Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover


GEN Magazine

August 2020

It’s a Thursday morning in July at the Jackson County Circuit Court in Kansas City, Missouri and Judge Mary Weir is running one of four landlord-tenant dockets processing housing cases — usually landlords seeking to evict their tenants. These state courtrooms, which typically try cases involving payday lenders and financial companies, move fast. Advocates defending renters describe them as assembly lines, and Judge Weir isn’t in the mood to wait.

“It is now 9:30 a.m., this is a landlord-tenant docket,” she says. “Folks, if you’re on the phone as a defendant, you should know you do have the right to defend yourself, but you also have the right to hire a lawyer. And you should know if you do represent yourself, the rules of evidence, and the rules of procedure still apply. You do not get a break because you’re not a lawyer, that is the law.”

Eviction courts have adjusted to Covid: Defendants can show up in person after a temperature check and pass through a metal detector; they mill about wearing masks until they’re called and are told to stand on blue dots taped on the floor as their cases are decided.

“For those who appear, the tension is palpable,” says Gina Chiala, a staff attorney and executive director of the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, which provides free legal assistance to tenants. “They’re watching other tenants go down in flames, leaving confused and in tears, and they know they’re next. Judges don’t like evicting people, and they have a lot of cases, so they end up processing them quickly and glossing over what’s going to happen next. I know what’s happening; in 14 days, someone is going to come to that tenant’s door and kick them out.”

Those who don’t want to show up — and most won’t — can use the conference line and WebEx video conference option, approved by the Missouri Supreme Court. Listening to a recording of one of these calls in Weir’s court, it has all the irritations of dialing in to a meeting — odd scratches and refrains of “can you hear me now.” The reality is when the call is over, some participants will have lost their homes.

On this morning, one elderly lady asks for and is granted a delay; she’s about to restart her job at Walmart, suggesting she’ll soon have money for back rent. Another man gets a delay so he can have a translator; it takes a few questions before it’s established he’s deaf. But mostly, it’s default judgments. After Judge Weir reads the name of a case — typically a real estate firm versus some tenant — and nobody answers, she’ll wait a few moments, then announce a default. Eviction granted. Showing up in person at least offers the chance to get advice from Heartland or another legal aid group, which can make a difference.

“It’s bonkers to think justice is being served over a conference call,” says Wilson Vance, campaign manager for KC Tenants, a grassroots organization that fights for local renters. “They can’t even mute individual participants; there are babies crying, sirens going past the window. The judge doesn’t even have to look you in the eye to displace you. It makes me sick to my stomach thinking how many people have been wrongfully evicted.”

Ever since Missouri’s statewide Covid-19 eviction moratorium expired on May 31, the court has gradually resumed operation. In July, the court heard 245 rent and possession cases; there have been 270 more through August 25. Court records show that’s a third of last year’s volume, but much of June and July was spent going through the backlog. Chiala suspects that’s because attorneys for landlords were waiting for the CARES Act moratorium to expire, and rent was often covered by stimulus cash. Advocates and tenant activists fear with Covid lingering, hopes for more federal stimulus dwindling, and temporary renter protections expiring, tenants in Kansas City, and the nation, will soon experience more video conference calls like the ones in Judge Weir’s courtroom.

Chiala calls remote court a “mockery of due process,” and a St. Louis legal advocacy group, ArchCity Defenders, is challenging the practice in state supreme court. She says that oftentimes tenants can’t hear the landlord’s attorney during trial, strain to show evidence over a weak video connection, and worst of all, might blurt something out during trial without consulting with their lawyer. (A spokesperson for the Jackson County Court said “we have found that hearings via video and telephone conference have worked well for the litigants, the attorneys, and the judges.”)

All the flaws exposed by Covid are on display during these proceedings. Heartland, which is one of several legal aid groups providing assistance, only has the budget to provide a single attorney in court during a time when up to 200 cases are being heard a day. Black and Brown populations — more likely to have low incomes, or be employed in the service industries, or have pre-existing health conditions — have to choose between rolling the dice on potentially unreliable remote options, or showing up in person and risking infection for a chance at due process. In pre-pandemic days, roughly 70% of defendants didn’t show up, daunted by the courtroom process and unable to secure counsel; Chiala only has anecdotal data, but believes a majority of tenants aren’t showing up now, either.

“A lot of tenants have faith in the system,” Chiala says. “They have hard lives, they want to believe the court process is fair, that there will be sympathy because they lost their job to a pandemic. They don’t know how bad the system is rigged against them.”

Covid-19 didn’t create an eviction crisis in the United States — it already existed. Rising housing costs, precarious, low-wage jobs, and a thin-to-the-point-of-transparent safety net meant that many renters were an illness or a cut in weekly hours away from eviction. (Most renters are taken to eviction court over $600 or less.) Every year, an estimated 2.3 million evictions are filed, four evictions every minute, with evictions filed against Black renters at nearly twice the rate as white renters, per the ACLU data analytics team. Nationwide, a quarter of all renters and 71% of extremely low-income renters (defined as an income at or below the poverty level or 30% of the area median income, whichever is higher) spent half their incomes on housing, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. When Covid came, the CARES Act, which included a 120-day federal eviction moratorium and expanded unemployment benefits, as well as a patchwork of state laws and moratoriums, prevented evictions.

That ad-hoc system seems to have worked; data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University show that the pace of evictions in 17 cities has actually been slower this year than on average, a drop or stall some attributed to increased unemployment and stimulus benefits. But now, advocates and activists say, with no additional stimulus forthcoming and remaining moratoriums quickly ending, courts are likely to see cases pick up. On July 24th, the federal moratorium expired — due to its 30-day notice period, evictions could therefore start up again August 24. As of August 26, there are 17 state moratoriums still in place.

The brittle network of pandemic-era protections is about to break. While courtrooms have been closed for months, protecting at-risk tenants, pressure has accumulated in the system. According to Noelle Porter, director of Government Affairs for the National Housing Law Project, in many jurisdictions landlords have been filing evictions at a faster clip, and a backlog has slowly grown. During the pandemic, other landlords have engaged in harassment and illegal tactics like lockouts that have led to tenant self-evictions, especially for undocumented renters fearing immigration issues.

The fissures will soon become obvious; Global advisory firm Stout, Risius and Ross found that roughly $21.5 billion in back rent is already owed, and a joint study by the National Low Income Housing Institute, Aspen Institute, and Eviction Lab predicts up to 40 million Americans are at risk of evictions by year’s end. With expanded unemployment now gone, a significant number of Americans will begin falling behind on rent. Lupe Arreola, executive director of Tenants Together, a pro-renter group in California, says the shame of eviction has been compounded with a heightened anxiety of health risks, a “level of fear higher than anything I’ve seen.”

President Trump’s August executive order on the federal eviction moratorium was a perfect encapsulation of the larger failure to protect renters. Even though a legal analysis by the National Housing Law Project found he had the power to do something, all his toothless order did was ask the federal government to consider solutions. By providing false hope, it’s “worse than doing nothing at all,” says Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center.

Asterrible as the eviction machine may seem during a pandemic, it’s only a slightly worse version of an already broken system, one that’s biased toward landlords and property owners. Famously documented by Matthew Desmond, the sociologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted, this facet of our judicial system is biased against BIPOC, and leads to a spiral of consequences for families who lose their homes, including medical issues, lost income, and the derailment of children’s education.

While many might assume evictions are worse in New York City, Los Angeles, or other pricy coastal metros, mid-size metros like Kansas City exemplify the issue. Smaller cities, especially where state laws preempt renter-friendly municipal laws, give tenants even fewer protections.

Anthony Edmonds, a Black 29-year-old, lives in Raytown, a suburb of Kansas City, and works part-time as a flooring contractor. He’s been in three car crashes in the last two years, which put him on disability and restricted his ability to work regular hours. On April 29, he was served an eviction notice at the townhome he lived in with two of his kids. He’s never missed his $700-a-month rent payment or utilities bill, but his landlord issued what’s called a no-fault eviction; whether it’s done to raise the rent, or because a friend’s kid needs a place to stay, it’s arbitrary and at the owner’s discretion. A landlord just needs to give a tenant 30 days notice, no justification necessary.

Confused, Edmonds asked for a few more months so he could find a new place. The landlord didn’t sympathize. When Edmonds showed up in Jackson County Circuit Court to defend himself, he met a representative from Heartland. After a few phone calls, staff attorney Zainab Abdullah helped him negotiate a settlement; he’d leave and waive a security deposit and wouldn’t get an official eviction on his record, the only way a deal that cost you a steady place to live could be any worse. A past eviction, which stays on a tenant’s rental history for seven years, gives a landlord the right to refuse to rent a room, no questions asked.

Since then, Edmonds has put everything he owns in storage and has bounced between friend’s houses. His three-year-old son started asking him when they’d go back to his house.

“For people like me, the ultimate outcome of not having an eviction on my record is the best thing you can get,” Edmonds says. “It’s that much harder being an African American in this society right now. It kind of makes you feel hopeless at times, but I need to keep going.”

It’s difficult figuring out when Edmond will have a new job, or even a new place; shared custody becomes very tricky in a pandemic without permanent housing (“I don’t want to stress out another family,” he says). This year has been relentless, Edmonds says, with absolutely no breaks; he’s so stressed he can’t think straight. The family he’s currently staying with just bought a new place and will be moving in two weeks, so he needs to find a new temporary home.

Black and Brown renters tend to be hit the worst by eviction laws, says Eric Tars, in part due to network impoverishment. If a white family is evicted, chances are they can turn to friends and family who can provide housing and support and help them get back on their feet. For Black and Brown families, often one emergency away from financial strain, they’re both individually and collectively less likely to be able to provide help. That’s why Black Americans, who make up 13% of the population, also comprise 27% of the population in poverty, and Black males make up nearly half of the homeless population.

The sense of loss and anxiety in tenants has been heightened for those who have been through other disasters that have cost them their housing. Jeff Quattrone, a 60-year-old graphic designer from Woodstown, New Jersey, lives by himself in an apartment after he lost his last contracting gig July 3. He also lost his home during the foreclosure crisis in 2008 and feels like there are echoes of that right now. “Watching all this is like watching a train coming at me full-speed ahead,” he says.

Quattrone has filed for unemployment, which should take him through September, but he doesn’t have any substantial savings. He has decided to tap his pension plan, since he may not have another choice other than having the bank repossess his car and becoming homeless.

“It’s interesting to see how folks who weren’t affected during the last recession are being affected this time,” he says. “It’s the first time they’ve been imposed upon and see what marginalized people live with on a daily basis.”

Nationwide, there’s enough shelter beds for 63% of the homeless population, says Nan Roman, president & CEO, National Alliance to End Homelessness. But that estimate is based on the most recent homeless population counts from 2019, with shelters operating at normal capacity; Covid social distancing has drastically cut that number. “If the pandemic continues, one of the greatest ways for it to transmit is through family groups, so having people together right now isn’t great,” Ronan says.

Homeless advocates have asked for billions of dollars to support shelter and outreach, and second the call for $100 billion in rental assistance included in the HEROES Act, which House Democrats passed in May. But they need to act soon; homelessness is a lagging indicator, says Roman, and it’s going to be hard to get accurate counts during the pandemic.

“It’s a game of musical chairs, and homeless people are the ones that have lost,” Roman says. Nothing going on right now has changed the 7.5 million affordable units we’re short as a nation. The demand for those units will go up, and there are workers without jobs who don’t have money to pay back rent.”

