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Perspectives for the American City in 2021 Urban Planning

“The silver thread is broken, the golden bowl is broken, the amphora of the fountain breaks, the bucket falls into the well” (Ecclesiastes 12: 6).

Are cities now on the Fritz, right after the age of cities was explained? Did they “fall into the well”, “is the golden shell broken” forever?

Common global truths have been turned upside down at warp speed. Could the prediction that the global citizen will be urban turn out to be wrong? A flagship urban renaissance and trendsetter, New York City was put down in a brutal strike. Just silenced. Since then, there has been a lot of talk about cities in the media and professional world. This article relativizes some of these doomsday reports.

Abandoned Times Square (Photo CNN / AP)

The Atlantic diagnosed “A make or break moment for cities“and predicted nothing less than” an inversion of the urban renaissance “:

The possible outcome is nothing less than the reversal of the “urban renaissance” that began about a generation ago. Renaissance is a freight concept that is as far away as it describes it, but some aspects of it are undeniable. After nearly four decades of capital flight, investment in neighborhoods that had been dismissed as irreversible returned. And people too. At the 2000 census, Chicago recorded its first population growth in 50 years. In 2010 Philadelphia did the same. Most spectacularly, New York City, which lost more than 800,000 residents in the 1970s, has since taken in a staggering 1.4 million people.

This Friday, Tom Murphy, Fellow at the Urban Land Institute (ULI), assured a national audience that “Cities will be successful, they will always be the centers of civilization.” The end of cities was often predicted, but it never happened. It is unlikely that this pandemic can achieve what decades of US anti-urban policies have failed to achieve.

The infamous freeway to nowhere in West Baltimore
during rush hour this morning (photo: Philipsen)

“Cities will succeed, they will always be the centers of civilization” (Tom Murphy, former Mayor of Pittsburgh)

However, there is no doubt that cities and the pandemic are on a collision course. The city is about connectivity, success against a virus is about separation. So far New York, Wuhan, Milan and Madrid. Lima, are the vivid examples of this conflict, New Delhi and Moscow could be the next.

This week, when many states and countries “reopened” the suburban edge between Baltimore City and County, offered an astonishing insight: Life on the suburban streets was as busy as on a normal Saturday morning, while the streets in the city center were deserted few cars and practically no pedestrians on the way. Downtown shops were still closed by an edict, most employers still require office workers to work from home, and there were certainly no tourists or congressmen. Museums, the zoo, restaurants and theaters were closed. In short, there is not much reason to go into town now.

In contrast, people had a lot of motivation to be out in the suburbs, where the grocery stores have their big shops, where Walmart, Cosco and Target liveand where now even barbershops were allowed to be restricted. Baltimore’s mayor, aware of the high number of cases in the city, had still closed those places. Even if you just wanted to be outside and enjoy spring, the larger, more natural parks seem a safer choice than the smaller urban ones. These practical reasons are always overlaid with the fact that many suburbs avoid the city like the plague even in normal times. Now the violence, squeegee children at the crossroads, the homeless, and the boarded-up houses and shops of the old cities are an even greater deterrent to those who prefer to close their eyes to the less fortunate side of the urban renaissance. The idea of ​​the city as a broken place always had a prominent place in the American psyche:

Reduced mobility in Maryland: parks are in operation, transit is inactive

Cities are bankrupt, office districts are at rest, services are cut to the bone. And wealthy white families will move to the suburbs in numbers and steal the city hall tills when they leave. Metropolises could block bankruptcy in the 50s and 70s in six months. (slate)

But there are also much more optimistic voices. The latest from the Urban Land Institute Real estate economic forecast This week’s presentation shows that while the COVID-19 crisis triggered shock waves worldwide, US real estate economists forecast a short-lived recession with above-average GDP growth for 2021 and 2022::

US GDP is expected to fall 6 percent this year. This would be the largest drop in a year since 1946. GDP is expected to grow by 3.9 percent in 2021 and 3.6 percent in 2022, well above the long-term average of 2.1 percent.

ULI economic forecast: GDP decline in 2020 with growth in 2021

The Google Community COVID 19 reports Providing impact data on tracking people’s movements: By May 16, retail sales declined 30% nationally, while groceries and pharmacies only decreased 3%. Jobs fell by 24%, parks by 34%, transit by the same percentage and mobility in residential areas by 9%. All of these changes where people move are not a good sign for cities where much of the shopping was done a long time ago and where, despite the Renaissance, the majority of Americans do not live.

