by Gregory Saville
The local kids were out again after sunset tonight howling like timberwolves at a full moon, a show of solidarity for stressed healthcare workers. Millions of apartment dwellers in cities around the world bang pots and pans and now these suburban kids, ancy from weeks of quarantine, perform their own nightly ritual. In the words of John Lennon: “Imagine all the people, living for today.”
I have wondered of late how pandemics affect urbanization. Jane Jacobs tells us epidemics are defeated within cities and with new medicines, innovative planning, and science. But, as we’ve blogged over the past month, we are threatened not only with a deadly disease, but with an aftermath of social distancing, social isolation, and a future that is gated for some, exclusive for others. Fear is a powerful motivator for change. How can we make things right?
A NEW NARRATIVE
We should not be running away from urban areas into isolated rural enclaves. Some say we need to re-suburbanize and separate – permanent social distancing. They ignore our basic human nature to connect – to howl at the moon in gratitude for others.
Some claim density spreads disease, a statement that confuses density with crowding. High-quality urban design promotes connectedness and avoids crowding; Low density is not the answer.
Consider Taiwan and Louisiana. Population dense Taiwan, with 23 Million residents has (at time of writing) 380 confirmed COVID infections and 5 deaths. The rural state of Louisiana with 4.6 Million, suffers a horrific 20,014 infected and 801 deaths.
Taiwan no doubt has a better public health system. It probably has better governance. It has the luck of island geography (although the Philippines infection rate suggests otherwise). Perhaps they should have cancelled Mardi Gras in late February? Yet, none of those things are about density.
One thing is certain: A cohesive, well-informed and networked community like Taiwan moved much faster to curtail COVID-19. If you recreate that cohesiveness, education, and networking at the level of the neighborhood, you create a city of networked urban villages. We wrote about a city of networked urban villages in SafeGrowth: Building Neighborhoods of Safety and Livability.
What steps do we take to get there? With so much infrastructure already in place, how do we modify cities to create something healthier, more livable and more pro-social? Remember, there are elections all over the world later this year. What should you demand for your candidates? How about demanding they start working on the following steps:
City politicians – Stop approving low-density commercial “strips” where it is difficult to walk from one shop to another. Sprawl forces residents drive to distant shopping plazas and it separates them. When the pandemic fades, we won’t need more separation! We cannot learn neighbor skills if we cannot find our neighbors. Try clustering developments into common areas where ‘strangers’ can become friends, what architect Ross Chapin calls Pocket Neighborhoods.
And for goodness sake, put pro-social urban design ahead of new expressways and road widening.
Architects – Stop building multi-family developments without involving the users. Conduct design sessions to give everyone a say before construction begins. If you want people to truly care about their neighborhood, let them share their dreams and aspirations. And stop building such ugly townhomes. In SafeGrowth we conduct search conferences to create shared community visions. How about asking residents what best fits their lifestyle? Would they prefer a community woodwork shop or a workspace for crafters? What about a co-working office?
City leaders – Stop fighting Smart Growth development policies because you think fewer property tax dollars accrue. You do not have to reinvent the development wheel to do something different, just attend a Smart Growth conference or read some books on the topic. Try Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.
Bankers – Stop making it so difficult to lend to Mom-and-Pop stores. They are the blood pulsing through community life. Local stores cannot match the conglomerates for prices, yet they support local families and they better respond to local needs, like sponsoring community barbeques or craft markets in front of their stores. They need your help to reduce costs and remain a vibrant part of neighborhood life!
Mortgage lenders – Change your lending practices and encourage collaborative housing – a form of community-building that helps citizens work together, especially during crises like pandemics. One example is private equity co-housing, a proven form of neighborhood living in which residents create their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, speculation and inflation have shut down too many cohousing projects. Lenders – You can help!
Transportation managers – Stop wasting fossil fuel by sending huge, empty buses from one vacant bus stop to another. People avoid buses because they are inconvenient, unpleasant, and take forever. Any new, healthy configuration for a city should be designed around networked urban villages and they will need radical innovations to bind them together. Uber figured how to use the internet to transform cab service. Why can’t we do this with public transit? How about supplementing regular routes with smaller, comfortable, shuttles-on-demand, ordered online and paid by e-commerce? And smaller shuttles for regular routes too!
Educators and school trustees – Get your students into the community. Get them to learn history, social science, geography, and science by learning how to work with residents on real community problems. The problem-based learning movement does that and it is already in many high schools. They will learn face-to-face social skills they cannot learn on troll-infected social media. Educator and thought-leader Gerard Cleveland is a guru in this movement.
Organizers/social workers – While residents socialize superficially, after decades of computer screens and social media they have lost the deeper skills of managing conflicts and solving problems together. They desperately need shared communication and problem-solving skills. Please, help! For example, look up our friend Evelyn Zellerer who teaches peace circles and restorative justice.