Tiana Caldwell, 44, an organizer with the renter’s rights group KC Tenants, was evicted in 2018 after getting diagnosed with cancer for the second time. This summer, she successfully defended herself against a charge she owed back rent. She says it feels good to be able to help people navigate the anxiety and terror and guilt of this moment. She’s heard heart-wrenching stories, heard fears of being tossed out into the elements, and sees her family doing everything they can to protect her and put on a brave face; her 13-year-old son decided to take school remotely this year to avoid putting his cancer survivor mother at risk.

“If we win, we organize. If we lose, we organize,” she says. “I think about all the people who don’t know how to reach us. That’s who I worry about.”

Iflosing a home was all that happened to those who were evicted, that would be enough. But the consequences last for years, if not a lifetime. Every aspect of someone’s health — mental, physical, financial, interpersonal — takes a hit.

Having an eviction on your rental history gives landlords, who can legally deny you an apartment due to past evictions, a reason to reject you. Effectively blacklisted by most landlords, it makes the challenge of finding decent, affordable housing, already in short supply, nearly impossible. That scarlet E may even last longer; the tenant screening industry, which scrapes online records to create databases used by landlords to verify tenants, may keep your records for an indeterminate amount of time, according to the National Housing Law Project, even if the record is eventually reversed or expunged.

Landlords typically refer missed rent payment to debt collectors, who in turn inform credit agencies, damaging a tenant’s ability to get loans. Evictions also become a red flag during many employment searches. Potential hires are seen as an “unreliable person,” says Arreola, and may not be allowed to handle money. The National Housing Law Project has argued that a new congressional relief package for Covid should include a section that bans landlords from using Covid-related evictions as a reason to deny housing, or any wave of mass eviction may lock millions out of decent housing.

The eviction crisis is merely a symptom of the diseased American housing system: filled with sprawl, an active history of discrimination, and lacking in affordable and available options. But failure to deal with the consequences of eviction due to the pandemic will ripple throughout the nation’s housing supply.

The human drama playing out in one Kansas City courtroom is just a hint of what may come later this year; even as evictions remain lower than they did last year, advocates believe the worst is yet to come. California and New York, states with arguably the largest and most at-risk renter populations in the country, still have active moratoriums for now; in California, many cities and counties have passed moratoriums, and the state’s Judicial Council has passed an emergency ruling preventing eviction orders from moving forward, while New York’s has been reliably extended every month. But California’s state Judicial Council voted earlier this month to rescind that protection by September 1 (a last-minute stopgap bill to extend protections through January 31 was signed into law Monday), and in New York, landlords have recently been allowed to sue tenants again; currently it’s only filing by mail, and the courts still won’t hear cases. To Susanna Blankley, of the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, this is how the machine slowly lurches back into action, putting tenants on notice and slowly building up a backlog of cases; 40% of New Yorkers can’t pay rent, and 1.5 million households, in theory, are at risk of eviction in the city and owe more than $2.2 billion in back rent, according to a study recently released by her group.

Porter at the National Housing Law Project says if 30 million people lose their housing, there won’t be 30 million people ready to take those apartments; that may mean scores of landlords face mortgage default and sell, perhaps to speculators or large management companies that raise rent.

“This is a major economic crisis that nobody benefits from,” Porter says.

Sarah Saadian of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, still hopes there’s a future for the HEROES Act, which would have extended the national eviction moratorium to March 2021, provided $100 billion in emergency rental assistance.

“It’s really outrageous the Republicans waited for months to negotiate thinking they’d have more leverage,” she says. “It’s too late to help people pay September rent, which is all the more reason moratoriums need to be extended, to protect people until they can get some form of income.”

Housing and tenants’ rights were already becoming a larger political issue before the Covid crisis, including President Trump attacks against multi-family zoning in the suburbs. The affordable housing shortage is becoming more dire, cities like Minneapolis have rallied around and passed progressive new city planning rules to build more dense housing, and protest from groups like Moms 4 Housing in Oakland and the Reclaimers in Los Angeles, who took over empty homes to protest speculation at a time when so many are struggling, set the stage for the nationwide response to the eviction crisis. Vance in Kansas City is only sure that a lot of renters will struggle during this time. But she also sees potential in the depths of the disaster.

“If you asked me in February if it would be possible for any level of government to put a pause on evictions, I would tell you you’re crazy,” she says. “Even now, what’s possible is constantly shifting. I think people won’t forget. We’re seeing pain, but we’re seeing so many more people radicalized than we’ve ever seen before.”

AIA Oculus

Summer 2020

As our understanding of the machinations and mysteries of coronavirus evolve, one of the pathogen’s striking features is how it targets the weakest among us. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a recovery that doesn’t focus, in large part, on helping these vulnerable populations.

The toll of the virus on cities, and the corresponding response from local leaders, may follow a similar logic. As it becomes clear that COVID-19 is hitting low-income, marginalized populations more—highlighting weak spots in social safety nets and the transportation systems that support essential workers—it becomes imperative that cities like New York plan to bounce back in ways that confront these issues head-on. “Leading cities are doing what’s needed now to create a safe and equitable environment,” says David Miller, director of international diplomacy for C40, a coalition of global cities fighting climate change. “Cities that are focused on using this opportunity to become more resilient and lower carbon will have far better health and economic outcomes.” The clarifying nature of a major crisis offers blueprints for cities to not just survive, but improve. Different places will come out of coronavirus shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders at different points, and with vastly different resources.

“The essence of New York City is that it’s the one city in North America that has a truly robust public transit system,” says Rob Goodwin, architectural design director for the New York office of Perkins and Will. “Now that we can’t use it in the same way, what does that mean for New York as an urban space?” After contending with the worst outbreak in the United States, New York City still finds itself with familiar challenges: inequalities concerning transit access, an underfunded public transit system, and a pedestrian safety crisis. But like cities across the globe, it also must contend with new hurdles: recreating a vibrant public square, restarting a moribund economy, and reimagining public transit at a time when riders fear enclosed, crowded spaces. “The worst-case scenario for post-COVID responses is that everyone is afraid of transit and jumps back in their personal cars, and congestion explodes,” says Allison Arieff, a New York Times columnist and the editorial director of SPUR, a Bay Area urbanism think tank.“

Many of the early and effective reactions—including speedy policy shifts and low-lift tweaks to infrastructure—exemplify tactical urbanism, a movement that emerged a decade ago that promoted low-cost, temporary changes to cities. But they all look beyond the pandemic to try and reframe what city life and transportation can be.

Few cities have revolutionized their transit system as quickly and concretely as Paris under the leadership of Mayor Anne Hidalgo. The socialist mayor, elected in 2014, has turned the City of Lights into a worldwide cycling capital with her extensive Plan Vélo, building miles of bike lanes, encouraging the use of electric bikes, pedestrianizing streets, and upgrading existing transit, all packaged as a program to improve quality of life and economic access. Now, with coronavirus creating a need for even more space for walking and cycling, Hidalgo has accelerated her plans to establish more car-free space in Paris, introducing just over 400 miles of TempoRER vélo, or “corona cycleways.”

“Public transit ridership is down, and cities such as Paris, by their nature, can’t function without rapid transit,” Miller says. “Right now, you need to build a walking and cycling network because people need to be mobile without being forced to drive. Without transit and these other options, everyone will just jump back in a car when coronavirus is more contained, and it’ll shut down the city.”

This template of turning space for cars over to pedestrians and cyclists and expanding green infrastructure has been adopted, in lesser form, by other cities, such as London. While Paris’s coronavirus response is, in many ways, the acceleration of a detailed, multiyear investment, it only requires political will and a few coats of paint to quickly alter city transit, says C40’s Miller. New York City’s 14th Street Busway, which quickly turned a main road into a bus-first street, has shown how quickly changes can be made to benefit buses. Why not do the same for bikes on a larger scale?

In Milan, Italy, a previous epicenter of the virus, city leadership has also focused on preventing pollution and car traffic from returning to post-pandemic streets, creating an integrated transportation network to cut down pollution (which dropped 75% at the apex of the pandemic) and keep cars away from the city center. A cornerstone of this strategy, the Strade Aperte plan, is bolstering business by expanding sidewalks for commercial activity. While New York doesn’t lack walkable commercial corridors, cramped small businesses and restaurants need more room to be able to operate amid the need for social distancing. Milan Deputy Mayor Marco Granelli explicitly says the investment in making more room for shops on busy streets such as Corso Buenos Aires is about creating an economic advantage for his city. “Milan’s thinking is focused on neighborhoods, and while the health and climate benefits of such a plan need to be emphasized, the economic arguments are very powerful,” says Miller. “Repurposing streets to enable active transportation, on a neighborhood basis, is a powerful tool for small business.”

Melbourne, Australia, is also expanding a similar program, creating what planners there have called a “20-minute city.” The concept, which was introduced in 2017 but has gotten renewed attention due to the pandemic, is to alter planning, land use, and transit to be super-localized so that every need of a resident can be met within a 20-minute walk or bike trip. For many New Yorkers, this lifestyle is already a reality and one of the main reasons they picked their particular neighborhood. However, equal access, particularly when it comes to jobs and greenspace, should be something all New Yorkers enjoy. (In 2015, New York University researchers found neighborhoods with limited access to transit have a 50% higher unemployment rate.)

Hand in hand with the neighborhood-first focus of plans like those unfolding in Melbourne and Milan is the comprehensive nature of the transit vision; ideally, every part of the city is accessible, both within itself and to other parts of the city. SPUR’s Arieff says these kinds of large-scale car-free infrastructure pushes, similar to the bike booms in cities such as Copenhagen, Denmark, offer riders the safety, peace of mind, and ease that changes culture. “A lot of people underestimate the importance of safety,” she says. “The network needs to be big enough to make it feel like you’re not the one fighting for your place on the road.”

Other cities are experimenting with pilot programs that provide even more space for local businesses. In Lithuania, the capital city of Vilnius plans to turn over a wide swath of street space, including public squares, to restaurants to create massive, open-air cafés for the era of social distancing. This plan stands in sharp contrast to the approach currently being taken in U.S. cities, says Alissa Walker, urbanism editor at Curbed, which tends to focus on recreation as the reason to open streets. “The most critical thing right now is people want to go to work,” she says. “Vilnius’s example shows we can close streets and pump money back into the economy. That’s going to help a lot more than closing a residential street so someone can exercise. If you really want to make systemic changes in transportation, we need to find better ways to talk about the changes.”

Arieff sees Vilnius as a textbook example of tactical urbanism. The open-air bazaar approach isn’t perfect, especially when the weather doesn’t cooperate, and won’t single-handedly save the local restaurant industry. But it will immediately provide something nearly everyone craves—a sense of community—and help pay for itself by helping restaurateurs. It also reinforces public space as a public good. In similar fashion, Goodwin and his Perkins and Will colleagues have designed a system to turn school buses into coronavirus test- ing and tracing centers, utilizing clever modular design and a surfeit of street space to provide much-needed healthcare infrastructure. “It’s a way to reintroduce public life that so many other places can copy, and I think it could really be transformational and stick around,” Arieff says.

A cyclist making use of the capital city's first contraflow cycle lane in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Tactical Auckland.

A cyclist making use of the capital city’s first contraflow cycle lane in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Tactical Auckland.

In similar fashion, New Zealand launched Innovating Streets for People, a $7 million fund, to create safer streets and more livable places as part of the nation’s overall COVID-19 response. Cities can apply for grants to finish placemaking projects, such as widening curbs or painting new bike lanes, making tactical urbanism a de facto government policy. “There are plenty of examples—from the way Curabita, Brazil, transformed its bus system, to New York City, where they turned Times Square from a traffic jam into a place for people—that show cities taking advantage of quick, affordable opportunities,” says C40’s Miller. “I’m very optimistic about the success of these measures to quickly and inexpensively change public spaces.”

