Physically Distant but Still Together: How Cities in the Bay Area and Beyond Will Survive the Coronavirus

Powell Street in San Francisco on the first day of the Bay Area's shelter-in-place order. Photo by Sergio Ruiz

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Pandemics are scary things. Thanks to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, life in the Bay Area is very different than it was only a week ago. We were all still taking a crash course in “social distancing” when seven Bay Area counties were ordered to “shelter in place.” Those who are lucky enough to work from home are doing so. The NBA has cancelled the rest of its season. Universities have moved all their classes online, and those with young children are now part of a massive experiment in homeschooling. Disinfectant wipes, toilet paper and hand sanitizer are no longer available for purchase. Transit ridership is plummeting. Idris Elba and Tom Hanks have the virus. Trump may ban travel to California. As stories from China and Italy fill the news, we are taught to “flatten the curve” by washing our hands, not touching our faces, staying home when sick and staying away from others.

What does this mean for cities and for the region? Those of us who celebrate and promote the way cities bring people together feel an extra shudder at official prescriptions to avoid connection with our fellow humans. So many of us already live in isolation, at odds with our social nature. Cities often feel like the last redoubt of human contact. But how can we be in this together if we can’t be together? Do we urbanists have it wrong?

The answer is an emphatic no. Cities and the Bay Area as a region have a lot to learn from the current situation, and a lot to teach as well. The following are some lessons that we at SPUR are taking from the pandemic, which we hope will help guide future thinking and policymaking.

1. Cities have survived pandemics before — and become better for it.

Outbreaks of contagious disease have been a scourge — and a shaper — of urban settlements from their very beginnings. More than four thousand years ago, the Harappan cities of the Indus Valley built remarkably elaborated sewer systems to improve public hygiene. In ancient Rome, repeated epidemics led to the draining of malarial swamps along the Tiber River, and large-scale hydraulic works brought fresh water in and conveyed sewage away from the huge, densely populated city.

More recently, epidemics played a crucial role in the development of city planning, public health and building codes. The unprecedented scale and density of the 19th century industrial city exposed large numbers of people to both pollution and infection, greatly worsened by overcrowded housing and poor sanitation. Typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis were rampant. A cholera outbreak in 1854 London led to the development of modern epidemiology after physician John Snow’s maps of cholera deaths — a kind of analog GIS analysis — pinpointed a specific water pump and proved the disease to be borne by contaminated water.

In turn-of-the-century New York, an army of white-coated sanitation workers turned out to tame the city’s horse-manure problem. In the process, they dramatically changed expectations of both the technocratic response to disease threats and the very function of city government, until then largely the province of patronage machines. Around the same time, a series of tenement-reform laws mandated minimum standards for light, air and sanitary services in working-class housing, spawning the adage that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and shaping the city’s building stock.

Public health also figured prominently in arguments for the regulation of land use and density through zoning. The idea of cities as squalid breeding grounds for disease (and socialism, and insalubrious mixture of all kinds) lay at the heart of the Modernist urban design agenda, which called for “Towers in the Park,” with equal access to light, air and open space. That agenda was predicated on the demolition of substandard “slums” and drove federal urban renewal programs through the middle part of the last century.

The association of crowded cities with disease was also at play in the suburbanization of the United States, supported by a host of policies from federal mortgage guarantees to the creation of the Interstate Highway system. Ironically, it is the car-dependent lifestyle of suburban America that has driven a new kind of health crisis — one of chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes that emerge from a sedentary existence.

Over time, we have learned an enormous amount about infectious disease and how to manage it. Environmental regulation, zoning (despite its many shortcomings) and shifts in the global economy have made cities some of the healthiest places to live. The basic systems of sanitation and public health pioneered in centuries past have made disease outbreaks easier to manage. We no longer live in of fear cholera, typhoid or plague — and today’s urban density would have been impossible before the development of sanitation, epidemiology and modern medicine. The current pandemic is scary and will carry an unknown cost in lives and damage to the economy. But is perhaps more striking how rare disease outbreaks have become in contemporary urban life.

2. Our local and state leaders and public health institutions are doing a great job, even as our national political leaders flounder.

