An Urban Reality Check: Lessons Learned from COVID-19

Back to Summer 2020: Volume 109, Number 2

By Joel Mills

To paraphrase revolutionary leader Thomas Paine, these are the times that try our souls. A global pandemic is sweeping our communities and leaving destruction in its wake. As the death toll mounts and the cascading impacts on our economic and social health become apparent, it is hard not to feel a sense of despair. Everyone across the globe – all of us – have suddenly been thrust into a shared experience that both unites humankind and forces consideration of where we are as a society. If ever there were a time for reflection and an assessment of our collective well-being, it is now. We have reached a moment of reckoning.

John W. Gardner, one of the great civic heroes of the late twentieth century and founder of such enterprises as Common Cause and The Independent Sector, used to say that “civilizations rise and fall—and sometimes, if they are lucky—they renew themselves.” When he made this statement a quarter-century ago he was promoting a new idea – an Alliance for National Renewal – to bring unprecedented collaboration across our civic sector and harness grassroots energy across the nation. He was prescient. We are facing our John Gardner moment now as the choices we make today will have an indelible imprint on our future society.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been described as a “world-shattering event whose far-ranging consequences we can only begin to imagine today,” there are several early conclusions we might draw from the experience. The things we are witnessing are reflective of dynamics that were in place prior to the outbreak, and they underline structural issues facing governments, the professional field and our communities. Many jurisdictions were under incredible stress before the pandemic, and this stress has only exacerbated underlying crises that have gone unaddressed for some time.

The pandemic has brought new levels of crisis to issues ranging from urban inequality to disparate healthcare access to housing and economic security. According to one pre-pandemic global survey, wide majorities of the general public fear the future and the pace of change while doubting government’s ability to understand technological changes and respond to them effectively. Our future success hinges on the ability to rebuild trust in institutions by involving citizens more directly in public life so that we might facilitate a successful transition to a healthy urban society.

The pandemic has highlighted the fact that America has yet to come to terms with its urban reality and the centrality of our cities to our future success. We are an urban nation in a connected urban world. Urbanization is likely to accelerate when this crisis has passed, and we must work to consider the primacy of cities in our strategies to tackle major societal challenges across the world. New anti-urban arguments emerging from the pandemic have attempted to connect density with the spread of disease and re-visit age-old stereotypes about urban life. The idea that the pandemic should cause a rethinking of urban density is a fool’s argument. Cities remain our best hope for survival as a civilization. If COVID-19 has illustrated anything, it is that modern mobility and global connectivity have underscored how intertwined humanity’s fate is whether you live in China, America or any other region of the world.

In America, our cities already represent the most productive component of a national economy that is increasingly dependent upon their prosperity. The top 25 metro areas account for half of all Gross Domestic Product in the United States. Strategies that don’t focus on cities will have limited positive impact. This dynamic is true worldwide. A majority of the world’s people already live in urban areas. In the coming decades, the population of global city dwellers will balloon to over 6 billion. This urban reality puts cities at the heart of our solutions to all the world’s most pressing issues. Accepting our urban reality and adapting our approaches with it in mind is a key step to move forward with practical solutions.

The Governance Gaps 

The pandemic has exposed gaps in our governance systems. Despite all the systems created post-9/11 to standardize and coordinate more cohesive emergency management systems, we have witnessed a disorganized and poorly communicated response to this crisis. The weakened influence and leadership of the federal government regarding urban America has resulted in haphazard coordination of a national response that hasn’t achieved full participation from state and local governments or our citizens. Without significant federal leadership or direction, states and localities have been forced to step into the leadership crisis and make critical decisions, often in a vacuum, demonstrating quite a diverse and unconnected national response to the pandemic.

The crisis has also exposed the gaps in efficient urban networks and collaboration at both a regional level and on a global scale. In the absence of a coherent national strategy, what we are witnessing is the amalgamation of a variety of local, state and regional responses. These responses have sometimes been in conflict and the communications around them mixed, which has undermined collective effort. We need to build significant measures to better connect urban leaders and facilitate cross-jurisdictional learning and collaboration.

The pandemic has also exposed faults in not having sufficient peer-to-peer global dialogues between local government leaders and little integration of local leaders in national and international policy exchanges. This dynamic mirrors critiques of the global response to climate change and urbanization as well. As a result, a lot of new initiatives are already generating to quickly share peer-to-peer information among local officials across the world to adjust our pandemic response. Successful local approaches have led to an emerging national and international response as jurisdictions learn from best practices and model them as quickly as possible. Having more effective global urban networks in place on a more permanent basis would enhance preparedness and facilitate a more cohesive and informed global response in the future.

