Fitting COVID-19 into the cycles of American cities

Derek Thompson writes about how COVID-19’s effect on retail and restaurants will affect American cities:

The song of American urbanization plays on an accordion. Americans compressed themselves into urban areas in the early 20th century. By mid-century, many white families were fanning out into the suburbs. Then, in the early 21st century, young people rushed back into downtown areas. But in the past few years, American cities have begun to exhale many residents, who have moved to smaller metros and southern suburbs. As with so many other trends, the pandemic will accelerate that exodus. Empty storefronts will beget empty apartments on the floors above them.

The American cities waiting on the other side of this crisis will not be the same. They will be “safer” in almost every respect—healthier, blander, and more boring, with fewer tourists, less exciting food, and a desiccated nightlife. The urban obsession with well-being will extend from cycling and salads to mask design and social distancing. Many thousands of young people who might have giddily flocked to the most expensive downtown areas may assess the collapse in living standards and amenities and decide it’s not worth it. Census figures will show that the urban exodus went into hyperdrive in the COVID years. There will be headlines exclaiming the decline of the American city or, more punchy, “Americans to New York: ‘Drop Dead.’”

Then something interesting will happen. The accordion will constrict again and American cities will have a renaissance of affordability…

But the near death of the American city will also be its rebirth. When rents fall, mom-and-pop stores will rise again—America will need them. Immigrants will return in full force when a sensible administration recognizes that America needs them, too. Cheaper empty spaces will be incubators for stores that serve up ancient pleasures, like coffee and books, and novel combinations of health tech, fitness, and apparel. Eccentric chefs will return, and Americans will remember, if they ever forgot, the sacred joys of a private plate in a place that buzzes with strangers. From the ashes, something new will grow, and something better, too, if we build it right.

Several thoughts in response:

1. Thompson hints at one of the vital pieces that makes cities work: the density of people and activity. Restaurants and retailers are not just functional entities that provide jobs and revenue; they bring in extra people who want to visit, eat, browse, be around other people who are doing similar things. The kinds of everyday activity that make urban neighborhoods unique and attractive are difficult to maintain during COVID-19 when restrictions limit contact and social interaction.

2. After just reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities with one of my classes, I wonder: what would Jane Jacobs do in times of global pandemics?

3. Thompson describes populations moving in and out of American cities as conditions change. From a broader perspective, I am not sure I would agree with the accordion example: the longer-term trend in the United States since the early 1900s has been toward suburban growth and development. The percent of Americans living in cities has stayed relatively stable since the beginning of the postwar era while government policy, cultural ideology, and population shifts have swelled suburban populations. If American cities can gain and lose residents, it is a relatively small accordion compared to the tremendous suburban growth over the last century.

4. A problem with predicting future urban trends is that the patterns of the past may not happen again in the future. COVID-19 is the sort of event that is difficult to know the effects of, particularly years down the road. Will life return to normal or will the effects of a significant economic shutdown and shelter-in-place for many people change future behaviors? We do not know. At the same time, I do not think Thompson’s predictions are unreasonable. How exactly the affordability of land plays out could be an arduous process; land that was relatively overvalued before COVID-19 may not quickly become affordable and it may take time to clear significant debts or mortgages for numerous urban properties.

Pictures of empty urban public spaces are jarring – but cannot compare with being there and feeling the emptiness

The Associated Press ran a series of photos of empty urban public spaces around the world. They are stark photos, recognizable sites in major centers that are typically full of residents and visitors. From the end of the accompanying text:

These are places meant for people, though. And the people will — we suspect, we think, we hope — return before too long.

But when?

Yet, the photos can only reveal so much. What makes these spaces – as well as many other urban spaces around the world – unique is the mix of people, the sounds of voices, the walking paths of people among a crowd with some getting to home or work or leisure while others linger, the collective activity. Times Square can look like a spectacle even without people but it is not the same. The Eiffel Tower looms over the surrounding space but is less interesting without the people around it. The structures can still impress but they are missing something when the people are gone. These spaces and settings are what can make cities so distinctive and alluring.

