Four stories from the past few days about how the Covid-19 coronavirus has had an unexpected on the planet and, especially, the urban landscape:
• From the Washington Post:
"The coronavirus pandemic has put much of the world into lockdown, with factories going idle and city streets turning into eerily empty walkways. With the case count and death toll still climbing, it’s unlikely that countries will be able to flick a switch and rapidly return to pre-pandemic economic activity.
"But one unintended upside to this crisis has been improved air quality, particularly in the hardest-hit areas where the most draconian measures have gone into force. This has been evident in Asia, including China’s Hubei province, where this virus began spreading among humans. It’s also a trend observed in Italy, another devastated region with several thousand deaths.
"Now, given that all but a handful of states have implemented stay-at-home orders, the air-quality shifts are also being seen in the United States. This offers a rare — and unintended — large-scale experiment for scientists to see how human emissions contribute to hazardous air quality and analyze the effectiveness of particular policy ideas."
In addition, the Post writes, "There’s a growing recognition that the coronavirus can be more harmful to those with greater exposure to air pollution, making it a potential risk factor along with such underlying health conditions as diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure."
• From the New York Times, a piece by architecture columnist Allison Arieff:
"Throughout the world, the coronavirus has forced extreme changes in our behavior in just days. And we’re already seeing the impact of those changes: On Monday, for example, Los Angeles had the cleanest air of any major city in the world.
"As a die-hard urbanist, it’s heartening for me to see how many people are adapting, turning the city into a pedestrian paradise. Parks are populated to an extent I’ve never seen before (though some are too populated). Streets are crowded not with cars but with people — and accordingly, pedestrian fatalities (and subsequent emergency room visits) have plummeted.
"Streets are also quieter. Skies are bluer than I’ve ever seen. I saw a dad in the park last week doing a Zoom meeting from a lawn chair while his kids played on the grass. People are saying hello, people are offering to help neighbors, people are rediscovering board games and puzzles, bread-baking and canning."
Arieff goes on:
"Design is certainly not going to solve this crisis, but here are a few small interventions I’ve seen over the past few days that make a difference. Many of them are likely to become the new normal.
"Staying six feet apart to meet social-distancing guidelines is nearly impossible on most sidewalks, which are typically only four feet wide. So some cities are warming up to the idea that they could temporarily close traffic lanes to accommodate pedestrians — a fix that requires only some road cones or other cheap, easily obtainable barriers.
"Urban planners have long argued that more streets should close to make more livable spaces, but governments have always resisted, calling it impractical or impossible. They’ve just proved it can happen — and they should keep it going after the crisis.
"If streets become so much safer, if air quality can change so much in just weeks, can we be more hopeful about our efforts to combat climate change?"
You can read the Times piece here.
• From LA Magazine:
"If there’s a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic it may be that the health crisis, which has resulted in the most drastic economic shutdown in Los Angeles history, has also produced the longest stretch of clean air the city has seen in more than a generation … Last month, Los Angeles experienced the longest stretch of days of “good” air since at least 1980. The federal agency’s online data goes back no further, but one expert suspects that L.A.’s air hasn’t been this clean since around the time the United States entered the Second World War."
Ed Avol, a professor of clinical preventive medicine at the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center at USC, tells the magazine, "“It’s obviously very unfortunate that it takes a pandemic to get us to think about these things and to see this improvement. It should give us all pause to think about how much driving we each do, and whether we really need to do so much of it … And this experience should make that very clear to people who didn’t think about it before.”
• From the Boston Globe:
"Cities thrive on human connections, on bustling sidewalks, on coming together for a concert or a baseball game, on the everyday interactions that can spark new relationships, or birth big ideas. They’re built on the premise that in many ways, we’re better off living in relatively close quarters, that we thrive in proximity.
"But so does a pandemic.
"And that has a lot of people wondering what the coronavirus outbreak, whose deadly toll rises daily, could mean for the future of dense and vibrant cities such as Boston. Will it amount to a blip in the decades-long rebound of urban life, or mark the end of an era and the start of a gradual turn to social distancing as a way of life?"
The story goes on: "it’s a question with profound implications for the future of Boston. The packed stadiums, lively campuses, and vibrant neighborhoods that supply much of the compact city’s energy and charm depend on people being willing to gather. Our economy, too, is powered by proximity. Just ask the scores of companies from around the globe that have squeezed into a few square miles of downtown and Cambridge, betting the brainpower they can tap here is worth paying astronomical rents."
One revelation: "The current pandemic highlights the inequalities of life in Boston and cities like it, said Alexandra Lee, executive director of the Sasaki Foundation, which encourages design and architecture to combat social challenges. It’s sharpening divides around income, housing, schools, and even between those who can work from home and those who must work face-to-face, putting their health at risk. Lee said she hopes one lesson from all this will be that cities depend on everyone, so they must be designed and built with everyone in mind."
- KC's View:
These stories provide powerful metaphors for what retail must do going forward - recognize where it has not been as effective as it would like to be, where its priorities have not served its customers as well as they should, and where it has an opportunity now to make strategic and tactical changes in business models that for too long have existed on momentum instead of being fueled by true innovation.
Not that it will be easy to change course. It won't be for the culture, either … we see that the air is cleaner than ever, and yet the politics of the moment call for emissions rules to be relaxed. Which makes no sense whatsoever if you value the health of the planet.
We need to learn.