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People sit in circles meant to encourage social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic in Domino Park along the East River on May 18, 2020 in the Williamsburg neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough in New York City.
Public spaces are reopening—but governed by new rules.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Coronavirus is not fuel for urbanist fantasies

This moment should be about reassessing our broken cities

The sidewalks have been converted into bustling restaurants, with families on bikes roaming the open streets, inhaling the cleanest air they’ve breathed in decades—through properly fitted masks, of course. Is this what your city will look like in post-pandemic America? For many, COVID-19 is a life-or-death crisis where your ZIP code determines if you physically and financially survive. For others, it’s the dawn of an urban utopia.

Even before the staggering impact of the novel coronavirus had been fully revealed, the people who write and think about cities were busy writing prescriptions for their recovery. But instead of bearing witness to mass death as a moment of reflection, many urban advocates are using the coronavirus as an opportunity to accelerate their pre-pandemic agendas—agendas which ignore the issues that made COVID-19 more catastrophic than it should have been.

This was first obvious by early April, as cities including Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago began to report that black and Latino residents were dying at a higher rate than the rest of the population. Latinos, in particular, were at greater risk because they are more likely to work at essential jobs. Living situations—including overcrowding in small apartments due to high rents—were also pinpointed as a reason the virus was ravaging certain communities.

But the conversation among many pro-city voices was not about that disparity. It was about whether or not tall buildings should be blamed for coronavirus outbreaks. The stories continue to be published to this day—Density is not the problem. Density is good, actually. Density will save us!—like some kind of mantra which, if repeated enough, would make the novel coronavirus go away so we could all go back to fighting about eliminating single-family zoning.

As the density discourse eventually devolved into a debate about whether New York City was safer than San Francisco, one critical component seems to have been missed. Do you want to know the real reason why San Francisco, a small but dense city, fared better than New York City in the fight against COVID-19? Because San Francisco, where there is one billionaire for approximately every 11,600 residents, had purged most of the people who were most at risk from dying from COVID-19 to its surrounding counties long before the pandemic arrived.

If the coronavirus has made anything clear, it’s that cities cannot be fixed if we do not insist on dismantling the racial, economic, and environmental inequities that have made the pandemic deadlier for low-income and nonwhite residents. Yet many prominent urbanists have simply tweaked the language from their January 2020 tweets and fed them back into the propaganda machine to crank out COVID-tagged content, perpetuating the delusion that all cities need are denser neighborhoods, more parks, and open streets to magically become “fairer.”

On Sunday, the New York Times published an op-ed series on cities and inequality pegged to the coronavirus crisis. But a piece on how to redesign urban space post-COVID-19 never once mentions race, revealing a troubling blind spot in the way urban designers talk about this crisis: “The idea that safe, generous and accessible common space is fundamental to public life is an essential American idea—as old as the Boston Common—but if our current catastrophe can help recapture this birthright, it will have served a small purpose.” Colonial Massachusetts? Whose birthright are we talking about here, exactly?

Earlier this month, NYPD officers arrested 35 black people in a single weekend for failing to follow a brand-new set of laws meant to govern how people use public space. Virtually all of the arrests and summonses related to social distancing and mask wearing—including the arrest of a black woman with a 3-year-old child on the subway—have targeted black and brown New Yorkers. Photos further illustrated a disparity in infrastructure that predated the racially motivated enforcement tactics of the crisis. Harlem’s concrete-walled parks remained gated and locked. Meanwhile, the grassy parks of the West Village piers were open.

The commandeering of other parts of public space has been celebrated by urban voices over the last few weeks. Coast to coast, legislators are passing emergency plans to transform streets into open-air restaurants in an effort to allow dining to return with proper social-distancing protocols in place. Berkeley, California, is among a handful of Northern California cities that are closing streets entirely to give small businesses a chance to bounce back. “This is our plan to save Main Street,” San Mateo Mayor Joe Goethals told CNN.