While in the initial weeks of the pandemic President Trump vacillated between pretending that the disease was contained, banning people traveling from Europe and demanding that scientists magically speed up the creation of a vaccine, state and local officials were working hard with their federal counterparts to ensure that the public had the information that they needed to stay safe. On March 16, seven Bay Area counties called for all non-essential business to close and for all residents to shelter in place. They have instituted a mass text system devoted to providing information about the virus. Public health departments around the Bay Area are working to provide valuable information and direction to residents about how to protect their health. Elected leaders are tweeting out information or sharing with their constituents via email alerts. The information being shared is clear, direct and accurate.

At the same time, state and local leaders are working on addressing the social fallout from the pandemic. Governor Newsom recently issued an executive order to ensure that people affected by the coronavirus can apply for disability benefits. California Congresswoman Katie Porter got the head of the Centers for Disease Control to commit to using the CDC’s existing authority to providing free testing for everyone who needs it. And the State of California is ensuring that all children who rely on free nutritious meals will continue to receive them during school closures. Of course there is more to do. Some countries are suspending mortgage payments during the crisis, and cities around the Bay are banning coronavirus-related evictions. On the federal level, the conversation around creating a social safety net for millions of Americans who have no sick leave or access to health care continues. Some national leaders, including even the president, are considering cash payments to all U.S. residents, a policy that would have been politically unthinkable just a few weeks ago.

3. We are still living our Bay Area values.

Being called to our higher selves is challenging in a crisis situation when fear abounds. Yet Bay Area leaders and others are continuing to work to overcome fear while elevating Bay Area values even in difficult situations. When a cruise ship with 3,000 passengers, some of whom were infected with coronavirus, required a place to dock, the State of California needed to determine a location for passengers to disembark and be transported either to quarantine or to receive medical assistance. The City of Oakland worked with state and local officials to develop a plan to ensure that those passengers could safely leave the ship while taking care to ensure that local residents and workers were protected. In addition to ensuring safety, one of Mayor Libby Schaaf’s top priorities was to “do the right thing to help these people stranded on the ship and to not let fear dictate humanity.” World Central Kitchen provided food for those on the ship, and a local resident left “welcome home” signs for the passengers.

Bay Area leaders are challenging anti-Asian discrimination. Xenophobic responses to Asians and Asian-Americans are on the rise. Some national figures are adding fuel to the fire by referring to the virus as the China virus or the “Wuhan coronavirus,” attempting to label it as something “foreign” that can be blocked out with more travel bans or anti-immigrant policy. Yet here in California, leaders are doing what they can to combat anti-Asian racism and xenophobia. State Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblymember David Chiu attended a recent rally in San Francisco’s Chinatown and tweeted out messages of solidarity. And Governor Newsom provided a simple message on social media: “DO listen to public health officials. DON’T be racist.” These clear anti-racism messages from public leaders matter.

Lastly, simply by believing in science and following the rules laid out by public health officials, we are actually supporting our collective wellbeing. Avoiding crowds when possible, washing your hands and staying home when sick will help slow the spread of the virus and protect the health of others. Even if you are young and healthy, keeping informed and doing what public health officials request will help protect more vulnerable members of our community, including older people and people with compromised immune systems.

4. We need to find ways to support public systems that are under strain today but will be essential tomorrow.

As more and more people are staying home, institutions that rely on customers will take a massive hit. Yet, these are the same institutions that we will need to be strong and healthy once the pandemic is over.

Public transit agencies rely on passenger fares in order to continue to provide high frequency service. Yet during a pandemic, when so many people are working from home and avoiding being around lots of people, ridership is plummeting. BART has experienced a 70 percent drop in ridership at the time of this writing, a number that is probably just going to decline further, costing the agency hundreds of millions of dollars. BART is asking for emergency aid to help the agency through this challenging time.

The current crisis highlights just how fragile our transportation system is. Bad storms and fires  can also grind our transit system to a halt. We're lucky these are not the norm, but we need to be prepared because they very well could be in the future. Even a major shift to telecommuting under normal circumstances has a significant impact on transit ridership. Preparation doesn’t just mean having emergency funds available, though that’s important too. It’s thinking more strategically about funding sources so transit is not overly reliant on one source of funding (fares). It’s fortifying and fixing transit systems now, before future disasters happen. It’s ensuring better coordination between systems so that resources can be effectively redistributed.  