And, this activity is not confined to well-known or tourist spaces. Jane Jacobs famously discussed the lively street life in Greenwich Village, New York. Many urban neighborhoods around the world have a level of pedestrian and street activity that is lively, or at least consistent. People are coming and going, there are eyes on the street, stuff is happening.

With people confined inside, that outside life – even if it is just anonymous passing by others doing their own thing – disappears. Pictures show the lack of people but cannot easily capture the lost social interaction and activity.

 

SimCity, Jane Jacobs, and real estate values near the High Line

In a recent walk along New York’s High Line, I was reminded of two competing claims about how parks enhance nearby land uses.

In SimCity’s take on urban planning, building a park was a good way to help adjacent properties. If nearby residential and commercial properties suffered from low property values – perhaps due to higher crime rates or locations near industry – building a park could help enhance their values. This seems to make intuitive sense: people like being near greenery and this land use can distract or suppress less desirable land uses.

Jane Jacobs, in contrast, suggests parks are not the automatic panacea some planners suggest. More important than simply having green or recreational space is having a steady mix of people flowing through and around the park. It is human activity that makes the park, not just green space. Indeed, negative activity can thrive and recreational space can easily become part of a dull or blighted area.

HighLineAug19

In a simplistic take, the High Line seems to support both of these views. The conversion of an unused railroad line to a thriving park has enhanced nearby property values. The park is regularly filled with people – from tourists to local walkers to vendors – during much of the day. This is a success story for both the SimCity and Jane Jacobs school of urban planning.

Yet, how exactly such an urban space came about and has both positive (new development!) and negative (those same values limiting who can live nearby!) consequences is more than just plopping a park into an area that could use more development. If it worked this way, every city would have such a successful project.

HighLine2Aug19

In a complex environment like Manhattan where land is highly prized and regulated, putting together such a project takes collective efforts spanning activists, residents, local officials, developers, and others who have an interest in this land and who may have competing interests. Property values may indeed be high and the park full but the long-term effects of this on the neighborhood and the city are harder to assess.

Americans fight for the right to have cheap or free parking

One columnist uses a story of obtaining a parking ticket on vacation to argue Americans like cheap parking:

I finally paid my parking ticket last week, but only because my wife reminded me. The ticket arrived unbidden on my windshield while we were on vacation. I parked too long in what I should have recalled but didn’t was a one-hour zone. I had no defense and sought none. As one who tries to be a good citizen, I stuck the small manila envelope above the visor on the driver’s side of the car, planning to pay up as soon as possible … and immediately forgot its existence. We arrived home from vacation with the ticket still hidden above the visor…

Indeed, the fact that the city increased the fines by only $5 helps illustrate the uneasy relationship between drivers and urban planners. Planners hate cars; drivers love them. Drivers have more votes than planners, so parking stays cheap…

Which brings us back to my parking ticket. Nobody has more status and power than the state, so why didn’t I pay my ticket at once? Because the state’s status and power are not strongly signaled. The face value of the ticket was relatively low — $20 — and paying late increased the fine only by $5. Now imagine increasing both by a factor of 100. Were the fine $2,000 and the late fee $500, most of us would pay on time. As a matter of fact, we’d go out of our way never to be ticketed. We might even forego our beloved cars and turn to public transportation.

Except that we wouldn’t. We’d rise in revolt instead, demanding a return to cheap parking. We’d be wrong, but we’d win.

For many urbanists, the car is the antithesis of urban life. To have thriving street life, the sort of streetscape described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, people need to be walking rather than seeing places go by at 30 mph and above. Perhaps cars should be banned all together in some places. Reliance on the car ends up shifting resources to having wide and efficient roads rather than the traditional style and walkable neighborhoods New Urbanists tout. The sprawl of the suburbs is only possible because cars enable wealthier residents to leave the city and its residents behind for the night.

On the flip side, American love cars. Arguably, the suburbs are the prime illustration of a life built around and enabled by personal vehicles. The federal government largely funded interstates, allowing more workers to move to the suburbs. The new shopping malls of the postwar era included many indoor stores at once but also free parking. Communities, both suburban and urban, fought over whether to compete with the shopping malls with free street parking or continue to use parking meters. If owning a car is expensive enough, does the average user want to also have to pay for parking?

