Jul 16, 2020

Axios Cities

By Kim Hart
Kim Hart

Axios Cities hit two milestones last week: The newsletter's one-year anniversary and crossing the 50,000 subscriber mark.

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  • Today's edition is 1,929 words, a 7-minute read.

📆 Mark your calendar: Join Axios Login author Ina Fried tomorrow at 12:30pm ET with NY Rep. Grace Meng, CEO of Stand for Children Jonah Edelman, and executive director of the Center for Connected Health Policy Mei Kwong for a conversation on how the coronavirus is hastening the shift to telemedicine and remote education. Register here.

1 big thing: How cities can come back stronger

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 for immediate needs, 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.

Go deeper:

2. What some cities are already doing

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A number of mayors around the world are already overseeing efforts in line with some of the green recommendations put forth by the C40 Cities COVID-19 recovery task force:

  • Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante has planned 203 miles of bike paths allowing citizens to reach the city's parks, and she aims to plant enough trees in vulnerable zones to have tree canopy cover 25% of the city.
  • Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has adopted the '"15-minute city" idea with plans to add offices and co-working hubs and encourage remote work, use nightclubs as gyms during the day, and have schools serve as parks and play spaces over the weekend.
  • Lisbon Mayor Fernando Medina is enhancing public transit safety with new cleaning protocols and route adjustments during rush hours and reducing ridership to two-thirds capacity. The city added new bus lanes and is buying more trams and electric buses than previously planned.
  • Seoul is improving municipal buildings' energy efficiency and introducing greenhouse gas emissions caps. The measures are expected to create 20,000 green jobs by 2022.
3. The burden on teachers

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The debate over whether and how much to reopen schools in the fall has put teachers in the precarious position of choosing between their own safety and the pressures from some parents and local officials, Axios' Marisa Fernandez and I write.

What's happening: With coronavirus cases spiking in many parts of the U.S., districts are weighing the feasibility of keeping classes all virtual, as Los Angeles and San Diego are doing, or conducting a rotation of in-person and remote lessons.

While all back-to-school options have pros and cons, there are specific worries for teachers.

1. Exposure: Despite the overall low health risk to children if they contract COVID-19, scientists still do not conclusively know if schools could become hotspots for more vulnerable populations.

  • Nearly 1.5 million teachers have a condition that puts them at increased risk of serious illness from coronavirus, per a Kaiser Family Foundation study.
  • A study in Germany found that infections in schools had not led to outbreaks in the community. But an analysis of a surge of cases in Israel found that nearly half the reported cases in June were traced back to illness in schools.
"We as teachers prepare for active shooters, tornadoes, fires and I’m fully prepared to take a bullet or shield a child from falling debris during a tornado. But if I somehow get it and I’m asymptomatic and I get a student sick and something happens to them or one of their family members, that's a guilt I would carry with me forever."
— Michelle Albright, a second-grade teacher from northwest Indiana

2. Difficulty of a hybrid approach: Many school districts like New York City are opting to split school between in-person and online to minimize exposure. That's an effective but more burdensome approach for teachers, top teachers union chief Randi Weingarten told Axios' Dan Primack Monday.

3. Child care availability: Teachers with children of their own are concerned about how to care for them when they are teaching.

4. Concerns of other school staff: Bus drivers, custodians, administrative staff, cafeteria workers and school nurses may come in contact with more children throughout the day because they are less likely than teachers to be confined to a single classroom.

What to watch: School districts ought to be finding other roles for teachers who are not comfortable returning to the classroom, such as reassigning them to virtual-only roles, said John Bailey, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former domestic policy adviser during the George W. Bush administration.

The bottom line: Due to the unprecedented nature of this pandemic, teachers are worried about the uncertainties and, in some cases, lack of clear planning should conditions worsen. That may drive some to quit teaching altogether.

  • "You’ve got 25% of teachers who may be in either a high-risk situation because of pre-existing conditions or because of age, and a lot of them, if they can, they may just check out and say 'nobody’s taking care of me. I can’t go back,'" Weingarten said.
4. Testing buildings in order to reopen local economies

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Testing buildings — not just people — could be an important way to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Axios' Joann Muller reports.

