How Will the Pandemic Change American Cities?

Cities across the country are navigating the pandemic one day at a time, with an eye on the future. Above, a shot of downtown Memphis, TN. Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash.

As part of an ongoing series that examines the rapid changes to our world and way of life, Artemis Ward is gathering thoughts and analysis from leaders and experts to shed light on what’s already happening and offer insight on what’s to come.

July 21, 2020
By Chris Maier

Spend time in American cities these days and you’re bound to notice they’re no longer the places we once knew. Roads are emptier. Skies are clearer. Shopfronts, many forced to close for the better part of the spring, are only starting to re-open. And it’s a pretty safe bet that most of the people you see — if you see any at all — are wearing masks (though, of course, it should be everyone). Undoubtedly, the coronavirus pandemic is changing the ways we think about cities, move through them, and imagine what our lives will be like in them when the virus is no longer a threat.

For Carol Coletta, these topics carry extra meaning.

An expert on urban revitalization, Coletta was in 2019 named one of the 100 most influential urbanists of all time by Planetizen. Her work stretches from canal towpaths in Akron, Ohio, to historical food markets in Philadelphia, and she’s president and CEO of the Memphis River Parks Partnership as well as the founding force behind Reimagining the Civic Commons, a national organization that brings together community leaders, citizens, and policymakers to find better ways to design, operate, and manage public spaces across the country.

Now, with life upended and on hold for the foreseeable future, Coletta’s attention has shifted to thinking about how cities around the country can emerge from the pandemic stronger. By leveraging well-meaning technology and helping push sound decision-making, she’s working to figure out how the cities of tomorrow can promise more social, economic, and environmental benefits to everyone. Recently, Coletta spoke with Artemis Ward’s creative director, Chris Maier, about the challenges U.S. cities face, the opportunities that lie ahead, and why much of America needs to rediscover the benefits of living amongst strangers.

(Below is a condensed and edited version of the conversation.)

How have you seen the makeup of cities change in the last few months?

People have learned to entertain themselves. They are walking their cities and their neighborhoods. They are reclaiming public space for themselves, for their own use. And as a result, the city has become more peaceful and more generous in many ways. Because when you come face-to-face with someone rather than seeing them through the windshield of an automobile, it calls for a human interaction that is quite beautiful. That is very exciting.

How might technology impact these sorts of interactions?

We have seen technology deployed in interesting ways but still not in ways that are making systems work. I think “smart cities” have an obsession with data, which is great, but if you simply measure what you can count, you’re not necessarily measuring the right thing. A lot of data passes for knowledge but I don’t think that that is actually knowledge.

In most of America, you’re rarely in the company of strangers. For democracy to survive, we need to relearn how to do that.

So, the promise of technology is good. But we are not always exercising it in the places that we need to. It is leading to a coarsening of expression and the lack of nuance, and that can be very detrimental and disturbing. The simplest example is the spread of disinformation, manipulation, and absolute cruelty on social media that rewards people who (a) get paid to do it and (b) who seem to have nothing constructive to do.

During quarantine how have you seen our relationship to public space — and to each other — shift?

I don’t believe you can develop empathy if you don’t see people. Occupying space together is a very important foundation for empathy. And empathy is a very important foundation for civic engagement. And civic engagement, of course, is fundamental to democracy. I see public space and people occupying that public space — particularly people across demographics — as fundamental to a functioning democracy.

Portrait of Carol Coletta
CEO of the Memphis River Parks Partnership, Coletta is leading the redesign of six riverfront miles along the Mississippi River. Photo courtesy of Carol Coletta.

Data is great, but if you’re only measuring what you can count, you’re not necessarily measuring the right thing.

But restrictions on seeing each other face-to-face are not all bad. Because what they’ve done is cause us to be in the company of strangers and to be more comfortable doing so. New Yorkers, Washingtonians, and Bostonians don’t fully appreciate how, in most of America, you are rarely in the company of strangers. We’ve lost that muscle. We’ve forgotten how to occupy space comfortably with strangers. If we don’t re-learn that, I don’t think there is hope for democracy. The pandemic is a rare moment to rebuild that muscle.

Are cities at risk of losing their allure?

Cities are going to have to compete on livability. We keep saying this, and many city leaders keep saying, ‘No, no, we’ve got to compete on being cheap.’ But ultimately, you’re making a lifestyle choice when you choose to live in a city. And if you, as a city, are not willing to compete on livability, you’re sunk. So now we have to ask, What does livability look like? What does retail look like? That’s the big unknown.

I do believe people will want to go back to offices for the conviviality, for the community. But I think we’ve learned that we can be more flexible. Do people need to come into an office five days a week? Can people only work face-to-face? I think we’ve already learned something about that. I’ll just say I don’t think I’d want to be in the office development business at the moment.

American Cities Park
Coletta says cities must build empathy by bringing people together through purposeful design. Photo courtesy of Carol Coletta.

When you think about cities in the future, are you optimistic?

I absolutely am optimistic. But I think we’ll have to choose carefully where we make investments, and it ought to be driven by a point of view about where we’re headed. I believe that point of view needs to be shaped by the idea that cities can never truly be healthy without opportunity for everyone and a deep commitment to equity. That’s why it’s so important that white people are facing the fact that we have a privilege we never earned. It’s real. It’s serious. And if we don’t correct it, we can’t have the America that we need to confront the challenges that we face.

So, in America, we need everybody at the table with their best stuff. We need to have everyone developing their talent and putting all of their talents to work in our cities. And that will not happen if white people continue to devalue Black people.


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