Outside of the densest areas in the United States, such as Manhattan where parking can go for a premium, parking will likely remain rather cheap. It would be interesting to see one or two cities really try to go after cheaper parking to push mass transit or other transportation options. Could places like Seattle or Austin get away with it? Maybe but even there many people in the region need a car. Perhaps significantly raising parking prices would have to go hand in hand with constructing and pushing transit options to truly change behaviors.

Study suggests more traffic is related to stronger metro economies

What if traffic is not something to avoid but rather a byproduct of a strong economy?

By comparing historic traffic data against several economic markers, the authors found virtually no indication that gridlock stalled commerce. In fact, it looked like the economy had its own HOV lane. Region by region, GDP and jobs grew, even as traffic increased. This does not mean speed bumps should come standard on every new highway. Traffic still sucks, and things that suck should be fixed. What this study does is acknowledge that economically vibrant cities will always have congestion. So transportation planners should instead focus on ways to alleviate the misery rather than eliminate the existence of congestion…

Marshall acknowledges that no statistic can paint a perfect picture of reality, but he says he and his coauthor wrangled their analysis into coherence. Once they accounted for all the hanging chads, the overall trend was pretty clear: Traffic really didn’t do much to the economy. In fact, they found that if anything, places with higher car congestion seemed to have stronger economies. Specifically, per capita GDP and job growth both tracked upward as traffic wait times got worse.

It sounds like the study suggests the better the economy is, the more traffic there will be. I could think of two observations that go with these findings:

  1. The idea of ghost towns, both literal and figurative. If there is a lack of economic activity, the streets and buildings will be pretty empty.
  2. Jane Jacobs argued the most interesting neighborhoods are those with a lot of street and sidewalk activity. This is certainly related to economic activity of businesses, shops, and restaurants as well as the ability of residents and visitors to spend money.

Even if this is true, I would guess this knowledge would do little to help people stuck in gridlock feel better about the situation. They should think “I’m glad I have a good job in a thriving metro area and the traffic is the small penalty to pay for that.”

Perhaps a final piece to this would be to think about what would need to change in urban areas or driving to decouple these factors. Would a significant investment in mass transit counter this connection? More telecommuting and working from home?

Jane Jacobs, self-driving cars, and smartphone walking lanes

Fining distracted pedestrians who are paying attention to their smartphones is one option for communities. Here is another: a Chinese shopping center in Xi’an has a clearly marked lane for smartphone-using walkers.

Colorfully painted paths outside the Bairui Plaza shopping mall have been designated for walkers who cannot be bothered to look up from their devices…

Instead, messages painted along the lane cajole walkers to look up and pay attention.

“Please don’t look down for the rest of your life,” one message reads. “Path for the special use of the heads-down tribe,” another says…

Xi’an is not the first city to experiment with special areas for mobile phone use. In 2014, a street in the southwestern city of Chongqing was divided into two sections. On one side, phone use was prohibited, and on the other walkers were allowed to use their phones “at your own risk.”

The German city of Augsburg in 2016 embedded traffic lights on the surface of the street to prevent texting pedestrians from walking into traffic.

This will be a difficult issue to tackle for many communities. Here are two more additional ideas that may (or may not) help address these concerns:

  1. In reading multiple stories about distracted pedestrians on sidewalks, I am reminded of Jane Jacobs’ thoughts on lively sidewalk life. She argued that a lively street scene full of mixed uses will promote a thriving social scene. Could it be that sidewalks need to be more lively to keep the attention of pedestrians? If someone is walking down a bland block or through a shopping mall that does not really look any different than other shopping malls, it can be easier to pull out a smartphone. Of course, users might be so familiar with the walking area or their thoughts are elsewhere such that no level of liveliness would keep them from their smartphone.
  2. Perhaps some of the technology already being rolled out in cars and destined for significant use in driverless cars that helps cars sense other objects and respond accordingly could be implemented in cell phones. Imagine using your smartphone while walking and all of the sudden a radar screen pops up that indicates you are about to run into something. Or, perhaps it could have lights on different edges that could provide indications that objects are on that side. This is where Google Glass could be very useful: a display of nearby objects could always be within a user’s vision. Maybe technology will soon advance to a point where we have “bubbles” around us displaying information and nearby pedestrians or other objects could trigger some sort of alarm.

