As the rate of new COVID-19 deaths in New York City falls, this is a moment for the city to engage in self-scrutiny and plan for the future, using the imagination our citizens are famous for in creative fields. We need to rescue ourselves economically while rethinking the nature of our city—fixing the plane while learning to fly it.
Why do we need a fundamental rethinking? Because, at least until an effective vaccine is widely available, people are unlikely to want to return to their former social and economic behaviors. For instance, in a recent poll (weighted to match the nation’s demographics), some 67 percent of respondents said they would be uncomfortable shopping in a retail clothing store, while 78 percent would be uncomfortable eating out. Whether or not these risk assessments are rational, they must be taken into account by business owners and government officials.
And the adaptations we make now can help us better to handle future pandemics with less drastic economic interruptions than this time. Because it is all but certain that there will be more pandemics, and that they will be even worse than this one.
We need a modular city that can, when necessary, be reconfigured for different levels of social distancing. At the same time that we attend to these nuts-and-bolts issues, we must preserve New York’s status as a great city, arguably the world’s capital. This requires nurturing what makes New York special: diversity, the arts, energy, ambition, and opportunity.
Great cities produce a mix of industry, culture, and entertainment, drawing residents and visitors. In the nearly six decades since the publication of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, we have realized that cities need robust mixed-use neighborhoods, and that commerce makes streets safe and inviting. Today we have miles of closed storefronts and streets deserted after dark except for the homeless. Successful cities also have an esprit de corps, a sense of inclusion. We now need to figure out how to provide all this even as the city likely depopulates, more people work from home, and almost everyone is worse off financially.
But there is a silver lining. Due to the switch to working from home and the decommercialization of the streets, we are at a perfect moment to rethink many of the tired clichés that have guided our city planning.
It’s time for frankness: The New York of recent years wasn’t that fascinating. Manhattan and upscale parts of Brooklyn have become increasingly sterile, homogenized, and slick, full of chain stores found elsewhere. Even many of the more interesting streets have become monocultures of restaurants and nail salons with the occasional liquor store, $1 (how?) pizza, and doggie spa. (I should note here that—as Dutch computer scientist Lora Aroyo has reminded me—such homogenization is evident in most big European cities, too, even those with far more regulations than in the United States, and even those with pedestrian areas.)
We now know that at least two urban “truths” are false: Most of us need to come into an office five days a week. And most forms of exercise and entertainment must occur indoors.
We should overturn another, related myth that says that Manhattan can’t offer pedestrian streets in the way London, Paris, Milan, Rome, Seville, and hundreds of European cities do.
We can continue to enjoy one of the few unequivocal silver linings of the pandemic: freedom from traffic noise and cleaner air. We can walk, run, and bike, for the moment, without cars or trucks on many of our streets—in fact, the pandemic has resulted in the longest stretch without a single pedestrian fatality since 1983. As the city reopens and attempts to find a new normal, would greater pedestrianization cripple commerce? Amazon already functions perfectly well using hand carts for the last 100 yards. Taxis and ride-share services could let most fares off at the nearest corner. Think about the reductions in fumes directly outside residences and businesses.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed eventually opening a hundred miles of New York City streets to pedestrians but his concept seems to be purely for walking and biking, not commerce. I propose pedestrianization as a way of jumpstarting post-pandemic commerce, too.
Here, offered for public debate, are a few suggestions for how we might pedestrianize while reimagining vibrant street-level commerce with social distancing.
(1) Pedestrianize every second or third crosstown Manhattan street. This can be attempted experimentally at first, starting just on the weekends, before it is expanded to full-time. Do the same for major shopping/dining arteries like Bleecker, Broadway, West Fourth, 14th, 23rd, 34th, 57th. Some of these very different streets should have bike lanes, but not all. I don’t know Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx well enough to offer specific guidance, but there are places in each where it would be appropriate to do the same. (This good idea, along with many bad ones, was proposed in Paul and Percival Goodman’s 1947 master plan for Manhattan.)
(2) Use the streets as our citizens see fit. We are going to need more outdoor space for safe exercise and leisure, not only as parks, but as ice-skating rinks, as dog runs, as safe-distance playgrounds, as outdoor theaters, as outdoor gyms, quarter-mile running tracks (how about some with soft surfaces?), sculpture gardens, mini farmers’ markets—and gardens to grow the produce to sell there. (A bit more self-sufficiency in food production sounds good right about now, doesn’t it?)
We will discover new uses as we go along. And all this activity is bound to foster not only new bonds between neighbors, but new business ideas.
(3) To bring jittery riders back to mass transit, try low-capacity, open-air buses along high-traffic routes. (I owe this idea to Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute, who was in turn inspired by a 1970 paper.) Make them free, at least to start. While we’re at it, institute taxi stands to prevent idling, and add bus lanes on all crosstown routes. (These ideas I owe to bicycle historian Pryor Dodge.)
(4) Our brand is culture. Theater as we know it began outdoors. Encourage theater troupes to move from venue to venue in the warmer months. How about standup comedy? Dance? String quartets? There are already very successful outdoor programs for tango and swing around Manhattan. Lots of under-used public space in the city could be repurposed easily and cheaply as theaters with simple nonpermanent seating—including some of the sitting areas along Broadway.
If the number of empty storefronts threatens to turn into blight, encourage (but don’t subsidize) their use by artists and gallerists.
There is much more we might consider, including changes to how schools work. Is there any reason that New York, or indeed most of North America, must stick to the school calendar in which the summer months are scheduled for vacation? And would students and teachers benefit from finding ways to move suitable classes outside?
Finally, a word about fairness. Too many of our citizens have been excluded from many of the city’s pleasures by the inequality that accompanied the massive economic shift of the last decades. Not everyone can spend $16 on a movie and $37 for a half roast chicken after. They are even excluded from the patrimony of all, with most museums charging $25 admission. (They should all be pay-what-you-can for residents, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) We need more signals from our government that we are all in this together, that we are fellow citizens and not just consumers living alongside each other.
In this spirit I propose a media campaign—preferably national not only local—to target obesity and diabetes, the preventable pre-existing conditions that make Americans vulnerable to COVID-19 in a way Europeans aren’t. “The fact that 42 percent of this country is clinically obese amplifies the impact and reach of the virus,” says Brooklyn ER physician Mert Erogul.
Many people choosing—on some level—to be grossly overweight has helped to cause the deaths of other people and contributed to the job losses of millions. Of course, some bad lifestyle choices are foisted upon poor people by fast-food chains and agribusiness—and Mike Bloomberg’s oft-ridiculed attack on big sodas looks pretty prescient now. This is a big, complicated discussion, one that will require some creative policy thinking, but we should start having it now, while this pandemic is still with us and before a worse one arrives.