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How We Live and Work in Cities Post Covid19

Janette Sadik-Khan is a principal at Bloomberg Associates and former commissioner of NYC DOT

This pandemic is challenging us, but it also offers a once-in-a-century chance to change course and undo some of the damage from the traffic and congestion and pollution. Cities around the world are turning to car-free streets as part of the recovery. Not because it’s fun or because of any political agenda, but it’s because streets that are accessible are better for business and better to live in.

The pandemic can give cities a head start on a new road order.

With all the traffic gone, you can see all the possibilities hidden in plain sight: extended sidewalks, bike and bus lanes, and public spaces. On many streets in New York City, 90% of the traffic is pedestrian, but they only get 10% of the street space. We can redesign our streets so there’s more room for people

The most sustainable cities aren’t going to be the ones that have the smartest tech, or roads made of plastic instead of asphalt. They’re going to be the ones where you don’t need a car in the first place. When you solve for active transportation like biking and walking, you solve for other things like local economies and closer communities and public safety. Part of the reason why the coronavirus has had such a tremendous impact on some of the more dense places, like New York City, isn’t just density. The issue is more about overcrowding, and that’s got more to do with economics than design. You could have an apartment that’s really intended for one or two people, but because of economic conditions, three or four people are living there, and that creates an environment that facilitates the disease at a higher rate. Those are some of the things we need to be mindful of when we think about policy design going forward: How do we create greater opportunity for people to live in less overcrowded conditions? Places like Hong Kong are very dense, but they’re not having the same kinds of outcomes that we’re seeing in the U.S.

To some extent, we need to zoom out and look at policy relative to zoning and policies that impact financial outcomes. When we have a policy environment that enables developers to make a profit on more spacious and equitable places, then that’s when we can have a more robust conversation about specific design solutions.

I see [experts] making projections about these massive changes to working environments and other places that I think are overstated. When the threat of COVID has been eliminated, we should be really careful about promoting de-densification [of cities]. It would be catastrophic socially, and financially.

I also see a risk when property management firms, designers, architects are telling people, “The six-foot office is here to stay, we’ll never have open office plans again.” I patently disagree. China already shows us that when the threat is reduced, life is largely going to go back to normal, which is probably not a bad thing. Long-term strategies are enhanced cleaning protocol, touch-free experiences, particularly in bathrooms. We absolutely should have improved ventilation in most of our buildings, and yet if we ventilated with the expectation that we would eliminate all instances of COVID-19, the energy footprint of our buildings would be astronomical. So we have to balance considerations of health with long-term considerations for the planet.

The single most important thing that any employer can do is have a policy that encourages people to stay home when they’re sick, and a culture to support it.

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