By dedicating more street space to pedestrians, cyclists, and businesses, cities will eventually have to reckon with larger transit questions, notably public transit’s crisis of trust and ridership. According to Regina Clewlow, an analyst and founder of Populus, a transit data consultancy, numerous surveys have shown that since the spread of coronavirus, many riders aren’t comfortable using buses and trains. In New York City, where so many workers traditionally depend on transit, this will become a crisis: ridership on subways and buses has been down 90% since mid-March, according to the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Clewlow believes that micromobility—specifically bicycle sharing, electric scooters, and electric bikes—can offer car-free options to former transit riders, especially for the great proportion of trips that are less than three miles, which make up 45% of total trips taken in the U.S.

Leaders in Berlin, Germany, feel the same way and have responded by making the first 30 minutes of any ride on their bike-share system free to encourage more cycling. The German capital’s bike-share support shows another long-term benefit to these ad-hoc responses: new ways to improve equity and access to jobs. That’s ultimately what can make all these changes work politically and become permanent.

“The status quo left folks behind,” says Benito Perez, a transit official and member of Smart Growth America. “The temporary changes and solutions you’re now seeing in city streets highlight the need to rethink public space design to create a more equitable, multimodal, and complete system.”

These policy solutions may be improvisations, but the best can be viewed as investments towards a better transit network for all, one that improves transportation access and, in effect, boosts economic opportunities and mobility. After all, while most people just want to go back to normal, they probably wouldn’t mind if that return didn’t include traffic jams, congestion, and air pollution.

AIA Oculus

Summer 2020

Of all the places that went quiet during the sudden coronavirus quarantine of New York City, the silent streets and sidewalks may be the most unnerving. More than 6,000 miles of roads, from small side streets to broad boulevards, course through the city’s five boroughs, serving as urban arteries of people, vehicles, and commerce. The curbs, lanes, sidewalks, and public spaces that serve as main stages of civic life have rarely been as hushed and desolate.

They’ve also rarely been as full as potential, promise, and possibility.

“The curb is incredibly contested space,” says Emiko Atherton, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition for Smart Growth America. “It’s always been one of the most valued pieces of city real estate. But today, in the midst of this crisis, there’s a higher tolerance for experimentation. There’s a huge interest in repurposing these spaces to make them flexible and more useful for economic development and small business.”

Today’s unprecedented public health crisis has placed new demands on cities to expand public space and transit access, creating a moment of reflection that transit and urban planning professionals see as potentially transformative. This pause, which has led many cities to quickly open up streets to pedestrians—including New York City’s plan to open 100 miles of street this summer across all five boroughs—shows the speed at which change is possible. “The curb is this incredibly flexible space, yet we typically think everything that happens there is permanent,” says Anne Goodchild, who runs the Urban Freight Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, a program that seeks to understand urban delivery, logistics, and transportation. “This moment gives us an opportunity.”

The contemporary understanding of the curb, typically a place for parking and long-term car storage, was already undergoing a titanic shift before the pandemic, in large part because it was getting so crowded. Various interest groups wanted the same stretches of asphalt and concrete to serve multiple goals: Amazon delivery vans; couriers for restaurant delivery services like Grubhub; vehicles for transit network companies, including Uber and Lyft; electric scooters, Bike Share, and other micromobility services; and pedestrian and cycling activists demanding a safer travel option.

Students in the RISE Shore Corps program plant a dunescape at the Rockaways El-Space Pilot. Photo: RISE.

Students in the RISE Shore Corps program plant a dunescape at the Rockaways El-Space Pilot. Photo: RISE.

While the demands of social distancing in the COVID-19 era may have emptied out streets and sidewalks, they’ve paradoxically accelerated these transitions. Older cities such as New York already had narrow sidewalks; the demand for enough space to stay six feet apart has pushed planners to quickly repurpose travel lanes meant for cars, setting off a race to see which planning department can convert space the quickest, and opening up an unprecedented period of experimentation to create ad-hoc public space. “Public space has never been more important than it is today, but it has never been more threatened,” says Matthew Clarke, director of the New York-based non-profit Design Trust for Public Space, pointing out that new challenges with municipal and state budgets will mean there are significant funding gaps to fill if projects are to move forward. Still, there is broad recognition among civic leaders and the public that improvements to public space are now necessary to support public health and small businesses alike.

Any alterations to curbs, streets, and sidewalks will first need to recognize the increasing demand for this contested space to serve the immediate community and multiple constituencies. One source of pressure is the delivery infrastructure, which has become a more dominant source of traffic as consumers try to stay at home, and the need for pick-up and drop-off space for businesses attempting to operate amid changing social distancing requirements. Professor José Holguín-Veras, director of the Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, studies the e-commerce delivery ecosystem and says it’s easy to blame the increase in delivery traffic on the retailers. But this is really a classic example of a collective action problem that encompasses consumer behavior, municipal policy, and corporate profit-seeking (as is any reallocation of public space, curb or otherwise).“The curb is incredibly contested space. But today, in the midst of this crisis, there’s a higher tolerance for experimentation.” —Emiko Atherton

The e-commerce delivery ecosystem saw rapid growth before the pandemic (holiday delivery traffic alone increases about 5% each year, and truck traffic creates 28% of the nation’s congestion). Since shelter-in-place and quarantine practices became widely adopted in the U.S., Holguín-Veras has seen exceptional growth; many high-income homes have increased e-commerce purchases between 75% and 100% between the first and second quarters of 2020. “When I talk with drivers for UPS, FedEx, and Amazon, they tell me this period is busier than the holiday season,” he says. “What’s obvious today is that supply chains are important, and now people have awareness of what they took for granted. Hopefully, that translates to more enlightened policies.”

Holistic solutions fly in the face of how curbs and parking typically get viewed—as a block-by-block, zero-sum game. Will changes or new regulations slow down traffic or lead to more congestion and parking problems? But curbside policy that increases travel options that don’t involve cars and makes delivery, pick-up, and drop-off more efficient, thereby improving both e-commerce and local business operations, can strengthen the neighborhood fabric.

“How does the public realm support small businesses?” says Clarke. “Part of the issue is realizing that our collective American understanding of public space is pretty limited. We can point to a park or a plaza, but public space is everything from the property line out—the sidewalks, streets, and roughly 40% to 50% of the city. Our design and management of these spaces need to be more assertive.”

A rendering of Opening the Edge, a design concept by the Design Trust's Community Design Team, envisions a vibrant public space at the base of the Lillian Wald Houses on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Image: Design Trust for Public Space.

A rendering of Opening the Edge, a design concept by the Design Trust’s Community Design Team, envisions a vibrant public space at the base of the Lillian Wald Houses on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Image: Design Trust for Public Space.

Figuring out how to manage the cost of using the curb is essential, says Regina Clewlow, an analyst and founder of Populus, a transit data consultancy. Traditional cost control, via meters or free parking, should shift to become dynamic—varying prices during different times of the day to steer delivery traffic into certain windows, or pushing up the price of parking to encourage mass transit. Congestion pricing charges, which apply additional road fees to particularly busy times of the day, could also space out traffic in cars and on transit, which would benefit from less crowding. Efficiency isn’t just about saving money; decreasing congestion saves lives and cuts emissions.

There’s also the question of city revenue. Expected budget shortfalls due to the virus’ economic fallout make it more imperative that cities use curbs to raise money and generate taxable economic activity. Smart Growth America found cities have lost roughly 80% to 95% of their typical parking revenue since early March. The short-term reality of limited income, and the long-term trend towards more delivery activity by players like Amazon, suggests a fee for e-commerce delivery is in the public interest, says Benito Perez, a transit official and member of Smart Growth America. Such a plan could be modeled off trials in Chicago that charge fees for Lyft and Uber rides to fund public transit.

Rockwell Group worked with Melba's in Harlem to envision outdoor seating options. Image: Rockwell Group.

Rockwell Group worked with Melba’s in Harlem to envision outdoor seating options. Image: Rockwell Group.

The firm has developed five scales of cost-effective interventions, from minimal to more complex, that would allow restaurants to easily customize their own outdoor environments. Image: Rockwell Group.

The firm has developed five scales of cost-effective interventions, from minimal to more complex, that would allow restaurants to easily customize their own outdoor environments. Image: Rockwell Group.

As more traffic—delivery, pedestrian, and otherwise—returns to city streets, advocates want to make sure the disruption caused by coronavirus offers a chance to reorient streets and city policy towards health, safety, and mobility. The moves to rapidly turn over traffic lanes to pedestrians suggests more thoroughfares should be given over to Complete Streets projects, which take away lanes of traffic and reorient the streetscape towards pedestrians and cyclists with more space for walking, parks, and bike lanes. These projects offer needed transportation alternatives today, especially for essential workers who typically rely on public transit, which faces a crisis of dwindling ridership due to safety concerns. “This situation has put into stark contrast who relies on public transit, who’s more exposed to poor transit infrastructure, and where people are more likely to die riding a bike,” says Clewlow. “Good plans will address these issues.”

By focusing on adding car-free transit options now, says Atherton, cities can build long-term transit networks that benefit equity issues in general. Comprehensive bike networks and additional park space add greenspace to areas that lack it, which in turn can help eliminate health disparities between neighborhoods.

According to the Trust for Public Land, adding park space to the streetscape, especially trees, provides needed shade, assists with stormwater drainage, and is proven to boost physical and mental health. It also helps lower barriers to public park access; nearly a third of city residents aren’t within a 10-minute walk of a park. Oakland, California, which unveiled a citywide Slow Streets project in April that covers 10% of city roadways, prioritized neighborhoods that lack park access. “We need to make sure these changes aren’t just adding resources to neighborhoods that already have a large share of them,” Atherton says. “If these projects are done right, people will want them to stay, and you can build political will to make them last.”“This situation has put into stark contrast who relies on public transit, who’s more exposed to poor transit infrastructure, and where people are more likely to die riding a bike.” —Regina Clewlow

Clarke, of the Design Trust for Public Space, has been testing and trialing different ways to activate unused streets and sidewalks in New York City, giving locals the power to improve their neighborhoods, one block at a time. His Under the L project has outlined ways to turn some of the unused space below highway underpasses into parks, and a pilot program with the New York City Housing Authority will test ways to create new park projects outside the entrances to larger housing projects. Clarke is currently working with the city’s small business services on a new initiative to make it easier for small businesses to turn the curb to their advantage, focused on loosening regulations and speeding up permitting so it’s easier to set up street-side seating or new signage, or create delivery and drop-off zones. “We see it not just as having access to the asset—it’s about empowering people to be shapers of their community,” he says of these projects. “The management of these spaces is one of the hardest parts.”

Following discussions with restaurant operators and staff, New York-based Rockwell Group has already reimagined what outdoor dining could look like by designing a system of parts, including modular seating, wash stations, and street fencing to help local restaurants safely and economically expand outward onto the street. If done right, these changes can also help people get back to work and be promoted as ways to build up neighborhoods at a time when we fear the grocery store around the corner going out of business. Increasing sidewalk pickup may be a good start now, but wouldn’t it be better to make it easier for someone to simply walk or bike to the restaurant? More public space—trading traffic lanes for outdoor table spaces—literally provides the space for business in a post-COVID world.

This crisis—of public health, public policy, and the economy—is an inflection point for street design. Architects, designers, and policymakers need to seize the chance to act quickly and shape how the circulatory system of the city operates in the future.