Separate walking lanes as well as punishments may not be enough. Given our reliance on technology to solve problems, I would not be surprised if new technology ends up as a substantial part of the solution proposed for problems posed by earlier technology. At the same time, this may be less about technology and more about the changing nature of public life.

The potential problems with a city “built from the Internet up”

Sidewalk Labs, a part of Alphabet/Google, wants to develop 12 acres on Toronto’s waterfront and they have a unique vision:

Sidewalk describes its vision for Quayside in terms worthy of Blade Runner, as a city “built from the internet up … merging the physical and digital realms.” In reality, the company’s ambition lies first in the synthesis of established techniques like modular construction, timber-frame building, underground garbage disposal, and deep-water cooling. Not low-tech, but not rocket science either. Sidewalk’s success will depend on deploying those concepts at scale, beginning with a preliminary tract at Quayside but expanding—if all goes well—to Toronto’s Port Lands, a vast, underused peninsula of reclaimed land the size of downtown Toronto.

Sure, there will robots delivering packages, sensors for air quality and noise, and the deployment of a range of electronics that will help the infrastructure enable autonomous vehicles. But, says Rohit Aggarwala, Sidewalk’s head of urban systems, “I expect very little of the value we create is about information.” Indeed, a number of Sidewalk’s ideas are rather old-school: retractable, durable canopies to shelter sidewalks (hello, 11th-century Damascus); pedestrian pathways that melt snow (familiar from any ski town); composting, which is as old as human settlement itself. The company projects that managing wind, sun, and rain can “double the number of [year-round] daylight hours when it is comfortable to be outside.” The development, Doctoroff said, “is primarily a real estate play.”…

That’s part of the pitch for Sidewalk’s Toronto neighborhood. The company calculates the cost of living in Quayside will be 14 percent lower than the surrounding metro area. It believes timber-frame construction, modular units that can be assembled on site, microunits, and cohousing can significantly lower housing costs. Other ideas, like mixing office, production, institutional, and residential spaces together in buildings, do not draw on technology at all.

Many have tried to master-plan the vibrancy of an organic city; most have failed. You better believe a company named after Jane Jacobs has the lingo down: “The most exciting ways to activate the public realm are often a mix of traditional uses in flexible spaces,” the company’s proposal says. “The cafe that puts tables on the sidewalk, the teacher who uses a park for nature lessons, the artist who turns a street corner into a stage.” But is it really the case that that kind of street life can be built, as Sidewalk promises, on “a robust system of asset monitoring” that creates a reservation system for sidewalk space? No.

It sounds like this development could be an interesting mix of Jane Jacobs, New Urbanism, and Google. Or, it could be another splashy redevelopment project that Google eventually sells at a sizable profit.

In the long run, developing 12 acres or a sizable corporate campus – recently undertaken by Apple or Facebook – is very different than creating a city. There are numerous differences including these:

  1. Building and maintaining essential infrastructure including water, power, gas, and telecommunications. A smaller development has the advantage of plugging into existing systems.
  2. American communities tend to be built in pieces rather than all at once. There is the issue whether people can build a development or city in a certain way and just expect community to happen – there is enough evidence from New Urbanist projects that it does not exactly work this way. One way around this is to build in stages and give the community time to develop, grow, and have its own history and identity.
  3. A development project often is working within existing political structures. Google can’t do whatever it wants in Toronto; it has to answer to local government. This could be quite a hindrance and could lead some tech companies to practice their city-building in environments where they have more local control.
  4. A city run by a private company versus one operating in a democratic system could be very different. Graber hints at this at the end of the piece: what happens if residents do not like Google’s ideas? The company town idea has issues. At the same time, a private firm could develop the property or community and then hand it over to local residents and government – this happens everywhere from developers and HOAs to Disney building Celebration.

All that said, it could be worthwhile to let some private firms do large-scale development like this to see if they can offer new features or solve common problems facing municipalities.