CRP Faculty on the COVID-19 Crisis and the Post-pandemic City

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The COVID-19 crisis has presented the world with challenges that raise a number of questions about urban policy, leadership, and everyday life in cities. graphic image / Patti Witten and Christina Leung

May 31, 2020

Transportation, food, water, access to basic services, social justice, and a fluctuating market are key elements of the conversation surrounding the COVID-19 public health crisis that has upended nearly every aspect of life in nearly every part of the world. As the pandemic continues to spread, faculty in the Department of City and Regional Planning investigate and offer perspectives on the myriad questions, issues, and challenges the upheaval has raised, and look to possible plans for recovery in anticipation of post-pandemic city life.

COVID-19 has been particularly devastating in cities where much of the population struggles with poverty and access to amenities such as clean water, or space for maintaining safe distances. Of primary concern are the contextual experiences and vulnerabilities people face in following guidelines meant to keep them safe and limit the spread of the virus. Inequity in all its forms means that not everyone has the same level of access to basic services, utilities, and amenities; urban density also poses particular challenges to the implementation of mitigation measures.

Professor and Associate Dean of Research Victoria Beard studies urban inequality and poverty mainly in cities in the Global South, a region where 70 percent of the population lacks one or more core urban services and where 50 to 80 percent of the workforce is informally employed.

"Where households are not connected, they must either pay exorbitant prices for water or leave their homes and wait in line to use facilities outside the home," Beard says. "Simply put, washing your hands for the recommended 20 seconds is not possible. Any public health crisis will underscore the need for government capacity to coordinate action and the necessity for a social safety net."

Building on issues of water access and the impossibility of social distancing, Beard and Associate Professor Neema Kudva have stated their opinion on COVID mitigation measures in the region's densely populated cities, particularly in informal settlements. In cities in the Global South with a majority population of home-based workers, domestic workers, street vendors, waste pickers, transportation workers, and construction workers, Beard and Kudva say, "social distancing as it is envisaged in the Global North cannot be practiced."

"These problems existed before the current crisis and they will exist after the current crisis has passed — the time for addressing these issues at the margins is over, and meaningful change will require sustained political commitment and public investment," they write.

Where some experience limited access to water and personal space, food insecurity is another problem that preexisted COVID-19 and has been amplified by the pandemic. According to Wylie Goodman (M.R.P. '17) and Associate Professor Jennifer Minner, a possible solution may come from studying the potential benefits of controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) in urban settings. Already high, food insecurity is "a magnitude of degrees worse now that 36 million people are suddenly unemployed," Goodman says. The research Goodman began in AAP's Masters of Regional Planning Program on CEA offers creative ideas for local economic recovery and adapting urban spaces during what Minner describes as the "twin crises of the pandemic and climate change."

"COVID-19 has exposed ruptures in the country's food supply chain that urban CEA, if operationalized by the community rather than commercially-run farms, could potentially help address," explains Goodman. "Based on our research, we encourage municipalities to consider community-led CEA agricultural production — ranging from greenhouses on vacant lots to farms on top of buildings — as a novel strategy to ensure produce reaches vulnerable communities while simultaneously stimulating employment opportunities in a fast-evolving green jobs sector."

Minner says pre-pandemic trends are intensifying. "Larger scale businesses are outcompeting smaller ones for federal aid; they are better able to weather this storm while locally-owned businesses, local-scale making/production, and cultural organizations are particularly vulnerable and severely challenged by the new world we find ourselves in." Minner emphasizes that local governments "need to double-down on fostering 'equity preservation' where resources support the survival of cultural organizations and local businesses that make any city what it is."

"I think about the importance of developing approaches to circular economy, of community reinvestment in 'landscapes of thrift,' and of building socially just places where community economic development is carefully calibrated to the local community," she added.

Local communities are also a critical concern for Professor Mildred Warner. Her ongoing research focuses on restructuring local government services, how to plan for more inclusive cities, and how to promote environmental sustainability at the local level. According to Warner, in the U.S., the concept of cooperative federalism has collapsed. "State and localities are being left to figure out their own responses to the crisis," she says.

But Warner is optimistic. Her research shows how cities and states are working to protect public health and finds municipal utility ownership facilitates consumer and environmental protection. More than 400 cities and 35 states have passed moratoria to protect low-income households from water shutoff during the COVID-19 pandemic. "Now, more than ever, cities recognize that water is more than a commodity," she says. "It is critical to public health."

Another factor critical to public health is social engagement. Warner serves on AARP's Livable Communities task force analyzing neighborhood access to transportation, health, housing, and environmental measures, and her research finds that communities with higher levels of social engagement have better community health.

Tompkins County in New York State is an example. Selected as a Center of Excellence by the state, the Tompkins County Age-Friendly Task Force is building new cross-agency collaboration to serve the needs of all ages. Warner recently received a $50k Engaged Cornell grant to place four undergraduate student interns with the county age-friendly coalition. This in-depth case study will complement her national research grant on age-friendly communities and public health.