Bloomberg CityLab

July 2020

Ellicia Lanier, 39, executive director of Urban Sprouts Child Development Center in University City, Missouri, outside St. Louis, considers herself one of the lucky ones. A Black mother of seven whose interest in early childhood development led her to start a nonprofit early learning center, she’s fought to keep her business afloat amid the punishing economic currents of the coronavirus crisis. 

“There is no economic recovery without child care, that’s the best way to put it,” she says. “As a nation, we haven’t realized how critical child care is to all facets of our lives.” 

She’s lucky, insofar as she’s still in business. Urban Sprouts serves mixed-income children — 57 percent come from low- to moderate-income families, 62% are from families of color. It closed on March 26, per area lockdown orders, and reopened the week of July 6, able to serve half the typical number of children due to social distancing mandates. During the months it was closed and unable to make money, the center stayed open thanks to donations, a PPP loan (enough to cover eight weeks of payroll), as well as a $22,000 grant by St. Louis County, part of the county’s child care Relief Program, one of a handful of local government initiatives across the country.

Urban Spouts
At Urban Sprouts, a child care center in St. Louis, Ladona Pace cradles a baby. The center has reopened this month, but at a reduced capacity. Jennifer Korman Photography, courtesy Urban Sprouts

Lanier admits she’s an atypical case; few child care providers have the resources to pursue government loans, or an established donor network to tap for help. And where does all that help leave Urban Sprouts?

“I’m probably at 30 days,” she told CityLab last week, referring to how long she can keep her doors open without a significant infusion of funding. “The state government said they won’t bail out early childhood. It’s quite scary.” 

According to providers, researchers, and advocates, it’s no exaggeration to say that without government investment and assistance — from local sources, but most importantly, state and federal governments — the U.S. child care system as we know it may collapse, just as uncertainty around school reopenings puts so many parents in an impossible bind. This week, presidential candidate Joe Biden made the crisis in the child care sector the focus of one of his campaign proposals for economic recovery, pledging $775 billion for caregivers who are “underpaid, unseen and undervalued.” Biden promises the plan would create 3 million new jobs in the industry in the next decade. 

Any such effort would seek to repair and rebuild a system that has long been overlooked.

“Child care has been in a crisis before, and advocates have been sounding the alarm since March,” says Elliot Haspel, a child care policy expert and author of Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It. “It’s now the end of July, and we haven’t seen significant action at the federal level. We’re seeing high-quality programs close their doors permanently, which will impact our kids and the economy. It’s just a stunning indictment of how we treat early childhood education in this country.” 

As gloomy as that assessment sounds, the situation may soon be even worse. A July 13 survey of 5,000 child care providers by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that two of every five child care businesses are certain they’ll close permanently without any further assistance. Consider the challenging environment they must operate in amid coronavirus health restrictions: 86% of centers are serving fewer kids, the survey found, overall enrollment is down 67% on average, and 70% of centers are incurring “substantial, additional costs” including providing personal protective equipment (PPE). Before the pandemic, 2 out of every 3 young children had all available parents and guardians in the workforce, Haspel adds, and 26.8 million U.S. workers are dependent on child care to work.

“There’s a sense that child care centers are reopening, but they’re opening at such reduced capacity, with many fewer kids,” says Katie Hamm, vice president of early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress. “There’s no way to keep doing this without a rescue package from Congress. It’s beyond baffling to me that we can bail out hotels and casinos, but child care has to fight for every penny. It’s not a coincidence this is work done mostly by women, especially Black and Brown women.” 

Haspel predicts that without more help — the CARES Act, passed in March, provided $3.5 billion for child care — there will be increased hardships for families, with some working parents having to cut their hours or give up their jobs altogether to keep up with child care. For many families, informal child care arrangements with friends or family members will permanently replace traditional child care or early learning programs. 

“We’re going to lose licensed child care as we know it,” says Hamm. “Child care providers have held on as long as they can. They’ve been doing this for four months without sufficient resources. They can’t hold our economic recovery together any longer.” 

The child care system in the U.S. was far from ideal before the coronavirus pandemic, especially in urban areas. In expensive cities such as New York, San Francisco, or D.C., families can pay upwards of $20,000 or more a year for full-time care for one child, thanks to the rent costs incurred by providers. That creates huge inequalities around who can afford such care, in part leading to “child care deserts,” parts of the country where there aren’t enough providers to meet local needs. In St. Louis County, Urban Sprouts typically served 124 children a day before the pandemic, max capacity. Lanier says there’s a waitlist of 400 families, since “there’s such a need for quality child care within the region.”  

That cost challenge creates significant equity issues for children of color, who have much less access to affordable child care. This inequity is having a “tremendously disproportionate impact on people of color” during the pandemic, says Haspel. A University of Oregon studychronicling the impact the Covid crisis is having on families has found that by just about every measure — health, stress, learning — this pandemic is “hammering” lower-income families and families of color, says Haspel. 

The child care workforce — which is low-paid and mostly women, especially women of color — has also been hard hit. A third have lost their jobs, Haspel says, and many lack adequate health care. And since these workers tend to be older, the risks they face from Covid-19 are particularly stark. “This is just a body blow to children of color and their parents,” Haspel says. “This just exacerbates education and learning gaps. It’s hard to square the movement for racial justice right now, and the way leaders are dragging their feet. The entire child care industry in this nation got less CARES Act funding than Delta Airlines.”   

There’s been inconsistent guidance from many state and local leaders around safety precautions and reopening, says Hamm, as well as communications issues around the true risk of transmission from children under 10. A spike in cases at daycare centers in Texas has raised fresh alarms. A host of additional challenges await when the school year — in whatever form it ends up taking — resumes in the fall, such as determining if a sick child has the flu or Covid. 

All this adds up to a huge decline in maternal labor force participation. “It’s women who are stepping back from their jobs and taking on more of the caregiving responsibility,” Hamm says. “We’ll see big declines in women working that could set us back decades and have broad implications for the economy.” 

For cities desperate to restart their economies, the child care crisis presents a significant roadblock. While many have invested significant money in early childhood education, such as programs in D.C., and New York City, there have still been inequalities in access, says Hamm, and city budgets already face huge pandemic-related shortfalls (and are unable to run a deficit, like the federal government). 

“Cities and states are trying, many are doing their best,” says Haspel, “But the scale of the money needed, with existing centers hemorrhaging money every month and cities facing declining sales tax revenues, means cities just don’t have a lot of ammunition. They’re trying to take out a five-alarm fire with a toy water gun.” 

That hasn’t stopped many cities, and local nonprofits and philanthropies, from trying, according to Tonja Rucker, director of Early Childhood Success at the National League of Cities (NLC). In Philadelphia, a coalition of local philanthropies provided $7 million to support the child care sector. Other cities have tried to support child care centers, especially those taking care of the kids of essential workers, with logistical help as well as PPE. 

In D.C., five local foundations banded together to provide $1 million to child care providers, offering up to $8,000 grants. Shauna Goldman, a project lead at Mary’s Center, which is helping disperse the aid, says that the goal was to both help keep care resources available to working parents, and help small businesses survive. 

“These are women of color, and this is their bread and butter,” she says of the center owners. “Many have been in the game for 30 years.” 

The St. Louis County program that bolstered Urban Sprouts’s finances grew out of conversations held between local government and Ready by Five, a coalition of local child care providers. (Lanier is on the steering committee.) According to Cora Walker, the county’s director of policy, the city heard the group’s demands, and allocated $5.9 million to provide grants to alleviate the financial hardship businesses were facing. Walker calls this “a down payment on something we’ve determined is a priority,” with the money coming from the county’s $173 million CARES Act funding. 

“We hope this can help other people see how critical child care is to the economy,” she says. 

There are signs of potential federal support on the horizon. The Child Care is Essential Act, co-sponsored by Washington Senator Patty Murray, would provide $50 billion for the industry. Haspel says that would be “absolutely the right interim step, a stopgap rescue to keep the industry from drowning,” and answer the requests advocates have for funding to last through the next five to six months. In comments Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated that a second round of checks in a proposed stimulus package would include relief aimed at schools and child care, which is said to be a topic of interestto McConnell. But time is of the essence. Even if it’s passed today, money wouldn’t appear in bank accounts until September, says Haspel.  

As politicians debate rescue packages, child care advocates are puzzled that their industry, so central to a fully functioning economy, isn’t getting more attention. 

“Not helping child care providers is absolutely putting a cannonball around the ankle of economic recovery,” says Haspel, who does expect Congress to eventually act. “We may see economic recovery at the expense of young children, which is a truly heinous choice to make. We’re putting parents in impossible situations by not stabilizing the child care industry, and it’ll have cascading effects on the economy.”

Rucker at the NLC hopes that this crisis, and hopefully its resolution, will show leaders that child care is essential infrastructure; this could be an opportunity to start building it back better. 

“We’ve got some work to do,” she says. “People knew, but didn’t really know, how essential quality places for kids to go really is.”

Bloomberg CityLab

July 2020

The Covid-19 crisis in the U.S. has torn a hole in city budgets, decimating urban economies across the country even as infections continue to roar back and the specter of second-wave lockdowns loom. Las Vegas faces “the most serious fiscal crisis” it’s ever faced. The pandemic is hitting Houston’s finances harder than Hurricane Harvey, according to Mayor Sylvester Turner. Tallahassee, Florida, city officials are trying to  “defuse a time bomb” due to $23.4 million in lost revenue this year. Local governments may face a cumulative shortfall of hundreds of billions of dollarssmall businesses are closing at staggering rates, and when the temporary boost in unemployment benefits expires, municipal sales tax shortfalls may get even worse. 

An international coalition of cities believes that the only path forward for mayors is funding green stimulus plans focused on job creation. The newly released Mayors’ Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery, released July 15 by C40 Cities, an international coalition of urban leaders focused on fighting climate change and promoting sustainable development, was developed by the organization’s Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force. The far-ranging series of plans offers a green prescription for financial stabilization that emphasizes several familiar pillars of progressive urbanism — renewable energy investment, energy-efficient buildings, improved mass transit, and spending on new parks and green space. One core idea: Cities are the “engines of the recovery,” and investing in their resilience is the best way to avoid economic disaster. 

One of its recommendations has a more novel ring to it. The agenda recommends that “all residents will live in ‘15-minute cities.’” That term echoes the transformative ambitions of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who has doubled down on car-free transit and pedestrian infrastructure in the French capital. Hidalgo made the idea that Parisians should be able to meet their shopping, work, recreational and cultural needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride a centerpiece of her recent reelection campaign. The C40 proposal suggests that following such a model would help global cities live up to the document’s promise of equitable access to jobs and city services for all, and rebuild areas economically hard-hit by the pandemic.

“Fifteen-minute cities, micromobility, and more space for walking and biking are innovative solutions that will help our cities rebuild and restore our economy while protecting lives and cutting dangerous pollution,” Carol M. Browner, former EPA administrator and board chair of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement supporting the agenda.

It’s not a new idea: Inspired in part by urbanist Jane Jacobs’s philosophy that proximity makes cities vital, various planning philosophies, including New Urbanism, have promoted more dense, walkable development — and simply “putting things closer together” — for decades. But the C40’s embrace of the 15-minute city concept may be the most concise and catchy way to repackage the idea as a pandemic economic recovery tool.

“Even though it seems difficult to replicate, it’s the right way to go,” says Dario Hidalgo, the senior mobility researcher for the World Resource Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities (no relation to the Parisian leader). “Walking and cycling present huge opportunities for small businesses in the neighborhood to thrive. It’s not just the reduction of emissions.”

