3 Ways Communities Can Bond with Residents in the Age of Covid & Beyond

By Johanna Jamison, Program Director, Colorado Smart Cities Alliance

Johanna Jamison brings passion and skill for connecting people and ideas across sectors and disciplines to create thriving places. Johanna has served in government, private, and nonprofit settings, and communities large and small. Her work leading programs, projects, and policies spans mobility and transportation, affordable housing, environmental quality, economic development, and placemaking and revitalization.

Johanna joined the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance as Program Director in 2020. She is responsible for helping elevate and expand the Alliance’s impact by managing and developing strategic programs that advance member and organizational priorities.

Jun 17, 2020 | Economy, Society | 0 comments

“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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