3 Ways Communities Can Bond with Residents in the Age of Covid & Beyond
“I could be anywhere” is a thought that’s struck me several times during this lockdown period, and I know I’m not alone. For those of us lucky enough to have one, the pandemic has largely confined us to our homes, where we work, study, socialize (see: the meteoric rise of the Zoom happy hour), and even have goods delivered, all from the comfort of the couch. Meanwhile, our ability to engage in the rich and multifaceted cultural life that may have drawn us, and perhaps kept us, in the communities where we live has been greatly constrained. Festivals, concerts, sporting events, worship, and more have been placed on pause or transformed beyond recognition. And while economies are gradually reopening, policies, comfort levels, and dreaded subsequent waves of infection may mean this is our reality into the foreseeable future.
This leaves some of us wondering if life would be much different in a home somewhere else entirely, preferably with a lower cost of living and perhaps near more open space or extended family. Research bears this out: a recent survey by Harris Poll found that as a result of the pandemic, almost 40 percent of urbanites in the U.S. would consider moving somewhere less densely populated. Cities like San Francisco, New York, and beyond are grappling with just this. Officials worry residents will flee as a result of the converging trends of a home-based existence, and the loss of core elements of the urban experience that made those places desirable despite the high price tag. It’s worth noting, some of these trends began long before the pandemic, which only exacerbated them.
The potential implications of this feared exodus are too numerous to name or describe here, but the disruption would be massive and run counter to a long trend of movement toward urban areas. From a government standpoint, losing residents means losing tax revenues essential to providing critical public goods and services. Already strained, state and local coffers have been hard hit by the pandemic-fueled economic downturn. Traditional economic development models that rely on talent in tandem with business attraction and retention would be upended. More dispersed living patterns requiring single occupancy vehicle travel and the associated emissions could reverse the modest environmental gains some claim are a silver lining in this pandemic. Importantly, there is a risk of further widening the gap between so-called ‘knowledge workers’ able to do their jobs remotely and afford to move, and those with place-based employment who cannot. Beyond that, retreating residents might take the very identity and uniqueness of the places they abandon with them.
Nurturing the community-resident bond could be an antidote to these dismaying departures, and new research sheds light on how. A recent report by the Urban Institute and commissioned by the Knight Foundation surveyed 11,000 residents of 26 U.S. metro areas to uncover what amenities created a “sense of attachment and connection to their city or community.” Three key recommendations emerged in Smart Cities Dive’s synopsis of the results:
- Boost time in the city center
- Focus on improving quality of life
- Pay attention to equity
The challenge of implementing these during a pandemic is not lost on me, but smart technology offers ways to do so. The following examples, organized by the three recommendations, demonstrate how.
Boost time in the city center.
Transportation and public safety concerns may deter suburbanites from venturing to the city center. To counter this, investments can be made in UV lighting to disinfect public transit vehicles, contactless parking payment systems, and alert systems that provide immediate, geotargeted information about public safety and other urgent concerns to users who can remain anonymous.
Focus on improving quality of life.
To improve quality of life, safer access to arts and cultural venues and events can be supported with thermal cameras that discern normal versus heightened body temperature (a key indicator of viral illness), allowing admittance of only healthy patrons. Well-received street closures to allow physically distant people movement (as was done in Denver) could be continued through use of dynamic curbs that reallocate roadway space, depending on the time and day.
Pay attention to equity.
To address equity, telehealth solutions can deliver needed care to those who cannot access it in person due to transportation, schedule, and other limitations. Free public wi-fi infrastructure development would mitigate the pervasive and damaging digital divide, enabling access to remote work, learning, and even web-based communication mechanisms that engage a broader range of community members.
The next time I think “I could be anywhere,” I’ll remind myself that yes, I could be, but I choose to be here. Because I have a sense of attachment and connection to this place that’s as real now as it was before a mask became part of my wardrobe. That’s thanks in part to the smart investments leaders in my community made that bond me to it, wittingly or not. Communities that follow suit, especially with the help of technology and innovation, will retain (and perhaps attract from elsewhere) residents, grow tax revenues, develop their economies, and thrive during these hard times and long past them.
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Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
I spoke last week with Krishna Desai from Cubic Transportation, and we discussed three big problems facing transportation, and the ways that Cubic is approaching these challenges:
1) If (or when) more workers return to traditional on-location jobs, but feel a lingering distrust of crowded spaces, people who can afford it may opt for private cars instead of using public transit for their commute. This will create a massive influx of cars on roads that were already crowded, and more financial woes for transit agencies already dealing with budget shortfalls. Krishna told me about a suite of optimization tools Cubic is deploying in places like Mexico and San Francisco to make public transit more efficient, more transparent, and, overall, more attractive to riders.
2) For the time being, though, we’re dealing with the opposite problem. How can transit agencies find ways to influence user behavior in a way that complies with social distancing and capacity requirements? How can you incentivize riders to wait for the next bus? (In a way that doesn’t alienate them forever – see #1). Cubic has deployed a loyalty/advertising program in Miami-Dade County that was originally intended to increase ridership, but is now being used to help control crowding and social distancing on transit.
3) Transportation infrastructure, in generally, was not built to accomodate 6-feet of separation between riders – or between workers. Little things like, for example, opening gates, requires workers to be closer than 6-feet to riders, and there are examples like that throughout every transit hub. Technology can help, but creating and implementing software/hardware solutions quickly and efficiently requires experience with innovation, deployment, maintenance and more. Cubic has a program called Project Rebound that shows the possibilities.
Advanced Urban Visioning offers a powerful tool for regions that are serious about achieving a major transformation in their sustainability and resilience. By clarifying what optimal transportation networks look like for a region, it can give planners and the public a better idea of what is possible. It inverts the traditional order of planning, ensuring that each mode can make the greatest possible contribution toward achieving future goals.
Advanced Urban Visioning doesn’t conflict with government-required planning processes; it precedes them. For example, the AUV process may identify the need for specialized infrastructure in a corridor, while the Alternatives Analysis process can now be used to determine the time-frame where such infrastructure becomes necessary given its role in a network.
The introduction of intelligent transportation systems, which includes a broad network of smart roads, smart cars, smart streetlights and electrification are pushing roadways to new heights. Roadways are no longer simply considered stretches of pavement; they’ve become platforms for innovation. The ability to empower roadways with intelligence and sensing capabilities will unlock extraordinary levels of safety and mobility by enabling smarter, more connected transportation systems that benefit the public and the environment.