As infection fears have limited transit and travel, this vision of close-knit districts — supported by infrastructure that allows bikes and walkers to rule — may be coming of age. Several cities around the world used shelter-at-home lockdowns to kick-start car-free infrastructure projectsMilan, Italy, added 35 kilometers (22 miles) of bike lanes downtown and will pedestrianize several school streets by September. Tallinn, Estonia, is building a 13.5-kilometer (8.3-mile) green corridor to thread together neighborhoods. Ottawa, Canada, announced plans for 15-minute neighborhoods last August; Portland, Oregon, has sped up long-standing plans to ensure 90% of residents live in “complete neighborhoods,” which have turned 90 miles of roads into neighborhood greenways. In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan is pushing an extensive bike lane network. Even New York City — where lagging efforts to limit vehicle traffic and boost space for bikes and walkers  during the Covid-19 crisis have been a frequent complaint among critics of Mayor Bill de Blasio — has closed some streets to cars.  

It’s Paris, however, that’s been the poster child for this shift: The French capital swiftly moved to install a regime of “corona cycleways” to ease transit crowding and prevent traffic from surging back into the city as businesses reopened. Recent images from the city show an almost Copenhagen-like renaissance of urban bicycling

Adding this kind of infrastructure isn’t just about allowing people to be outside safely, says Montreal mayor Valérie Plante, whose city plans to add roughly 300 kilometers (186 miles) of temporary cycling and pedestrian paths this summer: It also supports local business. “We want to encourage people to buy local, and forget Amazon,” she said at a July 15 press conference.

Can such a model work as an economic development philosophy in the wide swaths of the United States where car-centric planning patterns dominate? From a financial perspective, walkable development does win out; “Foot Traffic Ahead,” a collaboration between The Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis (CREUA) at the George Washington University School of Business, Smart Growth America, Cushman & Wakefield, and Yardi Matrix released last year, found that so-called “walkable urban places” demanded 75% higher rent over the metro average in the nation’s 30 largest cities, all while increasing equity and investment opportunities. 

Hidalgo, the Colombian researcher, believes in the power of such a plan, but also feels that the Paris example isn’t easily translated. With a well-developed transit system and densely developed urban core, the City of Light has always been a great place for strolling and traveling by foot. “Now they need to do something that’s different than we’ve seen in other cities — they need to bring activities to the neighborhoods, not people to the activities,” he says. “Cultural life, medical facilities, they need to decentralize urban life. They can push policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep the economy going, a double-win for the city.”  

Steven Bosacker, who directs the GMF Cities program for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, says that “Paris does have lots of resources and culture, but this 15-minute change is very doable in cities of any size. That’s what I hope people take from this moment. All cities have been disrupted, and there are shifts that everyone can make towards a better quality of life in their community.” 

Melbourne, Australia, for example, has a more U.S.-style development pattern. Lord Mayor Sally Capp, part of the C40 task force that developed the green agenda, said that her city ranks with Phoenix and Houston when it comes to sprawl. Pushing out has allowed Melboune to build more affordable housing — but that has only led to “unaffordable living,” she tells CityLab. Local leaders are now shifting transportation policy, including adding 40 kilometers of new bike lanes, speeding up plans to put in place more “20-minute neighborhoods,” and shoring up mass transit.

“Every city is talking about how to leverage the moment and reposition itself and focus on a sustainable future,” she says. “If we don’t leverage these moments to make material change, we’re crazy.” 

WRI’s Hidalgo believes that this kind of neighborhood-level development can work in the United States, in certain cases. Cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta, which have relatively limited transit systems (from a global perspective), can create this kind of concentration and walkability in urban cores and in pockets of denser development along certain transit lines. The problem with this pattern is that, without large systemic shifts, even the most forward-thinking developments end up as islands of walkability in a sea of cars, he says. “Drive, park, and enjoy being a pedestrian momentarily; that’s what you do at Walt Disney resorts,” he says. “That’s not what you’re supposed to do in cities.” 

One example of the challenges of converting suburban sprawl into 15-minute-city-style development can be seen in Tysons Corner, Virginia, a redevelopment project near the nation’s capital. Over the course of more than a decade, developers converted a block of mostly office and commercial space near a Metro line to D.C. into high-density, mixed-use residential development. The transit-oriented development succeeded in creating the density needed to bring in and support small businesses, but it lacked the kind of street-level infrastructure needed to realize the goal of a true pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly community, says Emily Hamilton, director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, who just wrote an analysis of the project’s planning and political maneuvering. Instead of a 15-minute city, the neighborhood became another “island of walkability,” and for the most part, residents still followed the traditional urban pattern of living in one place and commuting into a central city every day for work. 

“It’s not just a matter of adding bike lanes and wider sidewalks,” she says. “There are lots of arterial roads there and, without real political trade-offs from local officials, and efforts to narrow streets and slow down traffic, it won’t ever be truly walkable.”

Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, however, traditional working, shopping and commuting patterns in the U.S. have been disrupted. Remote work has transformed the lives of millions of white-collar professionals, and many offices are unlikely to reopen soon. Meanwhile, many commercial spaces — suburban office parks, shopping malls, and low-density retail districts — are struggling for survival. Hamilton sees plenty of places where a walkable “mini-Tysons” type of redevelopment may become politically feasible. But developers and local leaders need to go beyond surface densification and make big infrastructure shifts. 

Hidalgo argues that the 15-minute concept could hold more promise for cities such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and his hometown of Bogotá, where the higher percentage of transit and bike riders and more extensive existing mass transit infrastructure can help nurture a network of walkable neighborhoods. 

This is a very challenging time to be embarking on expensive new transit projects, however. In the U.S., states and cities are facing massive budget crunches, and the federal government has perhaps never been more actively hostile to public transportation funding (and urban needs in general). Bosacker says that, while resource shortages will be extreme, starting small can yield big changes, especially when framed as part of a larger stimulus plan. The speed at which pedestrian, biking, and scooter infrastructure has been ramped up during the pandemic shows how quickly things can change. Small tweaks to zoning or permitting for sidewalk cafes and cycling infrastructure can build momentum for larger shifts when budgets return. As Carlos Moreno, the French academic who coined the 15-minute city idea, said, the idea is “not to wage a war against cars” or “build a Louvre every 15 minutes”: It’s simply a way to help shift priorities.  

“A crisis does have a way of revealing what’s already broken,” Bosacker says. “If cities aren’t using the revealing nature of this pandemic, how it’s highlighting disparities and racial inequities, shame on them. As difficult as it’s going to be, it’s a real opportunity.” 


July 2020

It pained Lynette Morrow that she was considering leaving Manhattan for the suburbs. But then again, nothing felt like it did before. “It’s not going back to normal,” she told the New York Times. “This is now going to be normal.” Mariam Zadeh, also from Morrow’s neighborhood of Battery Park City, felt the same way. “We love Manhattan and will continue to love Manhattan,” she said. “Maybe one day we will return. But for the near future, I can’t envision living down there.” Both women spoke to the Times for a piece that ran on October 1, 2001: “Suburbs Beckon to Some Who Might Be Rethinking Life in the City.”

Aidan Menzul was also starting to think the unthinkable: Putting his stuff in storage and moving in with his parents in Florida. He had been laid off from his job at a Manhattan private equity firm and was coming face-to-face with the student loan debt and maxed-out credit cards. “But I really don’t want to leave New York,” he told the Times in 2008, a month into the Great Recession.

Since the coronavirus first hit New York City in March, and the lockdown closed businesses and emptied streets, the media has foretold the approaching downturn, and even death, of U.S. cities. All the signs were there: The run on rural real estate, young adults moving back in with their parents, and new parents hearing the siren call of the safe, spacious suburbs. In our age of social distancing, remote work, and small business failure, why tough it out in our dirty, dense cities? New York is over. Get out while you still can.

The obituary for urban living has been prewritten for decades, penned with prejudice and a convenient misreading of what truly makes cities attractive. Yes, cities have and will suffer tremendously during the coronavirus pandemic. And yes, many people will be leaving them in the coming months. But by dint of their size, cities always have people heading for the exits. And by dint of their history, cities have survived crises before. They have evolved, and they have thrived.

Equating the movement of those with the wealth and privilege to instantly pack their bags with the entirety of a city’s population misses the great mass of residents who endure and ensure a city bounces back.

“This debate about whether cities are over is really about whether cities are over for college-educated white people who have the means to choose where to live and work,” says Kenan Fikri, director of research for the Economic Innovation Group, a D.C.-based policy organization that researches entrepreneurship and inequality.

“It’s also incongruous to me that we’re having this discussion about the next generation of white flight in light of the George Floyd protests, where marchers in the street” — a large percentage of whom are white — “are talking about economic inclusion and racial justice.” Streets become a path for those who can and want to leave. But for those who stay, the streets have become a platform for protest — a stage on which a new city can be reborn.

The pandemic will fast-track the trends that have already been reshaping our cities for years — including the growth of remote work and the boom in e-commerce — and worsen entrenched problems, such as the housing affordability crisis. According to Fikri and other researchers, this fast-forward still retains desirable urban areas — even the booming suburbs that so many are running to tend to be more dense, walkable, diverse, and ultimately, city-like.

“For the last few decades, the economy has become more and more service-oriented,” he says. “You don’t have a sophisticated service economy in rural regions for a reason. Urbanism and economic growth go hand-in-hand in modern economies.”

Beyond anecdotes, there’s still only limited data on long-term relocation due to the pandemic. A much-discussed June survey of 10,000 Americans by the rental search site Apartment List found that 17% of respondents were now more likely to move and 30% more likely to stay. Economist Christopher Salviati, who co-authored an analysis of the survey, says it’s fair to look at the findings as typical of any recession. Financial drivers across the income spectrum are the most powerful motivators for movement. (In a country where economic and physical mobility have declined for decades, 26% of respondents “were in no financial position to move.”)

“Folks switching to remote work and leaving cities are the flashy headlines,” he says. “My sense is that maybe this is accelerating moves for some people already considering moves, not a sharp, rapid transition.”

In the 20th century, American relocation to the suburbs has been fueled by a good economy, says William Frey, a demographic researcher with the Brookings Institution; as we’ve seen in recent years, economic expansion is required to drive jobs out of city centers.

Frey also sees the next generation as likely to prefer city living. “Gen Z is much more racially diverse. A quarter are first- or second-generation Americans and many have urban roots they won’t eschew,” he says. “Young Americans go where the jobs are. Assuming safety issues are eventually taken care of, cities can still attract these young people.”

While Americans have been worn down by a constant focus on health, safety, and economic security, city dwellers have seen their neighborhoods come together in new ways. Seiji Carpenter, 40, lives in the bottom floors of a brownstone in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn with his partner and 10-month-old baby. A pollster for progressive political candidates, he’s never considered himself part of the “New York-or-bust” camp.

“New York was always great in part because of music, theater, food, shows, and when that wasn’t accessible anymore, there was a little crisis of confidence,” he says. “Is it awesome without these things?”

But the process of going through both the lockdown and recent protests in support of Black Lives Matter made him feel more connected to his life in Brooklyn. During the nightly salute to first responders — for many weeks, the only time he’d leave his home — Carpenter enjoyed seeing an Argentinian man on the corner play drums on his doorstep. During a bike protest, he was awed at the crowds that gathered to cheer riders. And he says watching the white-clad Black Trans Lives Matter protest with a crowd of nearly 15,000 in front of the Brooklyn Museum was a “powerful moment.”

“It’s complicated, as race politics and gentrification are. But I feel there’s more of a sense of community across class and race lines in the city than there was before,” he says, “This has shifted my relationship to New York, Brooklyn, and to our neighborhood in particular.”