Obviously, the pandemic will change things. In some cases, trends that have been going on for some time are accelerating and accelerating, including obvious trends such as online shopping, home delivery, teleworking and teleconferencing, telemedicine and video communication in a wide range of applications, for example real estate “open house”. After a brief renaissance during the financial crisis, transit had already decreased before Corona and it will certainly take a long time to recover after Corona.
Some trends are stopped or vice versa. For example, the consolidation of offices, for example the trend to accommodate more workers in smaller open floor slabs with long benches and not even a fixed space for everyone. The flood of restaurants, convention centers and boutique hotels has already been a problem and is being stopped and possibly vice versa. The same applies to the endless plans for airport extensions and ultra-cheap short-haul flights.

The extent to which these trend reinforcements and reversals will occur depends on how people react, which in turn depends on how long it will take for the virus to be defeated.

Three main scenarios are possible and would affect cities differently:

  • First, people forget once the virus has lost its power and cities return to their previous state after a few years of discovery.
  • Second, people are so traumatized that cities have to reinvent themselves to survive
  • Third, people would like to forget and return to normality, but the economic blow was so devastating that a return to the status quo ante is impossible.

Reality is always more complicated than mental constructs, so it is likely that in 2021 a mixture of all scenarios will take shape, with one or the other dominating in a particular sector or population group.

For every attempt to project into the future, it is important to understand the past. Contrary to what the President said, neither the state of the country nor the state of the cities was as rosy as we now like to remember when old normality became a distant memory, although we only lived it a few months ago .

Major workers on the New York subway
(Photo: NYT)

In fact, the strands of RNA that have devastated the world have not reversed the happiness of prospering societies (or cities) so much, but have provided the flashes and a magnifying glass with a flashlight and a magnifying glass for a long time. Now everyone can see them:

  • The big inequalities
  • the shortcomings in health care,
  • the concentration of poverty in certain neighborhoods and
  • the health differences that go with it.
  • The fact that too many people live from paycheck to paycheck.
  • That cities have enormous pension obligations that they have not structured sustainably and
  • that too many do not offer decent jobs because their economy depends too much on entertainment, hospitality and tourism, sectors that mostly have poorly paid border jobs and are now particularly badly affected.

The fact that the precariously unprotected gig workers from Uber, Lyft, or Lime scooters had to become buyers for those who order groceries from home and avoid the risks of grocery shopping during a pandemic was just one of the changes that made clear how society is divided into those with well-paid keyboard jobs that can be run anywhere, and those that are “essential” and physically on the front line of life.

Retail is another area where cities have a very changeable record. Initially, many cities lost most of the retail to the suburbs. Recently, some cities have regained high-end stores like the Apple brand. There was also a renaissance of artisan bakeries, butchers and health food stores. Overall, however, the future of retail remained a big question mark. Last week JC Penny went bankrupt not because of COVID, but because it was on the brink with all the other old department store chains. Corona then pushed it over the edge. The question of where retail will go is now more pressing than ever. Are large retail and department store chains being replaced by online purchases while small local retail stores that offer authentic locally made goods are thriving? The revival of some main streets made some forecasters believe this. Now that Corona has hit, it remains to be seen whether the smaller local mom-and-pop stores can survive the major disruption or whether many will remain closed forever and the previously busy streets will be destroyed in the same way that many rural communities have known some time. Retailing in vital neighborhoods largely depended on restaurants and art, a symbiotic trifecta with pioneering artists that originally took place in New York’s SoHo and was repeated in cities around the world.

No tourists at the Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

Now that the virus threat continues for many months, even in the best of cases, no one seems to have a recipe on how restaurants can survive these long, extraordinary conditions, regardless of whether they are locally owned or part of a chain . Smaller restaurants, in particular, worked on the brink of profitability with a picky clientele that shifted their preferences on a whim. Just think of grocery stores, brewing bars and cafés, models that have been replicated so often that they quickly lost the feeling of novelty. Without the restaurants, the entertainment districts that made up much of the urban atmosphere so valued by millennials will have disappeared. Will life in the city center remain attractive without the nightlife and buoyancy of these restaurant clusters? Or will cities use streets for creative outdoor dining arrangements that enable a whole new experience? Corona could be a step that takes the concept of complete streets to a whole new level.