Why it matters: People won't feel safe returning to schools, offices, bars and restaurants unless they can be assured they won't be infected by coronavirus particles lingering in the air — or being pumped through the buildings' air ducts.

  • One day, even office furniture lined with plants could be used to clean air in cubicles.

Driving the news: New research from the University of Oregon, in partnership with the University of California-Davis, suggests heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems could be contributing to the spread of the disease in health care facilities.

  • There are some fairly easy fixes, like installing more sophisticated air filters, drawing more fresh air into buildings and cranking up the humidity, which tends to kill the virus.
  • But when it's extremely hot or cold outside, some of these measures could overwhelm HVAC systems, ventilation experts say.

Environmental testing could provide early warnings of an outbreak, said Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, director of the Institute for Health in the Built Environment at the University of Oregon.

  • "Testing your building is really the key to restarting the engine of the economy," he said

What to watch: His lab is designing micro-environments that could provide office workers with their own supply of fresh air.

  • HyPhy is a twist on the traditional office cubicle: It's a personal clean air pod that integrates a fern called Azolla into the furniture to provide personalized air circulation and purification.
  • The plants, when treated with ultraviolet lights under the desk, may help kill pathogens while pumping localized fresh air into the breathing zone of the cubicle's occupant.
5. Repurposing dormant stadiums

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

When the coronavirus pandemic struck and sports were shuttered, hundreds of stadiums suddenly became sleeping giants, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

Why it matters: Some of America's sports cathedrals — often among the largest and most prominent structures in their respective cities — have taken on new roles.

Temporary uses:

Permanent changes?

  • Voting sites: The NBA's Hawks, Pistons and Bucks have all offered their arenas as voting locations for the 2020 election. The idea is that large groups could pass through while staying 6 feet apart, but perhaps these venues will continue to be used for voting post-social distancing.
  • Movie nights: Miami's Hard Rock Stadium has transformed into a drive-in movie theater, which has reemerged as a popular form of entertainment during the pandemic. There's no reason teams couldn't set up regular movie nights post-COVID.

What they're saying: Sports architect Matt Rossetti touched on that last point in an interview with The Athletic:

"What I think and what I hope is [sports venues] will become more wedded to the fabric of cities, so they're no longer standalone facilities that light up only when there are events. ... There should be civic uses ... so they become more part of a community rather than a folly for billionaires."
6. Urban files
Data: CoreLogic; Chart: Axios Visuals

The housing delinquency crisis hasn't started yet (Axios)

How Uber and Lyft battled Seattle over minimum wage for drivers (CNET)

Trying to predict superspreading hotspots for COVID-19 (Nature)

Connecticut bet big on the suburbs. That might finally pay off (WSJ)

Behind the accidentally resilient design of Athens apartments (Bloomberg CityLab)

Why is a tech executive installing security cameras around San Francisco? (NYT)

7. 1 neighborly thing: Nextdoor launches "Sell for Good" to help nonprofits

Image: Nextdoor

Nextdoor is launching a new product today — "Sell for Good" — that lets users donate to nonprofits the proceeds from items they sell on the app.

Why it matters: During the COVID-19 outbreak, 50% of nonprofits have experienced reduced donations, and 60% report they are facing long-term financial concerns, per a Nonprofit Finance Fund survey.

  • Meanwhile, Nextdoor says conversations on the site related to donations increased seven-fold. Daily classifieds listings have nearly doubled during COVID-19.
  • "If those nonprofits really do go out of business, they take away a lot of safety nets for local communities," Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar told me this week.

How it works: Nextdoor partnered with PayPal Giving Fund to direct donations to a wide range of charities.

  • When selling a product, you can choose from a list of nonprofits and the sale proceeds are deducted directly from your PayPal account (which you have to connect to the site).
  • Right now, the full amount must be given to the nonprofit, although the company says it's working on allowing partial donations in the future.
  • Nextdoor has partnered with six nonprofits — including A Better Chicago, LA Voice, New York Cares and Operation Hope in Atlanta — for the product's launch.
Kim Hart