustainable, and durable future for our cities.

Moving Forward

While the focus must continue to be on the health crisis, now is the right time to think about our future. Recovery of our cities cannot fail to include equity or environment. To fully realize economic and social recovery from the challenges of 2020, including deep-seated issues like race, income, and access, city leaders must be bold, innovative, and engaged as today’s decisions will guide community recovery and well-being for years to come.

The following priorities are recommended in support of an inclusive, sustainable, and resilient recovery:

1. Advance and make visible commitments to social equity and justice

COVID-19 cast new light on systemic racism. In 2020, Americans took to the streets to demand more from government, calling for anti-racist institutions, among other imperatives.

Education, conversation, and investment are needed to confront and change systems of racial discrimination; these commitments are also needed in order to realize inclusive recovery; this means bringing “equity” from mission statements to budgets, workplans, and performance measures. This work is also supported by undertaking the following activities through recovery:

- Assessment. Pursue a deep understanding of COVID-19 impact on Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities. By consulting with constituents, particularly its BIPOC members, cities can identify areas of critical needs and prioritize investments. Drawing a direct relationship between investments and community-identified need lends itself to recovery that is inclusive and enhances public trust.

- Engagement. Continued consultation with BIPOC communities and leaders beyond project identification sustains the government-constituent relationship and supports coalition-building with recovery as its shared goal. In addition, community-supported monitoring and evaluation of projects ensure investments meet their intended purpose and deliver on public need.

- Empowerment. Identify opportunities to engage and empower BIPOC residents for employment and economic recovery, including financial aid and relief programs. Local government should prioritize outreach and recruitment of BIPOC and those who lost work due to COVID in available vacancies. The social and economic returns from filling these positions with unemployed or vulnerable workers likely exceed the savings from keeping these positions vacant.

2. Rethink public space

COVID-19 had us rethink use of the right-of-way (ROW) and other public spaces.

During the pandemic, motorized vehicle use declined at the same time as demands on outdoor space increased; this led to the adaptation of public spaces, including the ROW (e.g., sidewalks, on-street parking) for other users such as outdoor dining, recreation, and distribution of everything from medical equipment to school supplies. Cities around the world have expanded use of the ROW for non-motorized vehicle functions with the result of cleaner air, reduced congestion, and safer streets. A few cities, like New York, have made street reclassifications permanent. Rethinking the function and use of a city’s public space, particularly in favor of climate-friendly options, supports environment and livability; it can even enrich local economy.

Privatization of public spaces offers an affordable option for cities to provide public spaces for recreation, dining, and other socially-distant functions. A challenge is presented, however, when it comes to ensuring continued and equitable access to these spaces by all residents. A core tenet of public space is it is open to all, regardless of race, income, and physical abilities. Few cities have figured out how to manage the privatization of the public realm so close oversight of temporary uses is recommended in order to avoid the annexation of public space for private enterprise, or “café creep.”

3. Expand investment in technology and data

COVID-19 reinforced what we already know: that in a crisis, knowledge is everything. Access to effective tools can mean the difference between response and reaction.

Technology tools and data are key to recovery as they support communication, work planning and delivery, and enhance public trust. Prior to the pandemic, few cities supported a remote workforce (certainly not near 100%, where we are today), engaged the community electronically, or performed project development and review virtually. Thanks to technology, the daily commute for many is a few steps to a home-office (saving many of us and the planet from congested roads of single occupancy vehicles), and travel to off-site meetings, out-of-state conferences, or events overseas has become no more challenging than opening a new tab in an internet browser. The ability to meet virtually has reduced emissions-producing travel, much to the chagrin of the airline industry, taxi and rideshare companies, and even transit providers.

Travel to and from schools has also been reduced, or eliminated where schools remain closed. While one result of school closures is reduced vehicular emissions, another impact is limited or no access to education, food, and social-emotional support provided by teachers and staff. Equitable access to services for students has been a struggle for school districts and their advocates since at least March. One way that local government can support these efforts is to invest in municipal broadband that provides reliable connection to the internet for students throughout their community. In this way, all students will have access to education, and the many other services schools provide, from their homes.

As we move towards a future where COVID-19 is managed and life may safely resume, cities should continue to invest in technology, particularly those tools that support sustained operation of city services, facilitate the public’s access to government, and manage data on community well-being and needs. Expanded use of these tools might look like free or low-cost wireless internet, the introduction of web or phone applications that facilitate communication with government, and publicly-available decision documents and dashboards that support government transparency.

While urgency is high, cities should make investments that support BIPOC residents as well as the community at large, and do so sustainably. There is no better time to address systemic problems and challenge our reliance on fossil fuels than now when the impacts are so visible. While the effects of COVID are global, the recovery of our communities, towards a more inclusive and sustainable future, couldn’t be more local.

[1] Decline in daily CO2 emissions peaked at >20% in the largest economies during sheltering (Le Quéré, C. et al., 2020)

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