The Need for Integrated City-Building

Our contemporary approaches to city-building are demonstrably inadequate to meet our most pressing challenges. The COVID crisis has forced our local leaders to make severe adjustments on the spot and not always in coordination across agencies or urban systems. Despite valiant attempts to build more cross system collaborations over the past two decades, our present-day methods of city-building are still characterized too often by professional silos. We have designed our cities with a balkanized orientation that assumes topics as centrally connected as land use, housing and transportation can be understood and strategized for independently through professional specializations and expertise applied solely in that realm. We can see the effects of this approach in cities across the country today.

Every jurisdiction in America faces an affordable housing crisis today that has been the result of disconnected and ill-informed land use and transportation investments and policy choices. We desperately need a more integrated approach to our cities. Academia has begun to recognize the need as well, with some universities now offering programs in Urban Management and Urban Strategy that bring students together across disciplines under an umbrella of city-building methodology. During the Obama administration, there was significant renewed effort to bridge important professional city-building disciplines under the Sustainable Communities Partnership, which brought together the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation with the Environmental Protection Agency in a tripartite approach to tie significant community investments together under the rubric of a more holistic approach. In combination with the White House Office Council on Strong Cities Strong Communities (SC2) the federal government was able to leverage existing resources across dozens of agencies to build the beginnings of a contexture of urban strategy at the national level and streamline assistance to local jurisdictions to make more impactful investments.

Outside of government, the Rockefeller Foundation attempted to bring resilience to the forefront of city-building through a multi-year $164 million-dollar investment. The effort stood up a global network of cities, paid for a Chief Resiliency Officer at the municipal cabinet level, and ushered in a series of processes and technical assistance to design resilience plans at the local level. However, the foundation ended its major commitment after several years, in part because it did not see transformational results. Much of the critique for why this didn’t happen can be found in the fact that the effort didn’t fundamentally change how we design and build our cities – it simply raised the profile and importance of resilience within the context of dysfunctional and outdated city-building structures. In fact, the best local success stories from the initiative came from cities that thought and acted regionally and across agencies and systems. We need more integrated city-building at the local level and federal supports and resources to speed its transition.

The Limits of Top-Down City-Building

The pandemic has underscored the need for effective public engagement and participation to address our most critical urban issues. There have been many miscues regarding public communications, public trust in government, public awareness and access to quality information and the collective action necessary to stem the spread of the virus. As a result, the pandemic experience has been characterized by uncertainty and has fed into confusion, misinformation, fear and poor decision-making as well as uneven public participation in the collective effort. This experience is no different from other big issues we face as a society – climate change, affordable housing, transit investments and a host of other big issues in recent years have been characterized by much of the same weaknesses and all of these issues require popular support and public participation to address effectively. They are public issues and they cannot be solved without the public’s participation.

In 2016, the Obama administration released a Housing Development Toolkit to encourage changes in local policy, citing a growing problem with undersupplied housing in major urban markets across the country as a result of restrictive land use policies influenced by Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) politics. Officials expressed frustration that a top-down solution was not possible without local cooperation since local governments had jurisdiction on land use decisions. The answers to these challenges must come from the bottom up, not the top down. They must be powered by the grassroots and integrated at scale to have meaning nationally – and globally.

Local government is still the most trusted level of government by far and is advantaged as the most accessible level of government to facilitate civic participation. There remain substantial gaps in public participation expertise and capacity at all levels of government that pose barriers to making progress. Too often, what we are witnessing today are the consequences of widespread misapplication and improper design of public processes that backfire in controversy and conflict because they don’t meet public expectations for involvement. The result is a precipitous increase in community conflict and a corresponding public demand to have a meaningful role in public decision-making processes. The stakes are going up.

Understanding the Depth of Our Communities

In order to succeed in sustainable development at a national scale, we need to mobilize local action across the country. Understanding our communities requires more than technical knowledge about the built environment. It means we need to understand community terroir. Cities are first and foremost made of people. Every community has its own unique identity shaped by its geography and history and rooted in the traditions of people and place. As years pass, layers of practices and structures of interaction and community life form into a profoundly complex and deeply meaningful representation of place with values often universally understood by local people.

Tapping into these values and traditions is critical to understanding place and designing authentic foundations from which sustained momentum can be built and enduring civic change can occur. Similarly, our nation is characterized by a democratic vernacular exhibited across tens of thousands of local communities. Understanding the combination of governing structures and traditions, as well as the civic culture of participation, is key to breathing new life into our common purpose. Our national thinking must demonstrate greater understanding of the mosaic of community experiences that make up this great country and the role that citizenship plays in bringing them to life.

