A Modest Proposal to Help Out Washington

The idea of Team Trump now planning the nation’s post-coronavirus recovery while simultaneously managing the current crisis certainly staggers the imagination. We’ve gone from no problem — a hoax! — to a problem that could start winding down in time for Easter Sunday or maybe by the end of April. The mind reels.

But in other tumultuous times our country has been able to do two things at once. In December, 1942, a little more than a year after the U.S. engaged in World War II, some Americans were already looking ahead to what could and should happen when the war ended. In Syracuse, New York, city leaders were concerned about the postwar future. Sears Roebuck was relocating its store from downtown to the outskirts. Transportation infrastructure was proving to be inadequate. People complained that it took too much time and money to get to work, to go to school, or to make deliveries or business calls.

A panel of experts, including the president of the American Institute of Planners and an economist from the American Bankers Association, was convened to consult with city leaders. By May of 1943, while the war was still at its height in Europe and the Pacific, a report was issued. Its title: “Syracuse Tackles Its Future: An Alert City Gets Set to Put Some Meaning into Postwar Planning.”

But there was one significant difference between the situation then and what is being bandied about now at the President’s daily press briefings. The people tackling the postwar planning for Syracuse were not the same people as those overseeing the war effort. In Syracuse the initiative was led not by federal or even state or local government. Rather it was spearheaded by Time Inc.’s bold and innovative business magazine, Fortune, which commissioned the outside experts and wrote the report published in the magazine’s May, 1943, issue.

The Syracuse experience during World War II raises the question: Wouldn’t it now be smart to convene a task force to study post-coronavirus recovery efforts? And wouldn’t it be smart to separate the entity trying to solve the problem from the entity trying to forge a path forward. The great urbanist, Jane Jacobs, made exactly that point in 1992 in her next-to-last book, Systems of Survival. Jacobs defined two pillars of politics and commerce: the guardian approach (government), which takes political responsibility for enacting policies into law, and the commercial approach, which finds creative ways to implement those policies. Trouble begins when the government tries to do the work of commerce, or vice versa. So what’s the first step?

A non-governmental task force could propose ways by which the country could begin to safely return to normal. Such a task force would not have operational authority, of course, but it could propose an agenda for government agencies to act as they are freed up to do so. In addition, its recommendations could give the public some confidence that the light at the end of the tunnel is not just a train (like an economic depression) coming in the other direction.

Jacobs’ guidance was apolitical — it would apply whether Bush I or II or Clinton or Obama were president. But there would be nothing to stop Joe Biden, for example, from initiating  a Post-Coronavirus Recovery Task Force. It could be populated with nonpartisan experts and planners from the academic, nonprofit, and corporate worlds, and perhaps even include a former president, or two. (Remember when Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush teamed up after the tsunami in Southeast Asia and Hurricane Katrina?) Call it a loyal opposition.

A weekly or biweekly televised briefing by the Post-Coronavirus Recovery Task Force with assembled experts would be a welcome relief from the daily double talk emanating from the packed dais of the White House briefing room. If the people embraced the approach of this Post Coronavirus Recovery Task Force, the Trump administration of course could still reject it out of hand. But the people could voice their own second opinion, in the November election.

A lot of recovery recommendations are already being discussed. Some may soon be authorized by the new $2 trillion stimulus bill. Reports indicate that some $25 billion may be targeted for transit improvements in the New York metropolitan area, perhaps even getting the new “gateway” tunnel under the Hudson River underway. Improved mass transit should be a priority for our recovering economy. Imagine, for a moment, a hopelessly crowded NJ Transit train, lumbering out of Penn Station. It grinds to a halt at any one of those predictable sticking points. A passenger begins a hacking cough. Then another. In the post-Covid 19 world that is practically like hearing “fire” yelled in a crowded theater.

The Project for Public Spaces has provided some guidelines for managing public spaces in the age of pandemics. William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, has suggested ways that cities might evolve in the post-coronavirus world.

