(ideas.) Like a lot of people, about two and a half weeks ago my calendar was essentially cleared of meetings and travel. I’m lucky – the only impacts so far for me are that I now work from home alongside my wife and kids and I’m collaborating with partners and clients remotely, which is all going well. The change has even given me extra time to think and – no surprise – I can’t help but wonder what this pandemic will mean for the future of cities.
A recent hot-take from the Twittersphere is that COVID19 will turn the tide on a decades-long movement of re-urbanization. Some people suggest that our short-term need to be physically distanced from each other will remind us why we love low-density, car-oriented sprawl. I think that’s an overreaction, of course, but it speaks to at least one underlying truth. While urban living comes with many advantages, sometimes we just want some space.
When the crisis of this pandemic is behind us, I don’t think it will change whether we want to live in cities, but I do hope it will change how we live in them. I’ve written before that I’m living my dream – that my Atlanta Beltline thesis is slowly becoming real and I’m lucky to live and work on its route. The difficulty of getting people to not use it as much and to physically-distance themselves when they do, speaks volumes about the kinds of infrastructure we need to endure crises like this.
For those of us who live on the Beltline, it’s not only how we get around, it’s a lifeline for sanity, exercise, and fresh air. Over the last two weeks, the people I see out there also seem to be smiling more than ever. Maybe some time outside allows us to forget all the bad news for a while. Maybe we’re enjoying the extra time with our families. Maybe we’re taking small breaks in the day or have a lighter schedule at work. Whatever the reason, all those smiles remind me that there’s more to life than the grind, and as a small silver lining to the horrible death and debacle that the coronavirus has wrought, in many small and secondary ways, our current crisis is proving that point.
The Atlanta Beltline was making that point long before this pandemic, of course. It’s ability to shape our lives for the better is a central theme in my book, Where We Want to Live, which is not just about the Beltline, but a story about how we can improve our lives with better infrastructure. But the Beltline is only the start. It can’t do this job on its own. It’s too narrow to physical distance Atlanta’s future population – it won’t ever be wide enough, even when the loop is complete. The fact that it’s so congested, even during a global pandemic, illustrates a pent-up demand for a public realm that is designed for our increasingly crowded urban life. We need to finish the Beltline, of course, but we also need more public spaces – more and wider sidewalks and massive new regional parks where we can really get away from each other.
Every great city has great open spaces and often times, they’re what we love and remember most about our experiences there. Think of Paris without the Tuileries or New York City without Central Park. We know intuitively that investing in an infrastructure of wide open spaces will come with significant costs – but also with multiple benefits. In addition to making us stronger and more resilient, those open spaces will also make our city the kind of place we want to live. The need to physically distance ourselves from each other is essential during COVID19, but it’s also just a good metric for designing the cities we love. >> Ryan Gravel