Post-pandemic, urban proximity could give cities the boost they need

Post-pandemic, urban proximity could give cities the boost they need
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Throughout the pandemic, the very idea of proximity — nearness, closeness, socially un-distant — especially in urban areas, has been a real and tangible threat to our collective health and livelihood.

But could proximity be one of the most important factors in our collective growth and recovery?

Consider this: COVID-19 may in fact lead to a more modern and inclusive model of urbanism that can help drive economic recovery, creativity and repair our social fabric. Take for instance, the concept a “complete neighborhood” that is designed to make sure all residents are able to meet their essential needs in just a short distance from their doorstep.

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Some of us may already consider parts of New York, Los Angeles or Boston as meeting this definition of a complete neighborhood. We can easily access a variety of housing options, and within a short walk, we can find grocery stores, schools, banks — and parks. For many underserved communities, however, this proximity model is much too far out of reach and the realities of those neighborhoods can be detrimental to the people living there. The model of a complete neighborhood provides a tangible outcome for local leaders to improve areas that are most lacking in essential amenities, particularly for their most vulnerable residents.

Organizations aiming to improve the health and wellbeing of their residents, as well as the local economies, of their cities are adopting and advocating for this city model. C40, a network of the world’s largest cities taking bold steps to address climate change, launched the “15-minute city” initiative, helping mayors take action to create cities where all residents can meet most, if not all, of their needs within 15 minutes of home.

Access to safe parks and greenspace is instrumental to any complete neighborhood model. However, not all people have access to these critical spaces, which is why the Trust for Public Land advocates for access to a high-quality park or greenspace within a 10-minute walk (approximately one-half mile) from home for all residents in cities large and small.    

Even before the global pandemic hit, 100 million people in the U.S. did not have access to park or green space within a 10-minute walk of home. During the pandemic, parks across the U.S. saw a surge in usage and mayors anticipate this “new normal” to continue post-pandemic. Three out of four mayors expect residents to spend more time visiting parks and greenspace than they did before the pandemic, and roughly two-thirds expect residents will spend more time biking or walking, according to the 2020 Menino Survey of Mayors. Parks are essential to improving public health by providing opportunities for physical activity, stress reduction, social interaction.

Beyond the benefits to health and wellbeing, parks also provide real and tangible benefits that strengthen climate resilience. Parks can act like urban sponges in absorbing rainwater and preventing flooding, while also continuously taking CO2 out of the air and reducing air pollution.

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So, what can cities do to achieve the proximity city? In Portland, Oregon, Mayor Ted Wheeler is leading 15-minute city initiatives that will help the city get to 80 percent carbon emissions reduction by 2050 and has already transformed more than 90 miles of busy roads into neighborhood greenways. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan completed a plan that turned high-density corridors into 20-minute neighborhoods as well as introduced a $17 million pedestrian upgrade in the Livernois-McNichols area. In Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney signed on to the 10 Minute Walk Campaign to commit to parks access for all. The city has also created the Rebuild program, which uses the Philadelphia Beverage Tax to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in improving community facilities, including parks.

It’s up to us to bet big on the upside of proximity — to invest significantly in complete neighborhoods that keep us connected to each other and ensuring that the essentials that help make our communities healthy, economically strong, and more welcoming are widely available. Rethinking proximity also allows us to engage in resident-driven planning, providing community members to shape the future of their neighborhoods.

Now is the time to work with our elected officials and leaders to ensure essential infrastructure — including parks — are invested in and community-centered. We call on today’s city leaders, philanthropists, corporations and voters to treat cities as critical hubs that are essential to the well-being of millions of people that will reap benefits for decades. Because now is the time that we give all city-dwellers the urban centers they so desperately need — and deserve. 

Bill Lee is senior vice president of policy, advocacy and government relations for The Trust for Public Land (TPL). Lee leads TPL’s strategic direction and implementation for public policy, government relations and advocacy at the federal, state and local levels.