Across the nation, there has been a boom in neighborly care. The rise in mutual aid groups and community fridges underscore how neighbors band together to feed and provide for those in need. Limited social interactions are buoyed by park hangs, street drinking, and the various ways small businesses are reclaiming streets and sidewalks. In my neighborhood in Los Angeles, where flyers for community support groups are taped to lampposts, an office parking lot has become a de facto scooter track for socially distanced play.

But for many small businesses — especially niche operations that provide character to a city neighborhood — the economic fallout of the pandemic has been brutal. The Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates roughly 85% of the nation’s independently owned restaurants may close by the end of 2020, with Black-owned businesses being hit the hardest.

Randall Felts will tell you that community is one of the few things keeping his business afloat in Chicago. The 39-year-old opened up a cheese shop called Beautiful Rind in Logan Square, a center of the city’s culinary and cultural scene that has seen a boom in luxury apartment buildings. Felts’ store, which passed its final inspections the day before the city’s March 20 lockdown, is on the ground floor of one such building. The initial idea for the store was to be upscale yet accessible, with tastings and a classroom for live events. During the lockdown and gradual reopening, Felts has managed to pivot and stay afloat. He’s teaching online classes while retail sales are booming — cheese can be a comfort food during an uncertain time, he says.

Community sentiment and crowdfunding likely won’t save everyone’s favorite store or regular bar; there are still bigger questions about the future of urban real estate. Space quickly becomes a proxy for economic activity. Will we have a glut of unused restaurants and stores? Will companies survive and still want a downtown location? Will anyone work in an office again? Companies are shedding square footage, leading to fears of a glut — though CBRE, a national office broker, believes most companies will pursue phased reopenings, with prices in most markets recovering by 2022.

Michael Colacino, CEO of SquareFoot, a commercial real estate brokerage in New York City, says he’s seen a considerable drop in demand since the lockdown began on March 25. In Midtown Manhattan, an office stronghold, demand has been cut in half. But he’s also seeing more and more companies, especially in tech and private equity, begin evolving into a “hub and spoke” model, ditching a sizeable central office for a series of smaller locations, often set up on or near transit lines. This shift in urban geography, which favors neighborhoods like downtown Brooklyn, or areas in Queens near train lines, means more workers may be able to bike to work and live a more neighborhood-centric existence.

Frey says the shifts we’re seeing right now may accelerate one of the last decade’s lasting trends: The growth of more affordable mid-size U.S. cities like Austin, Nashville, Salt Lake City, and Madison, Wisconsin. Others see sky-high rents in coastal cities coming back to earth. San Francisco rents have been in free fall. In New York City, while home sales volume has dropped precipitously, rents have inched down 1.8% over the last three months.

⁠And what about the work-from-home revolution? Research from Upwork, a remote talent network, found that in April half of the U.S. workforce was remote⁠. But Kenan Fikri of the Economic Innovation Group says that while the radical experiment in working from home has proven workers can do it, no big corporation has successfully proven people can innovate, or build professional networks from home. (Although some tech firms, such as 37 Signals, would disagree.) Co-workers still need to congregate somewhere other than Zoom. People still need each other.

Not everyone can choose to move away from a city right now — nor do they want to. DuShaun Branch Pollard, a 37-year-old Black woman, lives in West Garfield Park in Chicago, a predominantly Black neighborhood on the city’s disinvested west side. She’s currently living on the top floor of a two-story apartment building owned by her grandmother with her husband and two children. Pollard had tried moving to the suburbs before. She’d spent three years in Oak Park, west of Chicago, but felt the schools weren’t as good a deal for her kids as she imagined, especially considering the high cost of an apartment.

“It does sound like a privilege to talk about moving somewhere different,” Pollard says. “So many people can’t think about moving now. They need to make sure they have their jobs, make sure they have access to food and transportation.” Brookings research found that 30% to 62% of the overall workforce in U.S. metro areas is considered low wage; they likely won’t be joining any exodus to country homes or cabins upstate.

Despite a summer of surging Covid cases across the country, and a massive, peaceful protest movement demanding foundational change to urban policing and systemic racism, many of those invested in their neighborhoods have a renewed sense of optimism. Pollard has seen the outsized impact Covid has taken on Black and Brown communities in Chicago, but she’s also seen the resilience. “Every time something has happened, there’s been such a great response,” she says. “People still feel hopeful.”

Pollard says she’s optimistic seeing all the organizing work done in her community. North Lawndale, a neighborhood a few miles south of West Garfield with a similar demographic profile and economic challenges as Pollard’s community, was the site of a famous campaign against housing discrimination by Martin Luther King Jr. “Seeing people like that work hard and have homes, and love the community they came from, I can’t imagine why I couldn’t do that.”

Seiji Carpenter, the Brooklyn pollster, has marveled at how life in the city has become, in a way, more suburban. He stays at home more, cooks at home more. Cities, he says, are places where you can’t choose who you have relationships with. Close quarters can be a big frustration for city living — but in the last months, it’s also been the best part of living in one.

“Neither the coronavirus nor the protests have impeded my relationships with my neighbors,” Carpenter says. “They accelerate them. I feel like I’ve fallen in love with the city all over again.”


July 2020

Freddie O’Connell remembers when Nashville’s Lower Broadway wasn’t a strip of country music bars frequented by bachelorette parties and tourists for its Instagram-worthy backdrops. The city council member for District 19, who represents the city’s burgeoning downtown, remembers decades ago, when there was a seedy Times Square feel, when adult bookstores lined what’s now honky-tonk highway. He’s seen various attempts to revitalize the neighborhood, from the now-demolished 1987 convention center, which he labeled “a failed approach at urban design” that ignored the streetscape, to the transformative Bridgestone Arena and the revitalization of the city’s downtown due to tourism and rising real estate prices. 

But a new development set to open this fall, Fifth + Broadway, named for the key downtown intersection around which it’s centered, will crystalize how busy developers have been in downtown Nashville. 

Measuring 6.2 acres and costing an estimated $450 million, it’ll be the largest mixed-use project in the state of Tennessee, and a “huge development on multiple levels,” according to William Williams, managing editor of the Nashville Post. Fifth + Broadway is a capstone to Music City’s meteoric, decade-long rise as a real estate hotbed. The project will have 200,000 square feet of retail and entertainment space, as well as offices, a 386-unit apartment tower, a food hall, and the new National Museum of African American Music.

Blending entertainment, commercial and residential—at a scope and scale that promotes walkability, commerce, and culture—it’s the kind of development that’s been the template of large-scale infill projects across the U.S., especially in booming cities such as Austin, Denver and Charlotte. But when it’s completed early this fall, in the midst of an increasingly dire surge in coronavirus cases, will this kind of dense city development seem like the work of a different era? In an economy and urban landscape reacting to an ongoing pandemic, will these so-called “transformative” city-within-a-city projects still have a place?

“The honest truth is, at this moment, nobody really knows,” says Adam Ducker, senior managing director at RCLCO, a real estate consultancy. “Few people have woken up and changed their world view. They’re inclined to look at Covid’s impact in a way that supports their presuppositions. We believe the broader lifestyle and behavioral trends will be fundamentally unchanged. It would require years to shift people’s needs.” 

The Covid-19 crisis has already altered what was expected to be a grand celebration of Fifth + Broadway’s completion. According to Brookfield Properties, the developer, the restaurant and food hall portions of the project won’t open their doors until March 2021. It wasn’t a “healthy or helpful thing to open them now,” said Dene Oliver, chief vision officer at Brookfield. The lead tenant of the new office space, investment management and research firm AllianceBernstein, which is moving from New York to Nashville, won’t have staff work out of Fifth + Broadway until the first half of 2021.  

Nationwide, according to Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, projects are either near completion and rushing to finish, or waiting to break ground to properly gauge the extent of the economic downturn. Developers are “holding their powder” if possible, he said.

“Fifth + Broadway would definitely be a massive success without the virus,” says Williams. “The short-term impact can’t be denied, but long-term, you will still see this type of development downtown.”

The development signifies how the city has “grown up,” says Williams, especially in the last decade, as downtown and neighborhoods like The Gulch have attracted luxury condos and big-name real estate developers (another in-process project, Nashville Yards, will be home to an Amazon operations center). 

Oliver has worked on Fifth + Broadway for the last seven years, back when he was formerly CEO of OliverMcMillan, the developer that started the project. He was attracted to the potential of the site—“it’s not often you have 6.5 available acres at a prime intersection of a city like Nashville”—and began planning for a development that would fill in some of the gaps missing in the city’s core, including retail, office, residential, and more entertainment and dining options, including Assembly Food Hall and the National African American Music Museum. An L-shaped alleyway runs between the different buildings, meant to thread together the project and streetscape and provide more frontage for stores and restaurants.

Downtown Nashville, like so many other cities, has become more of a residential destination in the last decade; O’Connell, the city council member, says that in 2010, just 5,000 people lived downtown, and now it’s above 12,000. While he says there’s some worry that such a sizable new project may dilute the character of the honky tonks, it seems inevitable that there will simply be more and more people living and working in the neighborhood. 

Oliver doesn’t see the Covid crisis as anything more than a temporary, albeit serious, setback for the project’s ultimate success. Major events happen, and even such a “behemoth” project will survive and adapt, he said. The general contractor, Skanska, never had to pause construction since it began in 2017, and due to the desire to open everything simultaneously, the complexity and size of Fifth + Broadway made it hard to stop. (“When you’re constructing an aircraft carrier, you don’t stop,” says Oliver). Apartments are leasing now, and state-of-the-art safety measures are being incorporated. Despite some delays in opening different businesses and offices, the project will be complete in time this fall. And Oliver says nobody has pulled out of a lease, with 90% of the food hall space claimed by restaurants and chefs, including local favorites like Hattie B’s and Slim & Husky’s. 

Long-term, Oliver sees developers of similar projects focusing on what can be described as “healthy buildings,” those with better circulation, fewer chemicals and artificial materials, more access to outdoor space and natural light. McMahon of the Urban Land Institute agrees. The design of such projects, and public space, will be altered by the pandemic, but “the fundamentals aren’t shifting, just the specifics,” he said. That means a larger focus on healthy buildings, as well as multi-use projects that address imbalances in the residential market, specifically the lack of affordable housing and family-oriented projects. 

Other analysts see much smaller tweaks coming to the real estate market. Lesley Deutch, a managing principal at John Burns Real Estate Consulting, doesn’t see a massive rethink of real estate. She believes that big growth, and similar infill projects, will continue in boom towns such as Charlotte, Raleigh, Denver, and Austin. 

“It’ll be a difficult year next year, no doubt, but we won’t be at 50% capacity in stores and restaurants forever,” she says.  

Like so many aspects of the post-Covid economy, real estate will see an acceleration of existing trends, she says. The markets that are growing will continue to benefit. Ducker at RCLCO says there will also be consolidation in the development world, with fewer and fewer players with the size and bankroll, like Brookfield or Related, that are able to do projects on the scale of Fifth + Broadway. 

“Since the talk of cities making a comeback, there have been few regions that have seen a truly meteoric transformation,” he says. “Nashville has done in 10 years what many cities can only do in 30. The question is, where are the next Nashvilles and Austins?” 


June 2020

It’s definitely, finally, without a doubt, the end of malls, right? 

