Themes from the 2020 Urbanism Next Virtual Forum
COVID-19 Impacts on Cities (Vol. 3)
The 2020 Urbanism Next Virtual Forum focused on the current disruption taking place around the globe and fifteen innovative leaders in their respective fields came together to address the short and long-term effects COVID will have on our communities. Topics such as new mobility, mobility as a service, e-commerce and transportation planning were presented through the lens of the current uncertainty with an eye to the future. How will changes due to disruption impact equity, health and safety, the economy, and the environment? How should governments respond? What additional education, outreach, and research is needed to understand these changes and respond to them?
In light of COVID-19, Urbanism Next Director Nico Larco added a few new questions to consider: Is this the end of cities? Will we ever (bike, scooter, car, ride) share again? Will many people work from home forever? At Urbanism Next, we continue to conduct research, gather resources, convene industry leaders, and lead conversations to respond to these questions and more. You can visit our COVID-19 impacts site to find additional resources and research on these topics. Nico ended his introduction to the Forum with a quote by Ernest Shackleton, “Optimism is true moral courage.” In a world filled with uncertainty and fear it is the responsibility of planners, innovators, and decision makers to react to the current circumstances in a way that will set us up for a future that is more equitable, sustainable, efficient and resilient than the one we left behind.
The following are a selection of the key themes that emerged from the first Urbanism Next Virtual Forum. You can visit our website to see a list of the speakers who presented and also view the schedule with links to some of the presentations.
Not Knowing the Future ≠ Not Knowing Anything about the Future
While we may not know exactly what mid- to long-term effects COVID will have on our cities, we have some ideas about what will affect the longevity of COVID impacts. We have identified three key variables: the length of re-opening, fear of future pandemics, and the magnitude of economic impacts. On economic impacts, Garick Brown (Cushman & Wakefield) predicted that experiential retail and small businesses would be hardest hit in the long-term due to lower cash reserves. In a survey of restaurant clients at the beginning of the pandemic, 30% said their business could not survive 1 month of closures. Based on a 2.5 to 3 month lockdown, Garick predicted the closure of 300,000 businesses with fine dining having the lowest rate of survival (35%). There are also signals that COVID has accelerated some pre-existing economic trends. Consolidation among new mobility companies was predicted, and in May Lime raised a $170M funding round led by Uber where Uber transferred its micromobility subsidiary, Jump, to Lime, and will have the option to buy Lime between 2022 and 2024. E-commerce adoption, particularly in grocery and food/beverage, has accelerated as a result of COVID. In her session, Sucharita Kodali (Forrester) predicted COVID would accelerate e-commerce adoption by a couple years (22% of total US retail by 2022) but not a drastic uptick due to subpar delivery experiences and costs in the online grocery model.
Adaptability and Flexibility are Key
Now is not the time for long range planning. Given the uncertainty and unknowns facing the world it is important to have a willingness to think and plan on shorter time horizons. No one knows for certain how “sticky” current behaviors will be or how much the data that is being collected now can tell us about the future. Try not to make long-term plans based on short-term data, especially at a moment when change is happening daily. During the first session of the day Laura Schewel (StreetLight Data) urged professionals to seek out granular, local data when making decisions now (and in the future) and to consider how we can use this data to help us come back better than we were before. So much data is available in the world we live in today that it is possible to move to a model of shorter iterative planning cycles. As companies and government agencies are faced with a quickly changing landscape they must be able to make decisions swiftly. Jeffrey Tumlin (SFMTA) talked about the theme of “radical resiliency” - focusing on solutions that allow for maximum flexibility and the ability to adapt to rapid change. Government agencies have been amazed at how quickly programs have been adapted or implemented given the urgency of the times. We should be willing to take a second look at outdated regulations and processes holding us back from making necessary changes.
Equity and the ‘Return to Normal’?
