“It [the pandemic] is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” ~ Arundhati Roy
One of the last classes I took in my Community Development program at Minneapolis College was Community Development and Indigenous Cultures. The instructor experimented with the idea of what the next iteration of Community Development looks like, and spent more time teaching entrepreneurship skills than discussing indigenous cultures. I chafed at the change in direction because I wanted to learn about indigenous cultures, not how to start a business. However, he spent much of the semester teaching agile leadership and as we begin to consider how to recover from COVID-19 I am thankful for the lessons on agile leadership I learned in his class.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration has identified four phases of emergency management–mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery.
Most would agree we are at the beginning stages of the response phase and we see stories emerging–here on streets.mn and in our other media outlets–that chronicle our responses to our “new normal”. These stories are an important documentation of how we exist during a pandemic and I appreciate the varied content streets.mn has published around our response. But my mind keeps leaping forward to the recovery phase–how we recover and leverage our recovery to mitigate future emergencies.
An important component of our recovery will be agile leadership. As everything changes, those of us concerned with the built environment must be flexible as we look to shape public policy around our recovery. We must be capable of shifting our focuses as we triage differing issues that confront us. At the same time, we also should understand we are faced with a generational opportunity to permanently alter our built environment.
A lifetime ago, I sat down with Bill Lindeke in late-January of 2020 over happy hour beers at Acadia, on the West Bank. One topic we discussed was the I-335 project–an interstate highway through Northeast Minneapolis–that was defeated in the 70’s. As we recounted the successful neighborhood organizing efforts against this project, we also recalled slowing population growth and the energy crisis played a role. Timing is vital to organizing, and I recall Bill saying that we should be prepared for events that can transform our organizing efforts–to strike while the iron is hot. COVID-19 is one of those events and through agile leadership we can lead the conversation–local, state and federal–on our recovery from COVID-19.
With all of this in mind, I have spent the past several weeks consuming media (podcasts, scholarly journals, books, blog entries, newspaper articles, etc.) covering what past pandemic recoveries looked like and how we can shape the recovery to come. While my research continues, I have identified many key components of a recovery. Out of these components, five facets of a recovery from COVID-19 have emerged:
Near-term, public transportation will take a while to recover. David Zipper, Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, is concerned with personal vehicle versus public transit during our recovery–including how China has so far seen a 95% recovery in automobile usage but only a 50% recovery in public transit ridership.
At the same time, with work-from-home (WFH) becoming a mainstay for many of our corporations we will see fewer cars and commuter buses on our streets during peak-time. WFH could be the pivot point many have sought in an effort to convince Hennepin County to make our streets safe for everyone. Lower peak-time traffic volumes can also allow us to experiment with car-free streets in our downtown urban cores.
Another potential implication of WFH is as more workers are able to work remotely urban migration may dwindle or stop altogether. Many of our plans for the built environment of our cities rely on population growth projections (and increased tax base). If urban migration slows or ceases, we will face a new reality when it comes to implementing comprehensive/traffic plans.
The general public has also begun to realize in recent weeks just how much space cars take up on our thoroughfares relative to cyclists, pedestrians, scooter- and transit-riders.
With greater awareness, asking for streets that are safe, equitable and sustainable for everyone becomes easier. We will see more energy behind demands for protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks, 4-3 lane conversions and lower speed limits. Implementation of recently adopted transportation plans becomes more politically feasible.
The recovery will also be a time for innovation. As an example,I am developing a modular street concept, where sturdier bollards combined with Dezignline bike rails can be used to provide protected bike lanes under normal conditions, but adjusted during emergencies to eliminate traffic lanes/widen bike lanes, or close streets altogether. Design, engineer and planning professionals will certainly come up with more innovations, and we will need agile leadership to adopt, implement and rally the public around the new ideas that emerge.
Public Spaces: How will our public spaces change? Will we retrofit existing buildings for greater ventilation and humidification? Will we make entryways and transit stations bigger? If so, how do we create additional space and pay for the changes?
It is also certain the public will be concerned about cleanliness and overcrowding in spaces like our parks, plazas, concert venues and theaters. We may see changes to prevent long queues entering and exiting these spaces.
Our restaurants, grocers and retail spaces will also see changes. When we emerge from whatever version of stay-at-home orders we are under right now, we will expect more space when we dine or shop in public. Will restaurants and bars go to a percentage (50%? 75%?) of maximum occupancy to make patrons more comfortable with lingering in their establishments long enough to eat and drink?
Marketplace: Our marketplace will see permanent change, but it is up to us how our marketplace changes.
We are sure to see increased efforts at organized labor, especially from workers who were deemed “essential” during this pandemic. Collective bargaining for higher wages and workplace safeguards will be on the table. (Megan Tobias Neely, author of Divested: Inequality in the Age of Finance has written an excellent article looking at how labor will change when we recover.)
The gig economy is certain to change as well. Instacart shoppers and the group Gig Workers Collective have already organized a strike because their demands for safer working conditions and hazard pay were not met. While unemployment benefits have been extended to gig & self-employed workers for the first time, obtaining those benefits has been confusing and delayed. This pandemic is certain to shift dynamics in the gig economy as workers demand more security for their labor and companies with annual losses struggle to secure capital amidst rising labor costs.