Seemingly forgotten in all these proposals are the people who use these same streets informally to make money. Street vendors—a community made up of many undocumented immigrants—have not only been forced off the streets during the pandemic due to health concerns, but the nature of their work has always made them targets of harassment and ticketing by police. If advocates are pushing cities to give restaurants free roadway space without making a concerted effort to welcome vendors back to those same sidewalks—and, perhaps, return what they paid in permitting fees—they are discriminating against the city’s most vital and vulnerable small businesses.

With car traffic plummeting due to stay-at-home orders, another swift change in the way cities use streets has been implemented during the coronavirus crisis. Dozens of U.S. cities have created networks of “slow streets” that close roads partially or completely so people can walk or bike while staying six feet away from each other—and avoid interactions on too-narrow sidewalks. The reallocation of space is being celebrated as a victory by transportation advocates who have asked for similar changes for years.

But closing streets to cars to help people who are privileged enough to stay home go for a run doesn’t necessarily provide the same benefits to people who use those streets to get to work at essential jobs. A few cities have repurposed street space for essential work; Washington, D.C., for example, opted to widen sidewalks around grocery stores and other businesses, and San Francisco closed some streets to aid homeless service providers. But the resounding message nationwide—and the corresponding actions from government—is from mostly white advocates who are staying at home asking for space for recreation. The conversation about how many miles of streets each city has open has dominated the transportation discourse like some kind of competition to see which city can win—instead of a nuanced discussion of what people who rely on those streets really need.

A man walks along a street closed to vehicle traffic as the city expands areas for pedestrians to walk and to keep a recommended safe distance.
Cities have opened streets for walking and biking at the request of people who want to exercise.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Any changes that cities make to public space right now should be to stop people from dying and support essential workers. Creating more parks and plazas won’t create a safe place to be outside if certain residents will be harassed by police—or threatened by their fellow residents—for using them. Turning sidewalks into restaurants ends up privatizing space, limiting who has access to what was previously a public right-of-way. Opening a handful of streets for one type of user doesn’t mean that those streets are open for everyone.

It’s not to say that U.S. cities shouldn’t do these things, or that their residents won’t benefit from some of these changes, but as these decisions are made within the context of this crisis—sometimes very quickly, with little outreach—they are likely being made without the input of people most directly affected by the pandemic. On a webinar last week hosted by the national pedestrian advocacy group America Walks, anthropologist and planner Destiny Thomas called this phenomenon “purple-lining,” drawing a comparison to the practice known as redlining that engrained segregation and discrimination in cities, which was also put in place after another federal emergency: the Great Depression.

What happened in the aftermath of the Great Depression is a lot like what may happen now. A handful of mostly white, mostly male urban “experts” are projecting what they want cities to become. Because they come from the loudest voices in the room, these policy recommendations will end up informing much of the U.S.’s post-pandemic response. But if anyone says they know what U.S. cities will look like in a few weeks, let alone in a few months, they are wrong.

No one is talking about what cities will look like when half the workers don’t have jobs, where a majority of small businesses have failed, and where homelessness increases by 45 percent. Yet that’s the reality we are facing. That is not because of the coronavirus. That is because of the state our cities were in when the pandemic hit. It’s easy to blame the hydroxychloroquine-popping man-baby in the White House, but the truth is that he has very little to do with the fact that our cities have failed us. Until we can fully engage with the erasure of communities, structural racism, and unequal distribution of wealth that got us here, our cities will not crawl out from under this crisis.

The people who claim to care about cities have one role now: to center the voices of their black, Latino, Asian-American, and immigrant neighbors who have sacrificed their bodies, their well-being, and the health of their families to keep cities intact, even as they faced discrimination and harassment. Those who think cities are the future need to mobilize now to make sure the communities we’ve deemed essential will not continue to be marginalized, even after their lives are no longer threatened by the pandemic.

Sometime in the next few weeks, COVID-19 will have taken the lives of 100,000 people in this country. Most of them—like most of America—lived in cities. If knowing that people all around you have died hasn’t fundamentally changed the way you think about where you live, it’s time for a reckoning about what it means to exist in a city—both during this crisis, and long after COVID-19 leaves town.

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