Urbanism is defined as the way of life in a city, how it’s designed and developed. With COVID-19 changing the way people live and get around, some planners see the pandemic as an opportunity.
Cities around the world want to reimagine how businesses rebound amid economic devastation and find a way for society to go car-free. Urbanism in the time of coronavirus is a hot Twitter topic among urbanists. For others, the elite nature of who cities serve could change with the pandemic, opening up conversations around equity, say some experts.
In Chicago, life sheltering in place isn’t changing any time soon as restrictions on gatherings remain and, in fact, could intensify with the second surge in COVID-19 cases this fall.
For Maurice Cox, the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) commissioner, pedestrians and the experience of place in the city is on his mind.
“Who would’ve thought that COVID[-19] would force us to a return to a scale of urbanism that was tailored to the size and scale of neighborhoods?” Cox said.
“Downtown is there, but we are not as dependent on it as we were six months ago,” he continued. “I feel really strongly the scale of urbanism, the scale neighborhood is going to be one of the major takeaways post-COVID.”
Cox is an urban designer known for his big ideas. He said imagine if every neighborhood had its own downtown: “where you could go to work, where you could get your weekly needs, where you could recreate all within the geography of your neighborhood. I think neighborhoods have the potential to be the driver of the recovery and the driver of urbanism that people want.”
Quite often, resources are poured into downtown and its perimeter with splashy developments and shiny high rises. That translates into vitality — places to eat and go.
Residents in Chicago’s Black and brown neighborhoods have long felt neglected when it comes to economic investments in the city. In an attempt to reverse decades of disinvestment, last year DPD launched INVEST South/West to leverage hundreds of millions of dollars in public investment over the next several years to attract development along commercial corridors in 10 neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, Cox’s department is partnering with a South Side community group on East 75th Street to experiment with sidewalk life. The restaurants here don’t have enough space to serve indoors so from Soul Vegetarian to Brown Sugar Bakery, neon green large sidewalk pods allow people to sit, eat and socialize outside. Passerbys play oversized checkers and tic-tac-toe games. Weekend events feature African dance, a DJ and the reading of children’s books like Alice In Wonderland.
Dawveed Scully, an urban designer with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, an architectural firm, notes this kind of “urbanism in cities is about collective energy and collective activity.”Scully has heard conversation from urbanists and planners around the country who see the current public health crisis as an opportunity to push for a car-free society or focusing on blocking off streets for weekend brunches in affluent areas.
“But it’s more nuanced than that and there needs to be more thought and specificity focused on key areas on key issues versus just making blanket we can do without cars,” Scully said. “There are still a lot of people who have to get to work — essential workers, people with disabilities. How are we addressing and engaging their needs?”
And thus Scully doesn’t want to see public transit services cut because ridership is down, which is also a concern of Lynda Lopez, a Pilsen resident and advocacy manager for Active Transportation Alliance.
At the corner of 21st Street and Western Avenue is the Pink Line ‘L’ Station and a row of blue Divvy bikes. The intersection cuts through Pilsen, Little Village and North Lawndale — Black and Latino neighborhoods. With homeless people camped out in several locations, Lopez envisions empty tracts of land being turned into green space or affordable housing.
“Every time I go into Little Village, I cross viaducts, and they’re pretty much tent cities,” Lopez said.
Little Village is home to some of the city’s highest rates of COVID-19 cases. What she’s hearing from residents there is the challenge of living in overcrowded spaces while still going to work everyday in a pandemic.
She’s not hearing about eating brunch outside.
In tandem, the city of Chicago also announced this summer a three-year initiative called “We Will Chicago” to come up with a new citywide plan that will “encourage neighborhood growth and vibrancy while addressing social and economic inequities that impair Chicago’s legacy as a global city.” The plan would be a comprehensive guide for the city plan commission to adopt and help with land use and zoning issues in the future.
The last citywide plan was in 1966. It’s not lost on Cox that this new planning will happen under COVID-19.
“The challenges of the 1960s are different than the challenges we face today. No one is proposing a massive urban renewal and highway construction through construction through neighborhoods. We lived it and colossal failure, and we live with the scars today,” Cox said.
Often urban renewal meant “Negro removal” in Chicago.
“Today we have to deal with the calling of our era — environmental justice, social justice, economic justice. The citywide plan attempts to foreground that fact that we are called to address issues of equity. One of the central pillars is: can we build an equitable city,” Cox said.
That 1966 plan mentions reducing the loss of white families from the city. At that time, white flight was the story of many South and West side neighborhoods that flipped from all-white to all-black communities over the span of several years.
That is not the story today.
The city’s Black population has declined steadily for decades, hampering the ability of some Black communities to effectively populate public schools and support neighborhood commerce. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Latinos have been forced out of several gentrifying neighborhoods that have become hot destinations for young, white professionals.
“Our concerns about how do we stop the loss of Black and brown families today because it’s public policy that has driven people to leave. We can create policy that encourages people to stay,” Cox said. “We are in a different era and we really are the generation that will have to come to grips with the issues of racial injustice and policies that perpetuated racial segregation.”