Various urbanists have suggested small changes to improve the hygiene of public places: Better sinks for hand washing at transit stops, following the lead of Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. An op ed By Jonathan Paul Katz points out that “in Seoul and Dubai, most transit stations have restrooms with stocked and supplied sinks—as does much of the system in Istanbul. Pretty much every transit interchange in Japan and Australia has restrooms of some sort.”

Small stuff, but important, especially in the early days post-coronavirus, when people still fear that they might only be in the eye of the hurricane.

A 10-point “preparedness plan” was put forth in the last week of March by the Brookings Institution, based on recommendations from urbanist Richard Florida, professor at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and Steven Pedigo, professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at University of Texas at Austin. Here’s a summary (the full list is at the Brookings.edu blog):

  1. Pandemic-proof airports: We need to make sure they can get up and running again quickly . . . by adding temperature checks and necessary health screenings to the security measures already in place. It also means reducing crowding: Simple things like stanchions or painted lines on floors can promote social distancing in waiting areas. . . And airlines will need to reduce their passenger counts and keep middle seats open during future health crises.
  2. Prepare large-scale civic assets: Cities are also home to other forms of large-scale infrastructure: stadiums, arenas, convention centers, performing arts centers, etc. City leaders must pandemic-proof these assets as much as possible, too. Audience sizes may need to be reduced in theaters, with seats left open. . .
  3. Modify vital infrastructure: Buses, subways, and trains need emergency infusions of cash to keep the systems solvent when ridership is low or nonexistent. When they are back in service, design changes in stations and seating will be needed to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. . . Cities need to expand and better protect their bike lanes too.
  4. Ready key anchor institutions: Medical centers, hospitals, and universities are on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, and many are already overtaxed. With dormitories, dining halls, and large groups of people, they will be highly vulnerable to the secondary waves of contagion. How can we ensure that they can operate safely to carry out vital research during pandemics?
  5. Embrace telework: We are in the midst of a massive experiment in remote work. Most people will eventually go back to their offices, but some workers and companies may find remote work to be more effective. Cities can learn from one another about how to best support the growing cadre of remote workers . . .
  6. Ensure Main Street survives: The restaurants, bars, specialty shops, hardware stores, and other mom and pop shops that create jobs and lend unique character to our cities are at severe economic risk right now. The loss of our Main Street businesses would be irreparable, and not just for the people . . . but for cities and communities as a whole.
  7. Protect the arts and creative economy: Cities must partner with other levels of government, the private sector, and philanthropies to marshal the funding and expertise needed to keep their cultural scenes alive. Cities should provide advice and assistance on necessary procedures—from temperature screenings, better spacing for social distancing, and other safety measures.
  8. Assess leading industries and clusters: It’s not individual firms but clusters of industry and talent that drive economic development. Cities and economic development organizations must assess the industries and clusters that are most vulnerable in their territory, evaluate the impacts future pandemics will have for their labor markets and communities, and plan to make their economies more resilient and robust.
  9. Upgrade jobs for front-line service workers: Emergency responders, health care aides, office and hospital cleaners, grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, delivery people are on the front lines of the pandemic. They need better protection, higher pay, and more benefits.
  10. Protect less-advantaged communities: The economic fallout of pandemics will hurt most for the least-advantaged neighborhoods and their residents, who lack adequate health coverage and access to medical care. Concentrated poverty, economic inequality, and racial and economic segregation . . . provide fertile ground for pandemics to take root and spread.

Florida and Pedigo write that “no pandemic or plague or natural disaster has killed off ‘the city,’ or humanity’s need to live and work in urban clusters.” When the country finally gets through this one, they add, “cities and their leaders should not simply return to business as usual. Not only does COVID-19 threaten to reappear in subsequent waves if we do not remain vigilant, but there will always be future pandemics to brace against as well.” As Dr. Anthony Fauci said on March 25, we need to beware of a second round of the disease, possibly coming in the fall.

If the cure is not sustainable, then it really could be worse than the problem itself – something even our president might fear.