The multiple crises impacting the U.S. economy — the botched response to the coronavirus and the resulting economic fallout, and lack of spending power — have delivered a new gut punch to brick-and-mortar retail, a sector that was already reeling. More than half of all U.S. department stores in malls will be gone by 2021, one real estate research firm predicts, and surviving retailers may not be far behind; once-mighty brands such as Cheesecake Factory and the Gap are skipping rent payments, Starbucks is closing physical locations, and developers see a future for big box stores as office complexes. Banks fear “a stampede” of landlords looking to restructure loans after commercial tenants miss their rents. Last week, the Trump administration floated the idea of turning the glut of empty retail space into affordable housing. 

At the Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood, a suburb north of Seattle, an adaptive reuse project already in progress suggests that America’s vast stock of fading shopping infrastructure could indeed get a second life as places to live. Such transformation could even bring malls closer to the “village square” concept they were initially envisioned to become

Developers are turning a wide swath of the 41-year-old shopping center into Avalon Alderwood Place, a 300-unit apartment complex with underground parking. The project won’t completely erase the shopping side of the development: Commercial tenants will still take up 90,000 square feet of retail. But when the new Alderwood reopens, which developers expect will happen by 2022, the focus will have shifted dramatically. One of the mall’s anchor department stores, Sears, shut down last year; in a sense, the apartment complex will be the new anchor. 

“This project is a great example of evolution in the shopping center industry,” says a spokesperson for Brookfield Properties, which owns the property and is collaborating with AvalonBay Communities, Inc. on the residential component. (Brookfield declined to offer a cost estimate for the project.) “Today, people prefer to live in smaller spaces and want walkable developments rather than relying on vehicular transit. This project caters to these needs.”

The Lynnwood project exemplifies how the Covid-19 pandemic isn’t as much changing real estate as accelerating existing trends. Randy White, CEO of White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a consulting firm focused on location-based entertainment, says the Alderwood project is smart, because it’s envisioning a world where we can digitally shop and entertain ourselves at home. “Right before the pandemic, a lot of these malls thought restaurants and entertainment would be their savior, the new anchors,” he says. “Those hopes are dashed. There’s even a question if movie theaters are going to survive.”

Lynnwood may offer an ideal testing ground for the long-term opportunities in large-scale suburban mall-to-housing conversion. The suburb of roughly 40,000 people is a commuter bedroom community for Seattle, which has been struggling mightily with a severe housing shortage. The mall had plenty of vacant real estate needed for new homes. And a planned expansion of light rail from Seattle to Lynnwood in 2024, part of the region’s Sound Transit Extension Phase 2, will make market-rate apartments even more attractive for residents who commute to jobs downtown or at the Boeing or Microsoft campuses. 

“There have been some great examples of this kind of redevelopment, such as Tyson’s Corner in Virginia, but it’s very specific to individual cases, and very expensive,” says Nick Egelanian, president of retail consultancy SiteWorks, who predicts up to a third of malls will be vacant due to the economic fallout from the pandemic. “If it’s a good location, you can backfill that with residential, hotel, office and entertainment.” 

Lynnwood has always seen the mall as a regional growth center, says David Kleitsch, the city’s economic development director. Ever since the end of the Great Recession, the city has planned for residential growth around the shopping center, including upzoning to encourage more dense housing, pushing for Sound Transit extensions, and investing in streetscapes and connectivity. “We see this as a catalyst for future growth, and housing will be a big part of that,” says Kleitsch. 

Brian Lake, a senior attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation who focuses on housing issues, believes that, minus the hurdles put up by zoning regulations and red tape, such commercial conversions should be happening everywhere. From a construction standpoint, conversions are simple. “We need to open up every opportunity possible to develop new affordable housing,” he says. “Fannie Mae estimated we need an additional 2.5 million units just to satisfy the long-term demand, and that’s before this year’s crises.”

Mall owners and operators, such as Brookfield and Simon Property Group, have had a brutal 2020: Shifts in consumer behavior have been gnawing away at the classic enclosed suburban mall format for many years; then the pandemic completely upended in-person shopping. Mark Hunter, managing director of retail asset services at CBRE, says operators suddenly had to shut down, then coordinate with numerous government agencies on how to reopen with stringent new sanitation and safety protocols, not to mention overcome challenges with furloughed staffers and out-of-season inventory. 

Even as fresh Covid-19 outbreaks race across the suburbs, in June Brookfield managed to reopen every single one of its nearly 170 locations in 43 states. But “normal” is a distant memory amidst a massive wholesale shift in commercial real estate. Consider the recent fate of two much-touted new flagship shopping developments of the last year: The American Dream Mall in New Jersey now hosts a Covid-19 testing facility, and struggling Manhattan mega-development Hudson Yards lost its big anchor, Neiman-Marcus. 

“Before the Great Recession we had too many retail spaces; now we have way too many retail spaces,” says White. “It may be we’ll only be left with the A malls. Before the pandemic, I thought the B-plus malls would survive. The outdoor lifestyle centers will survive — they’re perceived as safer than indoors. But it’s hard to escape the fact that we’ve trained people to fear the world, and that it’s going to have long-term impacts on their behaviors.”

Converting commercial real estate to housing may be the best use of land in such an over-retailed country. Big shopping centers tend to be centrally located and connected to transit. Hunter sees excess retail space at malls becoming more adaptive, and filling uses that aren’t hospitality focused, such as residential, or even flex or warehouse space. During a time of housing shortages, Lake believes that transforming empty commercial buildings is a “moral imperative.” 

The Alderwood redevelopment brings challenges that Kleitsch and other local officials are trying to get out ahead of as construction, which restarted in mid-May, continues. Lynnwood is a middle- to low-income suburb, with lots of service workers, so the city is working on a housing action plan to make sure social services and education arrive in the community, not just new apartments. The mall may be evolving, but the desire, and challenges, in creating a community-oriented development still remain. 

“You can have acres and acres of housing, but without a community, is it a place?” Kleitch says. “Does it fulfill somebody’s experience? We want to be more than that.”

Architect Magazine

Summer 2020

For Chicago-based architect and designer Craig Stevenson, it’s always been vital to work with, not for, the community.

Stevenson is director of the Chicago’s chapter of the Open Architecture Collaborative (OAC)—a national nonprofit that does pro bono work designing buildings and placemaking projects for local communities. The realities of working in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and the recent wave of protests over police brutality and the death of George Floyd, have made outreach and community engagement even more essential tools for facing an “existential crisis.”

“It’s an interesting challenge to design when fear and grief is prevalent,” he says.

Stevenson is part of a team working on Under the Grid, a kind of reverse High Line for the North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago that aims to turn vacant lots underneath rail lines—specifically a stretch of the Pink Line of the city’s elevated train system—into a park, community green space, and gathering place. The ongoing project seeks to spark interest and re-emergence in art and the business corridor—a place for farmers markets, basketball, and dance events, created in concert with community groups, local businesses, and residents. To do so, the group has been holding hackathons and meetings with community groups as part of OAC’s goal to democratize design, flatten hierarchies, and dispel myths about just who understands how to shape public space and how it can best serve a community.

“We’re not here to impose solutions on people,” he says. “It’s about figuring out how the community wants to solve the immediate need for public space, and the best solutions to bring people together.”

A New Challenge

In coming years, architects will be challenged like never before to help disadvantaged communities rebuild after these crises. Neighborhoods across the nation have been irrevocably changed by coronavirus and protests, both of which have altered perceptions of public space.

Listening, responding, and shaping future designs around neighborhood needs will become even more vital. And while some might see the time and effort involved in garnering feedback and engaging in community-led design as a luxury, that would be a mistake, according to architects and designers who place equity, community feedback, and social justice at the center of their practice. When resources are scarce, the value of truly reflecting the community in design, hearing about their struggles and trauma, and getting their buy-in is immeasurable.

“Architecture often sets itself up to be an expendable service, a luxury,” says Liz Ogbu, a designer, urbanist, and social innovator who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. “We should do work that’s vital to people’s day-to-day ability to live their life. During the last recession, I worked for a small nonprofit, and while there was a culling of the industry—a third lost their jobs—I never feared, because the work we were doing was essential. Community-based work is about creating tools that let people thrive and live their best stories. That’s what success looks like to me.”

It’s a priority that the profession as a whole is being increasingly challenged to meet. “Democratizing the decision-making and design of the built environment is critical to both the future relevance of our profession and a truly equitable society,” says William Bates, FAIA, 2019 president of AIA.

It’s instructive to look at the Great Recession of 2008, and the birth of placemaking, as architects adjust to new financial realities, Ogbu says. With city budgets on hold back then, the DIY/guerrilla approach created an opening for smaller street-level projects. In the coming years, communities recovering from historic disinvestment, a pandemic, and the loss of so many small businesses will look to the kind of rapid response design, such as parklets and pop-ups, that flourished in the early 2010s.

This approach also offers quick ways to help neighborhoods recover. Coronavirus has exposed long-standing social inequities, says Sara Aye, executive director of Greater Good Studio, a Chicago-based social design practice. People of color and low-income people, who were already marginalized, have been further marginalized in the management and containment of the outbreak. Any project purporting to help needs to first engage with these uncomfortable truths.

“If you design something for a group of people, but not with them, you’re not doing it for them, you’re imposing upon them,” Aye says. “You’re assuming the role of a savior, that your expertise outweighs their lived experience. These assumptions aren’t just dangerous, they add up to irreparable harm.”

For Aye, whose specialty—like a recent multi-city collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to help local groups design children’s health programs—is process, what’s required now goes beyond the typical methods of listening and outreach. Design teams can’t rely on the traditional engagement checklist and community meetings, which typically exclude those who can’t take time off or obtain childcare, and often favor louder, more organized, and more white voices (Katherine Einstein, a Boston University professor and researcher, has analyzed who speaks at public meetings and found a significant racial divide and under-representation of people of color).

Language is key to engagement, Aye says. Don’t ask about problems someone faces, projections of the future, or the needs or dreams of a community at a time when compounding crises make that sound slightly tone deaf. Start with questions that honor the moment and ground feedback in lived reality, with inquiries about daily activities, fears, attitudes, and small improvements.

As fears of coronavirus make some of the preferred methods of in-person outreach—listening sessions, setting up pop-up booths at fairs and public events, door-to-door surveys, and small group meetings—impossible, digital means have become more prevalent. That’s created fear of a digital divide, says Katherine Darnstadt, AIA, architect and founder of Chicago’s Latent Design. But it’s not so simple. Done right, digital meetings can actually encourage more interaction, and they can be recorded and remain online well beyond the live event, inviting more feedback from those who can’t attend.

“Establishing a digital footprint doesn’t solve every access issue, but it can make it easier for a larger number of people to connect,” Darnstadt says. “But more doesn’t always mean better. Policymakers need to change the status quo of how they intake and utilize feedback.”

Seizing the Moment

As cities and neighborhoods begin to reopen, rapid prototypes and small-scale projects for commercial districts will be a focus due to changing regulations, the growing needs of local businesses, and evolving health guidelines. Darnstadt believes architects need to seize the moment and advocate not just good design, but for reforming processes and cutting costs that further benefit the community. How can policies be nudged in a direction that allows for quicker deployment of car-free streets, outdoor dining areas, public space, or pick-up and drop-off zones? Can designers reappropriate common items, such as sawhorses or other materials used by municipal authorities, for other purposes? For instance, in early June, Darnstadt offered to do pro bono work to help damaged businesses rebuild, which required design from a licensed architect; can that process be accelerated?

“We need to look at temporary solutions that allow us to critically analyze what a more permanent solution looks like,” she says. “It’s not a fixed, start-and-stop process.”

