Evolving Communities in the Age of COVID-19

May 5, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is altering communities' landscapes in short- and long-term ways. As people begin to move into public spaces again, safety will be a top priority.

On May 4, presidents and association executives from REALTOR® associations in the country's 50 largest metro areas participated in an expert-led panel discussion on the ways community planning and design could change as a result of the pandemic. The urban roundtable, hosted by Miami REALTORS CEO® Teresa King Kinney, was livestreamed as part of the National Association of REALTORS®’ 2020 REALTORS® Legislative Meetings.

Petra Hurtado, research director at the American Planning Association, an organization for the field of urban planning and design, spoke about her preference for the term “physical distancing” over the more common “social distancing,” as people are still being social through screens, phones, and new technologies. According to Hurtado, however, cities are not currently built for physical distancing. Highways and parking lots are for cars, not people; sidewalks are too narrow; and there is a lack of parks and public spaces throughout many communities.

In order to encourage physical distancing, cities and communities must repurpose public spaces for people instead of cars, Hurtado urged during the discussion. In Europe, cities have introduced interaction zones where people can walk, play, and have coffee out on the streets, and cars can continue to drive through, albeit at reduced speeds.

Many city officials in the U.S. know exactly what changes they need to implement, Hurtado said, but they can’t design and build new spaces at the moment. The solution, she said, is simple: Cities can designate certain streets and parking areas as pedestrian-friendly for walking and playing sports, supported by signage and some redirection of traffic. In some areas, driving may also be permitted, becoming shared space very quickly.

Interaction zones, Hurtado said, can also be a means of economic recovery. Restaurants and cafés can offer seating outdoors and remain open, injecting money into the economy, and customers can still physically distance. In addition, Hurtado believes shared spaces can augment the food supply. In Singapore, for example, urban farming and local food production have taken over vacant public, office, and retail spaces, providing alternative means to grow and process food. Many of these strategies—implemented for emergency purposes—can lead to permanent change.

In the post-pandemic, long-term future, Hurtado predicts that more people will live, work, and play all in one place. A higher number of people will work from home and not require a car for commuting. City planners will be designing mixed-use neighborhoods with coffee shops, restaurants, and entertainment within easy walking distance of homes. So-called "smart cities" will feature telecommuting, reduced office space, and increased ecommerce rather than physical retail. Public parks will be distributed throughout communities rather than in a few centralized locations.

The key to making lasting changes in cities, Hurtado said, is not just good planning but good design. “Concrete buildings are not so attractive,” she said. “You have to design communities so that people want to get out of the car and experience the place.”

Along the same lines, Jennifer Toole, president and founder of Toole Design, a design firm focusing on infrastructure and transportation systems, said more people are not using cars as a result of the pandemic. Instead, they are biking, walking, and using “micromobility” vehicles like scooters on limited sidewalk space. According to Toole, one positive consequence of reduced car use is improved air quality, which studies show can decrease strokes, heart attacks, and emergency room visits.

However, problems emerge when people crowd sidewalks and cannot practice proper physical distancing.

One solution Toole suggested goes beyond shared roads by repurposing them completely. This has already begun in municipalities throughout the U.S. Streets with river parkways are a particularly salient example—as pedestrian spaces along rivers become overcrowded, cities are closing adjacent streets to traffic and allowing people to spill out onto the road. Toole noted that cities are also using lane closures to repurpose streets—four-lane roads can be reduced to two lanes, thanks to lower traffic volume, and the newly closed lanes can be turned over to bikers and pedestrians, giving them more space for physical distancing. Cities can use their inventory of cones and barrels, as well as their on-call contractors, to repurpose roads quickly, she said.

What this means for the future of communities, Toole said, is more telecommuting, more space in roads and on sidewalks for walking and biking, and infrastructure that supports distancing. City planners will also need the support of the public.

“These projects do require public engagement,” she said, “and many are in favor of repurposing once they realize it can be done with limited capital. The good news is it can be low cost.”

At the conclusion of the panel discussion, Hugh Morris, NAR’s manager of smart growth, announced that On Common Ground, NAR’s smart growth magazine, will release its COVID-19–related issue online within the next week, and the print edition will be shipped to subscribers by the end of the month. And Christine Windle, NAR’s director of community outreach, highlighted the community outreach programs that are available to associations, including the Land Use Initiative and the Diversity, Placemaking, and Fair Housing grants.