Make sure that equity is at the forefront of your planning and decisions even during (especially during!) urgency and budget cuts. With the need to move quickly, we can't sacrifice continued efforts toward engagement and inclusion. While the pandemic has made many people feel uncomfortable and unsafe in their homes and cities - Seleta Reynolds (LADOT) pointed out that many people have always felt unsafe in their homes and cities. In this moment of collective discomfort we should have the uncomfortable conversations about inequities and injustices that are baked into our existing systems. In her session focused on equity Tamika Butler (Toole Design) further explained that “we have to be able to talk about race, anti-racism, and power and privilege...in order to be uncomfortable and still progress in this work you have to be brave.” The collective pause may be an opportunity to re-evaluate and adjust but “opportunism is not a permission slip for nonsense” (Seleta Reynolds). Our challenge right now is to figure out how to elevate the voices that have not previously led the planning in their communities. By attempting to continue with business as usual or return to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible it is likely to continue the exclusion of the most vulnerable and most disenfranchised populations. Changing these outcomes will involve radical shifts in power and a concerted effort to acknowledge and address privilege in our work.
Now is the Time for Creative Public-Private Partnerships
This mass disruption must result in a shifting role of government. The private sector can’t have all the answers when it comes to emerging technology trends such as new mobility or e-commerce since their primary goal is inherently to profit. Government can’t rely on private companies for mobility and delivery services if changing circumstances may result in services being pulled or companies going out of business. In Los Angeles during the lockdown e-scooter ridership dropped 90% due to scooter companies pulling out. If individuals feel uncertain about the availability of transit or other new mobility options it may affect their decision to purchase a car or choose where to live. This relationship between public-private services was a problem before that has been pushed to the forefront. What is the government’s role in providing services and how should private companies support and enhance these efforts? During her presentation Shin Pei-Tsay from Uber commented that their company is open to discussions with city agencies that are making difficult decisions with their limited resources to see how ride-hailing and other mobility options can be a bridge to essential services right now and can support transit networks in the future. While some of the goals of private companies and transit agencies are different - both share the desire to create outcomes where less people use private cars and more people utilize other modes of transportation. Shin-pei asked “how do we operationalize these shared goals?” In the past cities have clamped down on private companies to avoid future disruption out of their control. Perhaps now is a time to revisit these relationships to find new creative ways to partner to achieve shared goals.
Find Ways to Manage Fear and Uncertainty
Government agencies and companies must put health and safety first and find a way to address the fear and uncertainty felt by most individuals. People aren’t going to shop or travel or commute unless it feels safe. There is a lot of hesitation in a return to shared modes of transportation. “We are going to have to rebuild social fabric from a transportation perspective” said Alex Pazuchanics (Seattle DOT). Karen Vancluysen (Polis) declared in her presentation that we must not go “from lock down to gridlock,” and instead should look for options that avoid the exclusive use of the automobile. In the retail world there is a major crisis unfolding with 30% or more of restaurants and businesses projected to not make it through the pandemic. The businesses that remain will depend on the assumption that people will feel comfortable going out to eat or shop again when the lockdowns release. Garrick Brown pointed out that “the pandemic doesn't make people afraid to shop, it makes people afraid of other people. The economic crisis means we’re afraid to shop.”
The government’s pandemic response and economic response are both important - but how changes and solutions are communicated with communities to rebuild trust will make a big difference. Jeffrey Tumlin is proud of the SFMTA’s open and blunt public communication tactics over the last few months focusing on themes of protecting the health of the public, economic recovery, and equity. We also need better solutions to address health and safety. “People have to feel comfortable in order to go back to work and participate in the economy. The playbook right now is masks, hand sanitizer and testing that we don't have. That’s not going to get us to where we need to go. We need more innovative solutions (Sucharita Kodali, Forrester).” From the public sector Seleta Reynolds asked, “How can we democratize public health, mental health, self-care and healing using public services, public spaces, transportation and mobility services and systems?”
In Jeffrey Tumlin’s closing remarks he acknowledged that there is deep underlying fear in our culture right now: “Fear is addressed through emotional support and by emphasizing joy. We have very little control over so much in our lives right now - but one thing we do have control over is how kind and patient we are with each other, and more importantly, how kind and patient we are with ourselves.”
In this early stage of the global crisis there are inherently more questions than answers and we are all forced to confront our fears about the future. At Urbanism Next we hope to continue to shape this ongoing conversation by figuring out what questions to ask in order to achieve the best outcomes. We hope that those of you who registered and participated will continue to make use of the Virtual Forum Slack to continue the conversation and keep asking questions.