5. We can find other ways to connect and take care of each other, even if we can’t meet face to face.

During times of crisis, our natural inclination is to reach out to one another. But that is impossible during a pandemic when even small gatherings are opportunities to spread illness, and when the civic institutions we rely on — schools, religious institutions, libraries — are closed. It’s a stark reminder that our biggest public health crises today stem not from urban density but from social isolation. Deaths of despair — from suicide, alcohol and drugs — vastly outpace infectious diseases and occur most when people feel isolated.

While the pandemic continues, there are still things that we can do to be in connection with each other and help each other. Using the phone the old-fashioned way — that is, to call someone — can be helpful. Social media, when used well, can help create a sense of community and can even help quell anxiety and fear. Many artists, musicians and regular folks are using this time to create community and help people through online concerts, lectures and classes. And just knowing your neighbors and developing a sense of community can help make facing the pandemic more manageable.

Lastly, this pandemic can show us how — when faced with a common threat, such as a virus or an earthquake — we can, as a society, take drastic steps to protect ourselves and our community. Taking individual action that serves the collective good (social distancing, washing our hands, staying home when sick, stocking our pantries to feed ourselves and our neighbors) is something we can and are doing. We should try to understand how to harness all of this energy to combat other social crises, like rising rates of homelessness, lack of access to healthcare and global climate change.

6. We can learn things from the pandemic that will make us more resilient to future disasters.

One thing we have learned from this pandemic is that we need to be prepared for the next disaster. Among the lessons already learned from the coronavirus:

• Clear and accurate information is key.

During disasters, providing clear and accurate information is key to ensuring the best possible outcomes. When everyone in government is providing the same clear and accurate information, the public can rely on it. When different leaders provide different messages, or when information is slow or inaccurate, it can create more panic. SPUR wrote about this issue in the 2013 report On Solid Ground, where we described the information needed to make clear decisions after an earthquake. This pandemic provides other lessons in thinking about who needs what kinds of information during a health crisis. Countries like South Korea, which have been able to quickly test massive numbers of people and then use that information to slow the rate of transmission, have used clear information as a policy tool to protect the public. Whereas in the United States, faulty testing kits, lack of clarity about who can get tested when, and pleas from doctors for testing kits to help their patients add to a sense of panic.

• We need redundancy in our systems at the local, state and federal level.

There has perhaps been nothing more terrifying in the initial weeks of the pandemic than the inability for people who suspect they are infected with the coronavirus to get tested. Part of the issue has been that the United States failed to plan appropriately for mass testing, including deciding to develop its own test when tests from other countries were widely available, not allowing entities other than the CDC to develop tests, not accounting for shortages and rationing of materials needed for testing, and not working with universities and the private sector to develop tests when it became clear that the CDC was not going to produce a sufficient number of tests.

In a disaster situation there needs to be an “all of the above” effort to tackle challenges, as well as back-up plans for back-up plans, so that when one effort fails, another can take its place. SPUR wrote about this as it relates to transit planning in our 2010 report Rebuilding Our Transportation Infrastructure, but the lessons hold true for pandemics as well.

• We need to fund disaster preparedness.

One of the key tragedies of this situation is that the Trump Administration dismantled the National Security team that was responsible for understanding and responding to global pandemics. In stable times, disaster preparedness seems like an easy thing to cut. But when the disaster strikes, having experts who can guide a swift and effective response really matters.

• We need to increase our social safety net so that we can help people when they need help the most.

In times of strain, the failures of our current social safety net become the most apparent. Fighting the spread of the virus requires people who are sick to stay home, yet many Americans can’t afford to miss work because they don’t have any paid time off. People need to get tested to see if they have the virus, but if they can't afford the cost of testing, they won’t seek the medical attention they need. People who can’t afford childcare can’t work when schools are closed. Children who rely on free meals at school won’t eat if they can’t get those meals at school. And families who rely on food assistance will need those resources even more in a time of crisis. It turns out our entire society is interdependent. We need to start acting like it and develop systems that take care of us all.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “The war creates no absolutely new situation, it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice…. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.” A crisis likes this brings the necessity of planning for futures crises to the fore. The worst we can do is fall into despair. The best we can do is make sure we are all cared for and that we take the lessons from this time not just to heart, but to action.