Aug 27, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Cities are facing the age of constant crises

Illustration of city welcome sign covered in hazard and warning signs
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The era of tackling one crisis — or even two — at a time is over.

Why it matters: The new normal is a series of crises hitting simultaneously, and localities are bearing the brunt.

Consider the following:

  • Many states and cities are still struggling to get COVID-19 under control as cases soar and testing remains erratic.
  • States and cities are collectively facing hundreds of billions of dollars in budget shortfalls — Moody's puts the number at around $500 billion — because of COVID-19's economic disruptions.
  • Climate change continues to trigger more extreme weather, including massive fires in the West and multiple hurricanes in the Southeast.
  • Millions of students are stuck in precarious learning situations. The mess is expected to result in extensive learning loss that could derail a generation’s opportunity and earning potential.
  • Social unrest in response to police brutality against Black residents continues to erupt in city streets. Meanwhile, debates about police budgets, the role of public safety and the lack of social services for society’s most vulnerable rage on.

What they're saying: "We should no longer be surprised by crises, we should be prepared for them and we should expect them as part of the new normal," said Clinton Vince, partner at Dentons law firm and founder of Dentons Smart Cities/Communities Think Tank.

  • "We need infrastructure in place urgently to deal with crises. We're so far behind on each of these critical issues."

Resiliency, sustainability and urgency are the new buzzwords of urban planning.

  • In the absence of federal action, the think tank is sketching out "mini Marshall Plans" with financing mechanisms that would work in cities, counties and states.
  • Disaster relief experts and urban policy professionals have put together numerous tools for cities, nonprofits and community groups trying to stem the damage to jobs, families and local services as more crises pummel increasingly fragile institutions.

Mayors are repeatedly sounding alarms about cities' dire financial conditions and the threat to the overall economy if they don’t get help.

  • "We all know this pandemic is not going to be over in a matter of weeks or months," said Mesa, Arizona, Mayor John Giles at an RNC kickoff virtual event Monday. Mesa was one of only 38 U.S. cities with populations large enough to receive federal funding from the CARES Act.
  • "The assistance needs to continue in order to avoid the catastrophic consequences that would result without it."

Between the lines: When crises overlap the way they increasingly are, the challenges with addressing them don't just pile up, they multiply — what engineers call "cascading failures," where one problem makes solving another problem many times harder, notes Axios managing editor Scott Rosenberg.

  • For example, California released thousands of inmates to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but that left the state without the typical workforce for fighting wildfires.

The silver lining: The clustering of crises has led to many intersecting catalysts for change and a political appetite — at least at the local level — for a more equitable recovery, said David DeVaughn, director of HR&A's inclusive cities practice.

  • While the default, knee-jerk reaction is to get back to the status quo, "Getting back to normal is completely unacceptable. That normal is why we are in these circumstances to begin with," he said.
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