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Part of the series “Viewpoints on Resilient and Equitable Responses to the Pandemic” from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to question how this virus will affect the many public and private systems that we all use. We hope this collection of viewpoints will elevate the visibility of creative state and local solutions to the underlying equity and resilience challenges that COVID-19 is highlighting and exacerbating. To do this we have asked experts at UNC to discuss effective and equitable responses to the pandemic on subjects ranging from low-wage hospitality work, retooling manufacturing processes, supply chain complications, housing, transportation, the environment, and food security, among others.

Emil Malizia is a professor in city and regional planning at UNC-Chapel Hill. His current research and practice is on the socio-economic characteristics and urban form of vibrant centers and their influence on local economic development, entrepreneurship and real property performance. He will discuss how cities and urban employment centers within them can return as productive, innovative and tolerant places.

Transcript – Viewpoints on Resilient & Equitable Responses to the Pandemic. Emil Malizia: Urban Centers

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly said that the coronavirus spreads in density, suggesting that cities are the primary vectors of virus transmission. His assertion leads to three questions. Is density the most dangerous factor for spreading the virus? What needs to be done for cities and regions to regain their high levels of economic performance? How can major urban employment centers within cities recover and also become more just and egalitarian places?

New York City became ground zero for COVID-19 transmission because almost 300,000 visitors from Europe, some with the virus, arrived in February and March before stay-at-home orders were in place. Although population density probably fostered some transmission, mounting evidence has identified the primary factors that are spreading the virus. The most important one is overcrowding – too many people in close contact within an enclosed space. Overcrowding often occurs at recurring meetings such as church services and at indoor events such as weddings, funerals, political rallies, etc. The longer the event, the more likely that crowding will lead to transmission. Lack of ventilation and speaking or singing increase the risk. Clearly, these situations can occur anywhere. Urban density, which is usually measured as population per square mile, is not very relevant; persons per square foot is what matters much more.

Urban economist Ed Glaeser calls cities our greatest invention that make us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier. With respect to climate change, our per-capita carbon footprint decreases with increases in density. But to recover, urban employment centers must be places where people feel safe. Many cities have widened sidewalks, restricted auto traffic on certain streets, and made streetscape changes to support walking and cycling. Physical distancing and masks make the public realm, including parks, safer. Public transit is necessary for recovery and therefore must be safe. Although closed, crowded spaces with close contact are dangerous, recent evidence indicates that public transit can be relatively safe because of ventilation, relatively short trips, no talking and the use of masks. However, transit workers remain at higher risk and need special attention to be made less vulnerable.

For certain companies and industries, telecommuting will continue to accommodate many workers. But the majority will want employees back at the office. Tacit knowledge, mentoring and company culture cannot be fostered at a distance. What about returning to offices in high-rise buildings? One challenge is to get employees from the street into the office safely. This will require technology that takes the temperatures of those entering the building, allocates them to elevators to minimize overcrowding, and selects floor destinations without touching buttons. New norms for elevator usage will include safe occupancy levels, wearing masks, facing away from others and not talking during rides.

The impact on the demand for urban office space is not clear. Telecommuting and satellite offices in suburban locations could reduce demand. On the other hand, the need for greater physical separation could increase it. Safe office use would not be hard to achieve since office tenants have the right to occupy their space 24-7. For example, owners could coordinate tenant’s building use over a 16-hour workday, say from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., or tenants could organize employee-teams to use their space at different times during the workday.

Experts expect vibrant employment centers, which are dense, diverse and connected places, to continue to be the engines of economic productivity and innovation. They will be able to retain talent by offering cleaner, safer and healthier places to work, learn and live and by accommodating high-risk, vulnerable groups. However, positive outcomes are not assured unless the needs of lower-wage service workers are addressed. These workers staff the amenities on which everyone depends. Even before the virus, it was clear that global cities and so-called “brain hubs” were unaffordable for most service workers.

One way to increase the well-being of these workers is to provide better health insurance. It is equally important that major property owners, corporate tenants and local government collaborate to provide decent housing within the center for singles and couples as well as housing nearby for families. Affordable housing should be considered basic urban infrastructure as necessary as good public transit or parking decks. Decent housing is even more urgent now to reduce overcrowding and because the recession has increased the need. Profits and investment returns in urban centers would be lower in the near term but more sustainable in the long term.

The financial impact of better health insurance, affordable rents and minimal commuting costs would be very significant. Service workers often spend 70 percent of their income on rent, utilities, auto commuting and health insurance. With rent and utilities capped at 30 percent of income, cheaper health insurance and no car ownership, they would spend under 40 percent of their income on these necessities.

North Carolina’s major cities and metro areas will continue to be the engines of productivity, innovation and wealth creation if the practices outlined above are followed. Cities and dense urban centers are not inherently dangerous places. Cities also have more resources to meet health challenges than suburban or rural areas. The real challenges in North Carolina are to find better ways to protect and care for lower-income households who live in smaller dwelling units, as well as essential workers, many of whom are Black and Latino, and people in crowded indoor places like elder care facilities and food processing plants.

Right now, our cities display stark contrasts of rich and poor, privilege and disadvantage, opportunity and hardship. The longevity of city dwellers is dramatically different depending on the ZIP code where they live. These inequalities are no longer tolerable; more than 2,000 protests in all 50 states, including many in North Carolina, indicate that the time has come to bring about meaningful structural change so that our cities can be richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier places for everyone.


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