Supply chain is going to be a topic of conversation as well, and we may see a large-scale return of manufacturing that has been out-sourced in the past several decades–particularly for essential items.
Corporate accountability will be on the table too. If we are bailing out corporations, what responsibilities do they assume? Will we expect them to pay taxes? Will the consumer demand corporations value employees and customers equal to shareholders?
What will we do with the empty offices created from expanded WFH? Convert office buildings to housing? If we convert commercial office spaces to housing units, what policies will shape (re)zoning and tax roll implications?
Government: At the forefront of the conversation about how our government will operate during our recovery will be the matter of health care. Will we finally see a public option or Medicare-for-All?
We will also have larger conversations about the role of the federal government as we move into recovery and start work towards mitigation. If the federal government continues to demand our states cover so many costs associated with emergencies, will those dollars be taken away from transportation projects? Medicaid (New York)? Housing and education?
Our civil liberties will have to be defended vigorously as we recover. We already see attempts from the Department of Justice to further erode our civil liberties during this pandemic. How will our civil liberties intersect with efforts to trace the pandemic? What of wearing masks and emerging facial recognition technology? How will marginalized communities be affected? In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, several states now have laws on the books making the wearing of masks in public illegal. We can expect existing racial disparities in our criminal justice system to apply to the wearing of masks.
Governments may find it more feasible to continue holding many public meetings virtually. How do we ensure virtual public meetings are accessible to those from marginalized communities? How do we use virtual meetings as part of the planning process in marginalized communities? How do marginalized communities make their voices heard in virtual meetings? Will virtual public meetings increase diversity of those in attendance? Is it easier for leaders to pass tough, but evidence-based, policies when they don’t have angry citizens screaming at them face-to-face?
Community: Disaster recoveries across the planet have experienced the phenomenon of emergent communities–new communities formed in the wake of the disaster recovery to provide clothing, food, water, mass shelter, medical assistance, crisis intervention and community healing. As emergent communities rise amidst our recovery from this pandemic, the challenge will be to create space for these emerging organizations to be community-based, place-based and permanent.
Will we find a new urgency in placemaking? While the mitigation, preparedness and response phases of national emergencies like pandemics can often best be addressed at the federal level (in a more perfect Union), the recovery phase should involve placemaking, centered on community-based participation.
The individualism v collectivism balance may shift. While the United States has traditionally been an individualistic society, there was limited ebb and flow between individualism and collectivism in the prior century and it could be the pendulum swings again towards collectivism as we recover.
The debate over medicare-for-all notwithstanding, once we have recovered from this pandemic we will see many changes in our medical services. Virtual doctor visits will be more common and could pose a solution to some of the disparity in medical services between rural and urban communities. (Rural broadband access should also take on greater significance, post-COVID-19.)
Education is another field in our communities that could see permanent change. Colleges and Universities were already pushing more on-line classes and now we could see more virtual classrooms–in colleges and even high school. Perhaps elementary and junior high schools go to 2-3 days on campus, 2-3 days virtual classroom model? Policy makers will also be reconsidering licensure requirements for educators, changing our existing teacher licensing model in favor of more experience-based qualifications for instructing our students.
Recovery includes acknowledging and addressing the trauma communities will experience as a result of this pandemic. Community-led efforts to create art and provide therapy–particularly amongst marginalized communities–will allow us to confront our trauma and heal holistically as a part of our recovery from COVID-19.
We must be mindful that all of these experiences–the pandemic itself, our response, the recovery and efforts at mitigation for future emergencies exists within the context of our current climate crisis. Many tools for recovery have already been proposed by those on the front lines of the climate crisis. Many marginalized communities suffering trauma from this pandemic have already been experiencing trauma because of our climate crisis. As we recover, we must be agile in implementing policies that allow us to recover while mitigating future emergencies–including emergencies that will arise because of our current climate crisis.
Over the coming weeks and months I will be writing about how these five facets intersect with streets.mn’s mission and values and their existence within the context of our ongoing climate crisis. My exploration of these five facets of recovery will be informed by my education in Community Development–particularly the concepts of asset-based community development and a project-based approach to research methods for community change. The emerging ideas will be filtered through the lens of placemaking as the foundation of our approach to shaping the public policies that will drive our recovery.
This series is meant to fulfill the mission of streets.mn–to foster positive connections and inclusive conversations about better places in Minnesota (and beyond), and study how the streets.mn core values will drive public policies shaping our recovery from COVID-19. Please participate in the conversation and make connections by commenting on this post AND contributing to streets.mn with posts of your own. Lobbyists and defenders of the status quo are already lining up to influence our collective response and recovery, but we can lead the conversation about how we respond and recover by enjoining the conversation straightaway.
Links about recovery efforts from Dr. Samantha Montano, Assistant Professor of Emergency Management and Disaster Science at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and author of the upcoming book Disasterology
My research and this post have been influenced by original ideas from many, including Lena Jones (Instructor at Minneapolis College), Barbara Brown Wilson, Dr. Elizabeth Sawin, Dr. Samantha Montano, Brent Toderian, Kim Hart and Jonathan Myerson Katz. Shareable, The Response and Movement Generation are organizations that have also been valuable resources for my research.