2020 has been a rough year for the American city. As COVID-19 spread unchecked through the streets, subways, offices, and crowded households of New York City in early March, it wound up exposing the eternal Achilles heel of urban life- the threat of disease.
For centuries, the wealthy viewed crowded cities with contempt because they were seen as dirty and filled with plague. Only in the 20th Century, after incredible improvements in public health and eventually air quality, were cities finally able to shed their filthy reputation. In the 21st Century, Americans of all ages with the means to choose where they live had finally begun to return to cities, infusing them with new life and new opportunities- and creating sky-high property values to boot. While this created problems with gentrification and displacement, it also presented a way forward for environmentalists concerned about climate change. If people were willing to trade more space for better location, we could finally turn away from the car-centric 20th-Century suburban lifestyle and towards a more urban, sustainable future, which would be essential in reducing carbon emissions and halting the already-intensifying effects of climate change.
But in 2020, all of that progress has come to a halt, as the old danger of disease reared its ugly head again. By April, that unchecked spread had turned New York (and a few other American cities) into the world’s epicenter of COVID-19, with unimaginable scenes coming out of hospitals and morgues. Studies popped up seemingly daily that claimed public transit to be a potential vector for carrying airborne disease. Open-plan offices, so vital in the knowledge economy, were also exposed for being potentially deadly. Live sports, concerts, theater performances, parades, festivals, road races, and all other mass-gathering events ground to a halt. Crowded bars and restaurants, the heartbeat of urban vitality, were repeatedly proven to turn into breeding grounds for virus transmission if even one infected person stayed on the premises long enough. In the span of just a few months, most of the things that made the city such an appealing place turned into places to avoid at all costs. And with it, the people with means who had chosen to live in the city began questioning their choices. I know, because I’m one of them.
As a professional TDM planner, I’ve been passionate my whole life about fighting climate change, and practicing what I preach. I live in a tiny apartment in DC, don’t own a car, and get everywhere by walking or public transit (along with the occasional scooter or Uber trip). It worked out great for me, until March. Suddenly, my beautiful 1-bedroom apartment felt more like a prison cell. At least I had Netflix, Playstation, and Amazon to keep me going. But the central questions remained: if everything that made the city fun for me was now off-limits, what was I doing living here? If I had to shelter in my home for 98% of my time, wouldn’t I be better off in a larger home, with maybe some outdoor space to call my own? And if I didn’t feel comfortable in a shared ride or on public transit, wouldn’t I be better off owning a car? In short: if I could make it work financially, shouldn’t I decamp for the suburbs, where I could stretch out and drive around? To hear these words coming out of my own mouth, as a 29-year old committed urbanist, were shocking. But as the pandemic continues to drag on, it feels like an eventuality that I’ll have to get out of here and make some enormous lifestyle changes so that I can keep my short-term (and maybe even medium-term) peace of mind. And if I’m thinking that way, I can only imagine how many others must be as well.
Major publications seem to agree. The articles are everywhere- urban millennials are giving up on the city and moving to the suburbs. Real estate listings all over the country can prove it, although nowhere more so than in New York, where the trade off has been most pronounced. On a personal level, this makes total sense. I was never planning on living in a tiny shoebox my whole life, so of course I was going to want a larger home at some point, and I was always going to get a car to supplement my lifestyle in the future. But I never expected these trends to happen so soon. On a societal level, of course, this is a very concerning trend.
Millennials now make up the largest segment of the American population, and we are quickly becoming the largest presence in the real-estate and automotive markets as well. Any hope for reversing or even halting the effects of climate change have always run through the millennial generation, as we were the first generation to come of age in the “Inconvenient Truth” era. Many of us fully understood from a young age that we were inheriting a rapidly-warming world left to us by our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and that if we did nothing to stop it, we would leave behind an almost-unrecognizable planet to our own children and grandchildren. As such, the hope and expectation for millennials has always been that we would choose environmentally responsible options in our personal consumption, and vote for politicians who ensured that eventually, society would only allow such options. The time is now for us to make good on those hopes and expectations, but instead we are being faced with questions we never thought we would have to answer. Let’s examine them, answer them, and try to solve them, in order.
QUESTION: How am I supposed to take public transit during a pandemic?
ANSWER: Those studies from the spring showing that transit was a potential vector for disease have now largely been replaced by studies showing that transit, in and of itself, is not a significant danger to public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. As long as riders wear masks, maintain social distancing, and don’t do a lot of shouting and singing, transit should be fairly safe. Of course, there’s no guarantee that all riders will comply with all those rules.