Nihilists, doom-and-gloomers – Stop fearmongering! Yes, we will suffer but this pandemic will end. There might be a paroxysm of political rage, maybe economic turbulence. And as before the pandemic, we still must reverse our environmental damage before we reach criticality. Despite it all, people are not inherently evil and progress is already underway. If you doubt that, read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.
Inexorably, in fits and starts, we will build a better future.
by Gregory Saville
Responding to our global COVID-19 pandemic, New York sociologist Eric Klinenberg recently wrote that social distancing will lead to, not only an economic recession but also to a future changed in unexpected ways.
Perhaps! But only gravestone epitaphs are written in stone and I choose to write my own future, which brings me to New York.
New York is the city where Jane Jacobs wrote about the power of social networks in her famous book Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that launched the CPTED movement. She wrote that we keep the peace on our streets through an “intricate almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves.” In other words – us!
Strange advice coming from New York, the city with apartment towers far above urban parks, strangers yelling and car horns blaring! The endless rush hour! And today New York is the epicenter of the American COVID-19 pandemic, a city where thousands have already died in a country that leads the world’s infection rate.
Yet, despite it all, this YouTube showed up from New York City:
And it’s not only New York! This spontaneous flash of solidarity with health care workers has become a social epidemic of goodwill all over the world. It’s now in Italy, Germany, India, Israel, and in cities all across the Americas, from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Vancouver, Canada. Applauding with abandon – usually, around shift change at hospitals – New Yorkers join millions of others around the globe to cheer healthcare workers with pots, pans, whistles, hands, and anything else they can find.
This reaffirms the reality of Jacobs’ intricate, unconscious social network. Despite food hoarding, panic purchases, and obnoxious herd behavior, people eventually figure out that they depend on the social connections of everyday life to survive.
PUBLIC HOUSING AND CRIME
Never was this yearning for connection more evident than during our SafeGrowth work in New York City over the past two years. Members of our SafeGrowth team worked with the New York Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to teach CPTED to residents, including how to set up plans to improve life in their apartment towers. No small feat considering this public housing had some of the highest crime rates in the city.
Impressively, people pulled together in this biggest of cities, in places with so-called intractable crime rates, and they began to cut crime and improve safety. They created plans and they implemented many of their ideas because they knew they depend on social connections to survive everyday life. It was like Jane’s spirit hovered over the city that she once called home, a place where the velocity of daily living speeds past the average person at breakneck speed, as she whispered the ghostly incantation: “Pay attention to each other! Care for each other!”
As we face the new COVID-19 reality, the lesson is clear: We can create inclusive neighborhoods from far and wide, suburban and rural, rich and poor. We know how to build pro-social urban designs and places of connection and resilience. Perhaps Klinenberg was right; COVID-19 will change our future in unexpected ways. Still, more importantly, it is us who will shape what that future looks like!
For years, SafeGrowth Advocates (and many others) have fought against the retreat from public life, the withdrawal from the discomfort of strangers, and the overwhelming fear of violence by too many of our fellow citizens. In her blog last week, Mateja reminds us that we must battle both the physical and the social virus. Similarly, a few weeks ago, Tarah blogged that there is a big difference between social isolation and social distancing.
If we cling to social distancing and isolation in our public life after COVID-19, we will leave very little humane life to retain our humanity. The social is, after all, what makes society. Even the Council on Foreign Relations knows this truth – the future of global health is urban health.
William Fulton, planner and former Ventura city mayor, recently blogged that the post-pandemic city will lead to “an increase in remote work arrangements which will lead to more activity in neighborhoods, more flexibility in public transit options and a renewed appreciation for taking a walk.”
If that is the future we want then we need practical methods to deliver services where people can stay safe and healthy in their neighborhood. We need places where residents know each other and where they feel comfortable walking, day or night, and where they do not have to drive for food, medical care, and recreation.
THE UNCONSCIOUS NETWORK
Millions of strangers all over the world do not spontaneously bang pans and cheer outside their windows because they want isolation from their neighbors. They do it because they yearn to express their emotions in a safe public place in a way they can see and hear their neighbors doing the same. Even with a raging pandemic, they share a common realization that we all – healthcare workers, doctors, food delivery people, everyday neighbors, and police – need each other.
It’s the unconscious network in action.
How will cities evolve following the pandemic? Some claim cities will isolate, gate up, and separate. They say technology will prevail to protect us! But, in truth, we shall not find salvation in seldom-monitored CCTV systems or in the socially-hollow gated community. As King Lear says, that way madness lies!
NEXT BLOG: What can we do to create different, healthy, and safer places? There is another way!