Jul 16, 2020 - Economy & Business

How cities can come back stronger from the coronavirus pandemic

Illustration of a small cityscape sitting in the palm of a hand in a medical glove

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Cities ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic have a chance to come back stronger — and more equitable — than they were before, if they're willing to get creative in the way they think about budgeting, public services and infrastructure.

Why it matters: Making smart decisions now can help build more equitable, livable cities that will also be better equipped to weather public health crises. But if local leaders simply default to old habits, they'll entrench inequities that the pandemic has exploited and made worse.

The big picture: Building the right priorities into local recovery efforts can help even cash-strapped cities empower vulnerable residents and build more resilient economies — but they need to move quickly. Here's what the experts recommend.

1. Jump-start projects with diverse benefits that do several things at once, according to a roadmap by HR&A, an urban and community development consulting firm, provided exclusively to Axios.

  • For example, road-building projects should also contribute to employment for marginalized populations, increase transportation options for residents without cars, or address stormwater flooding.
  • Combining philanthropic and public funding should entice private investors into marginalized communities while guarding against "disaster capitalism" of the type that, for example, allowed private funds to snap up distressed properties in bulk during the foreclosure crisis.

2. Green investments create both jobs and more resilient infrastructure. Among the recommendations in a C40 Cities report from mayors of many of the world's biggest cities:

  • Invest in green jobs and clean energy, and provide job training for people to move from high-pollution industries to sustainable ones.
  • Improve public services, such as efficient and safe mass transit, while reclaiming roads for non-car infrastructure.
  • Create "15-minute cities" where residents can meet most of their needs within a short walk or bike ride from home.
  • Invest in parks, green roofs, permeable pavements and other infrastructure to reduce the risks of extreme heat, drought and flooding, which often disproportionately hurt vulnerable residents.

3. Removing real estate restrictions would make it easier to repurpose vacant buildings and storefronts, per a report by the Manhattan Institute detailing recommendations for revamping New York City's obsolete zoning practices.

  • Loosening parking requirements and commercial requirements for ground floor locations on major streets would give more flexibility for different kinds of occupants.
  • A vacant hotel could be used for housing, and an empty restaurant could be turned into a medical office.
  • Zoning for manufacturing districts should be updated to accommodate modern uses, such as distribution facilities.

What they're saying: "There is a moment right now where residents will support their mayors in taking bold action to create a much more livable city," said David Miller, C40 Cities' director of international diplomacy and former Toronto mayor. "It's possible to see far more rapid change than one would have expected even six months ago."

What's next: The window is short to leverage the collective appetite for improving overall resilience and helping hard-hit populations, HR&A's Phillip Kash said.

  • "In a normal disaster, people get frustrated and empathy starts to evaporate between 60–90 days. At the one-year mark, the door is pretty much closed," he said.

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