"The good news is that pragmatic municipal coalitions are working," Warner says, "and the social layer matters as much and maybe more than the built environment." Warner and post-doctoral researcher Xue Zhang (Ph.D. RS '19, M.S. RS '17) are currently running county and state models to assess the relationship between the COVID-19 response and political, economic, and social factors.

Looking at structural issues and their far-reaching effects on people at a large, urban scale, assistant professors Nicholas Klein and Suzanne Charles research how people travel and find access to housing in and around cities suddenly impacted by COVID-19.

Klein studies transportation planning, social mobility, social policy, marginalized populations, and neighborhoods. "The increasing inequality from the pandemic will be reflected in how we travel," he says.

According to Klein, affluence confers "the privilege to be immobile" and to safely work from home, but lower-income workers who still have their jobs are less likely to have that choice.

"Those who rely on transit have fewer and fewer options as transit agencies have had to cut back operations to only the essential routes," he says. "As a result, transit agencies are in financial peril now and going forward. Despite the immediate environmental benefits of very few flights and few people on the road, the long-term consequences may be that carless households buy cars if people remain fearful of public transit."

But Klein sees encouraging signs as well. "There are inspiring examples from all over the world of cities quickly carving out spaces for residents to safely bike and walk to work, to access essential services, and the like. Exemplars are cities like Oakland, California, where they are restricting cars on many city roads to create safe spaces for people to get outside and stay six feet apart. And Paris is now planning to 650 kilometers of cycleways, some during COVID and some after."

Primarily, Charles's research examines infill redevelopment and mansionization, the financialization of housing, and whether single-family rental housing provides access to opportunity structures in suburbia or reinforces segregation by race and income. Her current work considers how the coronavirus and COVID-19 will impact U.S. housing markets, in particular in light of what we might learn from the fallout for communities following the real estate market crash of 2008.

"The coronavirus pandemic began as a health crisis, but very quickly became an economic and a housing crisis. Moratoria on evictions help some households in the short term but will only go so far," she says. "The crisis will inevitably lead to dramatic increases in evictions and foreclosures, at least on a par with the 2008 housing crisis if not substantially greater."

Charles says that in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the federal government instituted programs intended to stabilize neighborhoods hit hard by foreclosures by selling vacant, bank-owned homes to investors. Consequently, large institutional real estate investment firms bought up foreclosed homes in bulk.

"In my research, I find that this flood of global capital into local housing markets further increases the obdurate problems of housing unaffordability and instability and decreases opportunities for homeownership. We must heed the lessons of the 2008 crisis. Institutional investors are well-positioned to capitalize on the coronavirus pandemic, potentially emerging with even greater iniquitous power over local housing markets. Research into this burgeoning new phase of institutional investment in housing — and rapid planning and policy responses to it — is critically important to guard access to safe and affordable housing in the U.S."

Along the lines of lessons learned and a projected path forward that might avoid the problems post-crisis cities face, associate Professor Thomas J. Campanella recently cowrote a cautiously optimistic piece on the necessity, and the tricky rhetoric surrounding urban recovery. In The City Will Survive Coronavirus, written for the Oxford University Blog, Campanella and coauthor Lawrence J. Vale delve into why cities rebuild and recover, and what they call "the rhetoric of resilience," that often conflates opportunities and opportunistic strategies driven by political interests.

"Narratives of resilience are a political necessity," they write. According to the authors, a sense of recovery and progress is a priority for both governments and political officeholders. Urban rebuilding symbolizes human resilience, disasters give governments the opportunity to exercise power directly, and resilience casts opportunism as opportunity. More than rebuilding, the say, urban resilience in the wake of disaster is an "interpretive framework" shaped by local and national government and accepted by citizens.

Emphasizing the humanity in shared civic experience and responsibility, they add, "Disasters, including pandemics, ultimately provide renewed reminders of this value. Cities are not only the places in which we live and work and play, but also a demonstration of our ultimate faith in the human project, and in each other."

AAP Gale and Ira Drukier Dean J. Meejin Yoon shares her thoughts as well on what we have learned already from the stark realities of a new normal. In an opinion piece published by Blueprint for CityMetric, Yoon discusses how design practice and applied research have prepared designers to connect and collaborate across boundaries to create "an interconnected and expanded form of mutual aid." She describes how early in the public health crisis AAP and Cornell's expansive network of faculty, design practitioners, alumni, and students responded to the critical need for PPE equipment in New York City and other medical facilities — shining new light on what the design disciplines have to offer.

The practice of mutual aid will have far-reaching effects, says Yoon, anticipating how actions now will inform scholarship, teaching, and design practice going forward.

"Many of us already have an eye on the long term and are asking important questions that I wonder if — despite the holding pattern between worry and hope most of us share — we can better understand in terms of what it will take to come together around a mutually beneficial plan for recovery, and for the future. A future where we enact our interconnectedness not as a shared vulnerability, but a strength — extending the practice of mutual aid beyond the medical profession to coordinate action and contributions to shared problems in a shared world where design and planning have critical agency."

By Patti Witten


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