PLANNING SOLUTION: Mask compliance is the single most important thing we can do to make transit safe for the rest of the pandemic. We must do everything we can to ensure maximum compliance on this issue, and then hopefully people will continue to see transit as a viable option once the acute phase of the pandemic has subsided.
QUESTION: How am I supposed to participate in a “sharing economy” during a pandemic?
ANSWER: Recent studies have also suggested that surface transmission is unlikely to be a major contributor to spread of COVID-19, so as long as you sanitize your hands after a ride, shared bikes and scooters should be a safe way to get around. Rideshare is dicier, but as long as both you and the driver are wearing masks, around-town trips should be fairly safe.
PLANNING SOLUTION: We need to expand access to these programs, and make sure they are subject to the strictest possible sanitation standards, in order to build public trust that shared bikes and scooters can play a vital role in keeping people mobile without resorting to private vehicles or overloading public transit systems, at least in good weather.
QUESTION: How am I supposed to live in an apartment with no outdoor space during a pandemic?
ANSWER: This may be the trickiest question to answer from a personal perspective. We as humans have a natural need to be outside for a certain percentage of every day. Thankfully, studies show that being outside, even in public spaces, is much, much safer than being inside, so take advantage of parks and trails as often as possible, while still wearing a mask and taking other precautions as necessary. Try to keep windows open on temperate days, and try to remember that this won’t last forever.
PLANNING SOLUTION: This may also be the most important issue to solve from a planning perspective. We urgently need to retrofit our cities to provide more outdoor spaces, both private and public, so people can safely get outside as much as possible. Expanding sidewalks, reclaiming parking spaces, and maintaining parks are great first steps. Ultimately, though, we need to mandate or incentivize private outdoor spaces within apartment buildings such as balconies, and perhaps most importantly, we need to address the massive pending need for missing-middle housing. Millennials were going to need larger living spaces anyway as they begin to start families, and now a large segment of them will be scarred by their pandemic experiences of feeling trapped inside a small apartment, so the demand will be even greater for private homes with backyards, porches, and decks. To keep millennials from moving out to exurban McMansions and continuing the trend of environmentally-disastrous greenfield development, we must build townhomes and small-lot homes as infill development wherever possible.
QUESTION: If everything that makes city living a good lifestyle choice is neutralized during a pandemic, why should I stay here, or ever come back?
ANSWER: Let’s be real. City living in 2020 is pretty miserable. It’s OK to wonder why you do it at all. It’s OK to yearn for the space and freedom that the suburbs and the countryside can provide. If I never again had to walk up the hill to my apartment carrying bags full of overpriced groceries, with a face mask on, in 95-degree heat, sidestepping anyone who darts into my path, I’d definitely rejoice. But 2020 has also provided surprising examples of what we can do for the environment when we make a collective effort, even inadvertently. City living is proven to be the most eco-friendly lifestyle you can have. It’s easy to put off the threat of climate change when you have your own short-term health and wellness to worry about, but failure to stop climate change looks a lot like failure to prepare for a pandemic, just at a slower pace. Try to stay the course and remember that your actions can make a difference.
PLANNING SOLUTION: Planners and city officials need to recognize that the pandemic will undoubtedly scar a lot of people and that some degree of behavior change in the short and medium term is inevitable no matter how much we try to encourage TDM, carpooling, transit use, bike and scooter use, and city living. The key is to plan for the longer term as (hopefully) memories of 2020 begin to recede and (hopefully) are replaced by happier memories from times in the near future. City governments need to find a way to allocate some of their admittedly limited funds towards efforts to retain and attract young people to stay in the city and continue to live eco-friendly lifestyles. Once the acute public-health and fiscal threats of the pandemic have passed, we must consider an all-out effort to keep the city attractive, including expanded rent tax credits, expanded transit benefits, improved TDM efforts, and of course investments in parks and outdoor infrastructure. It won’t be easy. This pandemic presents a major potential roadblock of efforts to combat climate change. But we will have to overcome it if we want to live up to our goal of being the generation that turns the tide of climate change.
For me, thinking of answers to the problems that concern me was a necessary exercise to try and reaffirm my wavering commitment to urbanism in these uniquely challenging times. While it certainly won’t be fun to remain largely cooped up indoors through the rest of summer and likely the winter as well, I remain confident that in the end, it’s the right thing to do. And when that glorious day comes that it’s OK to be carefree around other people again, I remain confident that city living can quickly recover from the pandemic-induced hit to its reputation. But planners still need to implement some of these possible solutions in order to ensure that the transition back goes as smoothly as possible, both for my sake, your sake, and the planet’s sake.