As mentioned earlier, artists who came to restaurants and retailers often rediscovered neighborhoods that had lost their splendor after de-industrialization, which was particularly noticeable in the so-called legacy cities. The artists run under corona with vapors and, unlike companies, there are no rescue packages for them. This is a sad state of affairs, especially when neither economists nor virologists have the answers. The voice of the artists has always illuminated the fog of revolutionary situations that, as composers, painters or dancers, articulated the social vibrations until others could also decipher them. This is more important now than ever. But the arts are silenced by the ban on meetings, concerts, theater or film productions. Art needs the audience. As Marcel Duchamp put it:

[Art is] a product of two poles – there is the pole of the one who does the work and the pole of the one who looks at it. I give the latter just as much importance as the one who does it. (Marcel Duchamp)

Steven Colbert realized that his production would be impossible without a live audience, and yet it would be so nice to hear his attitude at the moment. To hear the interpretations of the Baltimore Symphony from Beethoven’s birthday that are planned all year round would be a pleasure and comfort, but it will not happen. Art provides a foundation and perspective for a bottomless society. Possibly the most important of all activities would be to get art going again. Creative new attitudes are also required here so that art can be seen and heard without the usual venues.

Parked on a runway: planes at Pittsburgh Airport (WTOV)

Transport was hard hit by COVID, from traditional car rental (Hertz bankruptcy) to carpooling and scooters to transit on buses, trains or air travel. Most cities have never invested enough in seriously turning away from the single car, while fighting against polluted air, congested streets, and poorly maintained buses and trains. COVID revealed the reality that many city dwellers are dependent on transit, even if this is an option that anyone with a choice would rather not use in a pandemic. Basic workers simply couldn’t get to work without public transport, so most agencies continued their fixed route and schedule with a sort of “Saturday schedule” that stressed both operators and drivers alike, let alone the health insurance companies Agency were exhausted. How a reopened city will handle transport under COVID in the coming months is an open question. Here, too, creative and innovative solutions are required. The slogan of Mobility as a service has been discussed among transportation experts for some time. The main ingredients are a mix of traditional landline and landline service with the new on-demand service types like Uber and Lyft and even scooters and rental cars like ZipCar, a model that may be well suited to this new reality. Of course, cash payments and other personal interactions with bus companies must be stopped.

And then there’s the manufacturing. Old towns in particular are still affected by the decline of the chimney industry. Will the realization that a complicated international supply chain is problematic in a pandemic will change the outsourcing habit beyond the manufacture of masks and ventilators and some medication? Could cities benefit from such a shift? Tom Murphy believes this in his online conversation with ULI members. He predicted an increase in manufacturing due to problems with distant supply chains and international dependencies. This is still a minority view. In its last issue, The Economist praised the robustness of these international supply chains, particularly in the food sector, and took Corona as evidence that global cooperation works. But many had been playing with the idea of ​​stronger local and domestic production for some time. As proof-of-concept projects, various attempts were made to locally produce robots of versatile products with a regional taste, for example in sneaker production. Sportswear manufacturers Nike, Adidas and Under Armor all had these experiments in the works. However, this industry is now also suffering, especially the new kid on the block, Baltimores Under Armor. Far from being the imaginary savior for Baltimore’s post-industrial problems, the child prodigy began to stumble long before COVID. Its stock fueled due to the same problems that plague so many startups: unsustainable growth.

When does normal urban street life come back?
Fells Point, Baltimore (Photo: Philipsen)

For example, in 2021 most of our cities may see mass unemployment, limited services, garbage piles, unkempt parks, increasing crime, empty shop fronts, outbreaks of social unrest and a downtown area full of fraudsters and no office workers. The promised COVID vaccine could remain scarce even after it was approved in the same way as these tests in 2020, with poorer cities holding the bag in hand.

Or thanks to a, a far friendlier future could arise federal Marshall Plan for cities, initiated by a city-friendly president and approved by a busy congress. If cities, not mega-corporations, received the greatest rescue, cities could continue their renaissance in a much more sustainable way. especially if there were a new vaccine that local authorities would distribute efficiently, quickly and fairly. Then the pandemic would have been an opportunity.

In both scenarios. There will be large regional differences within the United States and also very different perspectives for cities on other continents. A lot has to do with political leadership. Or as Tom Murphy put it:

“Location, location, location” is replaced by “leadership, leadership, leadership”. The cities that were well positioned before COVID will be successful during and after the pandemic. “(Tom Murphy)

The population believes that there are always opportunities in the crisis. It could be that Made in the USA will get a boost. Urban agriculture, farmers’ markets and meatless food options could see increased demand after COVID highlighted the horrific conditions of workers in meat packaging plants and slaughterhouses. An age of sustainability to combat climate change would certainly require healthy cities and no further urban sprawl.

People who have been conditioned to the 6 ‘distance may yearn for urbanity, density, and closeness once the threat from this virus has subsided. Bars, common offices and dining rooms would thrive again along with ethnic festivals and crowded sports arenas. After all, people are social beings. Healthy cities are not only the only way to combat climate change, but also to restore the country’s prosperity and part of its former glory. No country can be strong when its cities are battered.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also in my blog:

After the pandemic: is the future of cities questionable?

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