COVID-19 and the art of city planning

shopper-crossing-sign-pedestrian-sign-mall-sign-funny-sign-crosswalk_t20_Yw4yQO.jpgConventional wisdom has, for years, accepted that it takes 21 days to turn a new behavior into a habit. The truth is, science has studied the subject at some length and it actually takes much longer. The range it takes for a behavioral change to become habit is as little as 18 days for some to as much as 250 days for others.

When it comes to the question of societal change, this is pretty relevant. The fact that, when you search for the phrase, “This changes everything,” you find 1.6 million results in about one second makes you think. How many of the disruptions of the current year will actually change anything?

If you use time to measure the likelihood of societal change as a result of current events, it’s clear that Covid-19 stands out. We’re sitting at right about 120 days for things like self-isolation, social distancing and such. The experience has forced nearly everyone to create lifestyle alternatives. Which, if any, of these alternatives will result in long term change?

It’s an important question when it comes to community planning. Even as society plods toward re-opening, some communities are making permanent changes based on prevailing circumstances. Until an effective vaccine is in place, normal is not an accepted option. Employers are staggering work schedules to reduce proximity, both at work and while commuting. Public transit is changing schedules and use protocols. Biking is experiencing huge growth, requiring changes to infrastructure, traffic and parking. Walking is increasingly important and there are changes to what is considered “safe.” Time outdoors has increased value to many, with park use spiking.

woman-shopping-in-the-pretty-pedestrian-mall-lined-with-boutique-shops-cafes-shopping-retail-stores_t20_9lGRAN.jpgOne important aspect of these changes is a public perception that these change are, in terms of quality of life, positive. If you are skeptical, note that many cities are already changing long term policy to acknowledge the shifts. Temporary street closures are increasingly becoming permanent. Parks and the connections between them are a hot topic. Walking and cycling are becoming transit factors first and recreational considerations second. The City of Oakland, California has committed to converting ten percent of its streets into space for walking and cycling. Seattle has decided that twenty miles of city streets closed in the past few months will remain closed permanently. Public spaces are being opened to private use to accommodate restaurants and other retail concerns to boost economic activity. There’s been a resurgent use of locally-based businesses as the definition of “essential” has shifted.

All of these changes will produce a new focus of civil engineers, landscape architects and city planners (among others). It’s likely that the time ahead is going to very interesting for us all!