Darnstadt’s Boombox project, a series of small, 8-by-20-foot portable pop-up shops for small Chicago businesses, exemplifies her vision for mobile, malleable design. To create these low-budget, floating storefronts for small businesses and entrepreneurs out of shipping containers and cement board, Darnstadt met with potential operators and nonprofits to learn about their needs, in terms of interior space and layout; compliance with city regulations (she helped write an ordinance that legalized the pop-ups); and how to best take advantage of outdoor space.

Originally introduced in 2015, the project has continually been refined over time; Boombox offers design services for businesses, in addition to managing and leasing the spaces. Darnstadt sees an even bigger future for these structures now, when businesses seek new ways to deliver goods and services in neutral locations, and buyers are wary of shopping indoors. With budgets tighter all around, there’s great need for multi-functional small space and points-of-service hubs in communities.

“We fell into a common trap, thinking that we had a representative sample after a few interviews, and later found that there were so many organizations that felt left out, that couldn’t afford good design,” she says. “You need to constantly evolve to make the project work.”

Buildings that reflect community need and engagement can also bolster local economies via community labor and business collaboration. Patricia Gruits, director with the Boston and Rwanda-based nonprofit MASS Design Group, says their design process always looks at ways to tap into local materials, labor, skills, and ingenuity. The firm has extensive experience working in Rwanda and other developing nations—work that has been informed by a core framework of collaboration as a way to improve the value and impact of a project. Gruits points to a number of decisions made in past projects—for the Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda, built in 2011, hiring local laborers instead of bringing in a bulldozer cost the same amount of money and provided local jobs; and relying on locally found or reclaimed material, from volcanic stone in Rwanda (used on the Butaro project) to beetle-killed pine in the U.S. (used during a propsed 2015 dorm project for Colorado College), help support local business and industry.

A Neighborhood History Lesson

The added value of tapping into community skills and vision can take many different forms. In Los Angeles, another chapter of OAC has spent the last two years designing a renovation of the Avalon Carver Community Center. According to Sarah Loy, a member of the LA chapter of OAC, the first six months were a neighborhood history lesson, gleaned from extensive community conversations and interviews, aided by Jamivo Elder, the director of the community center. Built in the ‘50s after being championed by local activist and civil rights leader Mary B. Henry, who helped found the Head Start program, the building has always been a progressive nexus for the South Central neighborhood. Loy and her collaborators sought to infuse that history with the neighborhood’s new vision for its future (a colorful new mural on the building’s exterior recalls woven fabric, a nod to Henry’s vision for a space that weaves together the neighborhood). The pending final design now includes a music production space for local artists and students, low-income housing, a STEM learning center, and a shelter for transitional youth.

“Typically, projects like this involve communities working directly with a contractor, which means they don’t have designers who can translate community vision into something concrete,” says Loy. “In this case, we can step in and really help them define their new space and environment, and by listening, we can help shape their voice.”

That may be the core lesson to deploy when working with communities in need; don’t just assist or aggregate ideas, amplify their experiences.

“We have a role to play, and it’s not that we’re all powerful, it’s that we’re complicit in either healing or harm,” Ogbu says. “This is a point where we might radically change how we practice.”

Stevenson, of Chicago OAC, says that he sees the community-led design process as akin to running a church, something he did while growing up. He wants his designs to be something that people interact with, because there’s shared ownership and vision. It’s hard to build the relationships needed to accomplish that over a small period of time.

“We’re not going to show up for 24 hours [and then leave],” he says. “You need to be embedded enough to care whether the solution works or not. I approach outreach by thinking, ‘I would like our grandchildren to be solving problems together.’”


June 2020

During this extraordinary time in America’s cities — weeks of coronavirus lockdowns followed by mass protests against police violence and racial inequality — one theme runs through the twinned crises: the power and value of public spaces.

The nation’s parks experienced a surge of use during the pandemic that closed stores and businesses and kept so many Americans isolated in private. Since March, when coronavirus restrictions in the U.S. were enforced en masse, still-open city park facilities saw soaring numbers of visitors. Popular trails in Dallas, which tracks visitors, saw usage climb from 30% to 75% in march. In Minneapolis, during the still-cold month of March, trails experienced summertime levels of usage. Erie, Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle State Park saw visitor numbers jump 165% year-over-year during the third week of March.

“Parks are the most valuable resource in the city at this point,” says J. Nicholas Williams, director of the Parks, Recreation and Youth Development Department in Oakland, which has also seen an uptick in visitors in the last few months.

Then came the protests over the killing of George Floyd on May 25, triggering a wave of mass demonstrations that, in venues such as Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., and Cal Anderson Park in Seattle, are using these same public spaces as stages for protest. That, too, is part of the critical role they play in urban life.

“The thing I tell people about parks and public spaces is they can be platforms for equity, and the events of the last week in America show the public realm is the essential platform for equity,” says James Hardy, Akron, Ohio’s deputy mayor for integrated development, who focuses on parks and public space. “It’s especially evident when the press and disregarded members of our community need these spaces to communicate truth to power.”

But amid this rediscovery of the value of parks, steep budget cuts now loom: City tax revenue is drying up, the need to provide additional protective gear for staff is expensive, and funds from special permits and fees, from athletic events to large outdoor concerts, may be small or non-existent during this socially distanced summer. The ongoing protests against police brutality and inequality both highlight the importance of public space for civil action and engagement and likely add to repair and maintenance costs.

A survey from the National Recreation and Park Association in mid-April of more than 300 park commissioners found half had been asked to make budget cuts this year between 10% and 20%, and many have already instituted hiring freezes or laid off part-time and seasonal staff. New York City faces a $61.3 million cut in its park budget. Coming shortfalls may mean delayed maintenance, shelved plans and deteriorating facilities.

“This is a critical time for public space, perhaps more than we’ve seen in past decades,” says Bridget Marquis, director of the Civic Commons Learning Network, a national nonprofit initiative focused on public spaces. “We’re seeing the gaps and how we’ve let them erode in many places.”

According to Parks and the Pandemic, report issued last month by the Trust for Public Land, cities are repurposing this open space in ways that aid the civic response to the coronavirus. Toledo, Ohio’s botanical garden, for example, has been transformed into a Covid-19 test site. The report also highlights how the coronavirus, and the nation’s response to it, has accelerated existing divides and inequality. Despite big investments in signature parks like the reconstructed Brooklyn Waterfront or the $100 million expansion of Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas, a widespread lack of equitable access to green space remains. That gap stands to widen further with Covid-related budget cuts.

But there’s some cautious hope here, too: This convergence of crises could ultimately help convince local leaders and the public to reconsider the importance of public space, and even see parks as part of a broader plan for economic and social recovery.

“We’re optimistic and excited around the top-to-bottom interest in this issue,” says Benita Hussain, director of the Trust for Public Land’s 10-Minute Walk campaign. “There are challenges, but there is a lot of hope, because the will politically to make public space and parks remain a priority is there.”

Hussain leads the Trust for Public Land’s signature initiative, which calls for making sure every American is within a 10-minute walk to a public park or green space. That goal is far from being realized, with 100 million Americans, and 27 million children, lacking such access. In some cities — such as Charlotte, Oklahoma City, and Mesa, Arizona —  less than half of residents live that close to a public recreation facility.

“We haven’t been investing in civic infrastructure, parks, and trails,” says Marquis. “I hate to say there’s a silver lining to Covid-19, but it’s a time to recognize what we prioritize in this country. I hope part of the legacy will be an equitable and resilient investment strategy in the public realm.”

It’s not hard to find examples of the public’s new appetite for public space in the midst of a pandemic. While so many places to congregate have closed or changed, parks and public spaces still provide places to relax and decompress while maintaining social distance.

“The Covid-19 response, while clearly necessary, created a huge burden of cabin fever, loneliness, anxiety, stress, and personal loss,” Howard Frumkin, professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health, told the report’s authors.

Before the coronavirus crisis hit, park finances were on the upswing, according to Charlie McCabe, a city parks researcher with the Trust for Public Land. Public funding for city parks hit roughly $8 billion nationwide in 2019, a slight increase from the last few years, as the robust pre-pandemic economy allowed some cities to invest in improving and reconstructing parks, McCabe says, spending money on newly popular amenities such as dog parks and splash pads, as well as recreation and senior centers.  

This resurgence was long delayed: After increasing 15% between 2003 and 2007, city spending on parks plummeted 22% as the Great Recession arrived in 2008, according to the NRPA. Spending was slow to recover. By 2013, parks represented just 1.9% of local government spending, down from 2.2% in 2000.“Part of the reason people have been protesting is disinvestment in public spaces to begin with, especially in black neighborhoods.”

Coronavirus has forced city park departments to respond to fast-changing public health rules and needs. In addition to opening up trails, adapting space to social distancing, and converting golf courses to parks, a third of park and recreation departments are also offering emergency services, says Kevin Roth, vice president of research, evaluation, and technology at the NRPA. This includes converting recreation centers to shelters, delivering meals, setting up testing sites, and providing day care to children of first responders and health care workers.

“It’s really quite challenging now,” says McCabe. “Many amenities, especially the ones that have been invested in heavily in recent years, have closed due to concerns over close contact, while parks have needed to quickly adapt to provide enough access to walk and bike on trails and open fields, which often get crowded.

Hussain says many park departments are cutting costs by engaging citizens to help; Rochester, New York, has instituted a pack-in pack-out trash policy, similar to what’s seen at national parks. There’s also a legislative push in Congress to get the Great American Outdoors Act, which would add $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and help address the maintenance backlog for the nation’s parks.*

Still other park advocates and staff see this moment of crisis as the right time to make the case for parks as key parts of larger economic recovery, and community investment plans, especially commercial corridors hard hit by both the pandemic and damage during ongoing protests. It’s not just savvy political thinking, but a smart way to integrate smaller, community-focused green space in neighborhood-level development.

In Detroit, where the city faces a $348 million budget shortfall over the next 16 months, park officials point to the ongoing Strategic Neighborhood Fund, a public-private initiative focused on building up commercial corridors across the city, as a model that can help make parks part of broader initiatives. The program, which has made parks and streetscape improvements pillars of the process, aims to make green spaces part of inclusive economic development; that may mean including parks in housing programs, and looking beyond traditional standalone “trees and recreation” thinking to figuring out how parks can fit into larger projects.

“The city just emerged from bankruptcy five years ago, so we’ve been doing economic recovery here ever since,” says Alexa Bush, a design director for Detroit.

Akron’s newly created Office of Integrated Development also focuses on making parks part of larger investments in neighborhoods and civic infrastructure. Hardy, the city’s deputy mayor for integrated development, says that parks programs by themselves can struggle to get funding but fare better when included in larger programs about job access and the quality of public space.

Despite facing an estimated 20% decrease in municipal funding this year, Akron plans to focus on projects and priorities in traditionally redlined and lower-income neighborhoods first, says Hardy. It’s all about being strategic and prioritizing the places that need it the most. Parks, community centers, and libraries are always the easiest to eliminate, Hardy says; he cautions that policymakers desperately need to do the opposite, doubling or tripling investments in public space. He fears that city leaders may look at the protests of the last week and see parks as a thing to cut, to limit the liability that comes from mass civic action. That mindset will only deepen the inequality.

“Part of the reason people have been protesting is disinvestment in public spaces to begin with, especially in black neighborhoods,” he says. “Parks and park access are part of the large narrative of racism and discrimination against African Americans.”

To the extent possible, Akron is trying to say no to cuts, and view recreation as an essential public service. That’s a paradigm shift, and one that, post-Covid, park managers hope becomes standard practice.

“Parks are as important as roads and bridges, they’re not something to get to later,” Hardy says. “They’re where people from different backgrounds come together and find themselves on equal footing. They’re essential to the American experiment, and this is a great opportunity to make that argument.”