Public Trust and the Civic Death Cycle Narrative

We have a public trust crisis nationally and globally which is impacting civic life in profound ways. According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer’s survey of 28 countries, two-thirds of respondents report that they do not have confidence that “our current leaders will be able to successfully address our country’s challenges.” At a national level, this has led to an unprecedented level of mass demonstrations as people take action to voice their frustration. According to a 2018 study, 1 in 5 Americans has participated in a protest since 2016.

At the local level, there is substantial evidence that leaders and citizens opinions on democracy have a wide variance. In 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Mayors Survey noted that, “While nearly all mayors engage in informing residents (e.g. press releases, social media), only 26 percent engage in crowdsourcing new ideas. Comparing the types of activities cities use to engage residents, they are most likely to be passive or expecting people to react to something the city has already done. According to a 2018 recent survey, active engagement, particularly involving citizens to help solve city problems, is not regularly adopted by mayors.”

There is evidence that the quality of our local dialogue is declining as well. A 2012 survey by the International City/County Management Association reported that almost 40 percent of respondents described the civic discourse in their community as “very polarized and strident, often rude” or “somewhat polarized and strident, occasionally rude.” Furthermore, only 12 percent reported a high level of participation in their local government’s engagement efforts. Many communities have suffered from poor public processes that have created frustration and led to average citizens disengaging while more extreme voices from activists and special interests have fed a cycle of conflict, politicization and decline. As a result of poorly designed public processes, civic engagement itself has been questioned by some local leaders. Our ability to build capacity within our communities for improved public participation is critical to our prospects moving forward.

The Trillion Dollar Opportunity – Meaningful Public Participation

Moving toward more democratic and participatory city-building methodologies represents perhaps the biggest hurdle facing contemporary city-building practice. However, it also represents a transformational opportunity to shift our collective work for real impact. Prior to the outbreak, there was substantial debate in the professional fields concerning the efficacy of meaningful public participation versus traditional, top-down approaches. This debate will no doubt continue, but the results of both approaches show substantial advantages to democratic methodologies in achieving desired outcomes at scale.

The patent truth is that top-down approaches and poor public processes come with incredible costs. In 2015, Forbes Magazine estimated that NIMBY movements and community opposition to hundreds of projects across the country during the prior decade were costing America over $1 trillion annually. Imagine the incredible possibilities that would be realized if citizens were more meaningfully involved in the process of city-building to unlock a trillion dollars of investment and new development that reflected community values while addressing our key global challenges and needs. The ability to tap into this democratic potential and lead a civic surge in volunteerism and community pride would catalyze untold innovation and benefits to our society.

The Vision Gap

It is ironic in the year 2020 that we face a global vision gap. Our country was built around shared values and the American dream and the ethos it embodies. According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, no institution (government, business, media, NGOs) has a vision for the future that a majority of respondents believe in. Given our growing urban challenges, we can anticipate the development of a permanent state of crisis management in the absence of a shared vision as our cities face increasing strains. This weakness will leave us vulnerable to more reactive decision-making and cascading cycles of crises in the future.

Every jurisdiction in the world was facing crises before the pandemic took hold. When we reach the conclusion of the pandemic emergency, these crises will be magnified and will draw significant demand for assistance. Successful city-building is the great task of the twenty-first century because it is so linked to our global interdependence and the survival of our civilization. Now is the time to build a strategy and get organized if we are to serve our communities best in the coming era as need surges. Much has been made of this pandemic as a democratizing experience – even though it has highlighted our inequalities – because humanity is united by a common threat and dependent upon collective action for success.

A Call to Collective Action

What we need most now is a nationwide call to action, a sustained and collective effort to redefine how we live to meet the challenges of this century. In the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech or John F. Kennedy’s inaugural call to service, we need a national call to citizenship and collaboration to meet our rising challenges. The pandemic has created a sense of shared sacrifice and collective public interest. This moment represents the community-building opportunity of a lifetime. We face an historic moment of public awareness with which to renew our engagement with citizens. There will likely be renewed interest in collective civic endeavors and a possible spike in civic participation as citizens regain mobility and seek public life, interaction, and collective purpose. If we are fortunate, we will successfully bend more than one curve during this crisis. In addition to bending the transmission and fatality curves through mass participation in social distancing, we might bend the learning curve on understanding not only what must be done in our communities moving forward but how it must be accomplished.


Joel Mills is senior director of the Center for Communities by Design.

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