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After COVID-19: How America's communities can build back better

After COVID-19: How America's communities can build back better
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America’s communities never have faced bigger challenges — or higher stakes. With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, unemployment remains stubbornly high, local governments risk running out of money, and many small businesses are closing. America’s deep inequities and vulnerabilities are as raw and exposed as they’ve ever been.

We no longer can push these problems under the rug, debating or denying their existence. And when the vaccines do push COVID-19 back, we can’t expect things to revert to how they were in December 2019 — nor should we want them to. With the federal government hopelessly divided, local leaders must find ways to do more with less, enacting the kinds of changes that can put their communities on a path of growth that is more resilient, more inclusive and more sustainable than before. 

It won’t be easy, but there are strategies and approaches they can use. Here are some of the most critical: 

  1. Expand cooperation among government jurisdictions, businesses and community organizations. COVID-19 will permanently change the economic geography of many regions. Property values will have fallen in emptied-out central business districts as remote work becomes permanent in some job categories; suburbs may experience a spate of growth. Regions will need to realign their provisions of services, including transportation, education and health care.

  2. Rethink the role of commercial and entertainment districts. As offices shrink their physical footprints and anxiety about public gatherings lingers, neighborhoods will need to diversify their offerings. Mixed-use development should be encouraged in downtown office cores, satellite office parks, and restaurant and theater districts to keep them vibrant. Zoning restrictions should be loosened and financial incentives provided for residential conversions.

  3. Foster resilience through economic inclusion and diversification. Small businesses in particular will need extra help. Too often, city regulations hamper small businesses through onerous permitting processes; many cities are beginning to strip those processes away. Governments, anchor institutions, and large businesses can develop targeted investment programs to help historically marginalized and underserved businesses, similar to collaboratives and local purchasing programs.

  4. Invest in the skills of all residents. Cities need to align economic development and workforce priorities, creating pipelines of workers for strategic, talent-hungry sectors. Job training and workforce development should leverage the latest technologies to ensure workers are trained for jobs of the future. And those programs should provide wraparound services, including child care and mentoring, in the same location, so that people can take full advantage of them.

  5. Support essential workers to address inequities. It’s now clear to everyone how critical to the functioning of society are our “essential workers.” They need to be supported so they can bring their best to the job. Safety nets such as paid sick leave, living wages and child care should be at the top of every policy agenda.

  6. Increase health care investments for community building. As the pandemic has demonstrated, health care is a vital form of economic development. When people are sick, economies suffer. Cities and states should accept federal dollars for Medicaid expansion, and invest them in new clinics and health care jobs.

  7. Promote growth in smaller and rural communities. A select few communities and small towns have become magnets for remote workers, which has caused them to suffer from some of the same problems that gentrification brings to cities, such as rapidly rising housing prices and strains on local services. But most rural communities and small towns have weak economies with few prospects for growth. A broader, more regional focus would help these places improve their infrastructures, and just as importantly, provide stronger educational, economic and health care links to nearby cities and towns.
  8. Invest in equitable placemaking centered on well-being. Many of the temporary changes cities adopted to deal with the pandemic, including outdoor dining, shared streets and added bike lanes, should be made permanent. Cities can adapt more quickly and seamlessly than previously imagined, so their leaders should claw back as much public space as they can from automobiles and seek out the most environmentally friendly, healthy and economically vibrant uses for it.

As important and urgent as it is to get our communities up and running again, the ultimate challenge is to build them back better, stronger and more resilient than they were. As painful as this year has been, it has given us an incredible opportunity to remake our cities and towns. The places that don’t take advantage of it will be left behind — when the next crisis strikes.

Steven Pedigo is the director of the LBJ Urban Lab and a professor of practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin. He and 28 other policy experts recently authored “Resiliency in the Age of COVID-19: A Policy Tool Kit. Follow him on Twitter @iamstevenpedigo.