Judy Rae

On Local Government – Changes in cityscape

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by Bob Pinzler

With a lot of time at hand, with closed gyms, walking restrictions, cancelled movie screenings, and only take out from restaurants, I’ve been trying to envision what things will be like for municipalities when we pull out of this self-imposed isolation period.

We may have unintentionally accelerated our transition to a new, digital era. This situation very likely will play havoc with the way cities deliver the services we have come to expect.

The most important impact will be from a change in retail. Closed shopping malls have given an extra impetus to online shopping. Not that it hadn’t had its impact before Covid-19, but the complete shutting down of brick and mortar retail has driven sales at companies like Amazon to new heights. One clear indication of this is the hiring spree that that company is undertaking while most others are furloughing their workforces.

The retail environment that might have been 10 years away is present now and is likely here to stay. 

With sales tax revenue a sizable segment of a city’s budget, this change is very troubling for cities. Revenue losses of this volume will be hard to recoup. In the cases of the Beach Cities, a greater emphasis on tourist dollars as well as a restructuring of our focus on office space and services will need to occur. 

Another important change will focus on how we work. For many years, telework has been touted as a solution to long commutes. The primary objection to the implementation of this work structure has been from middle managers, who feared losing their hands-on control over those reporting to them.

With telework being forced on companies, many of whom had never considered the option, that stigma may be removed. Companies are figuring out how to meet sales goals from the confines of their employees’ living rooms.

Fewer people will be on their roads during rush hours. The service needs of more local offices, albeit at home or in shared workspaces, will need to be met.

For cities, it is both an opportunity and a challenge.

Density is rearing its head as a possible health concern. This may alter the local physical landscape as much as anything.

In many of the discussions on climate change, one of the potential impacts raised is the possibility of a higher propensity of disease. If this pandemic is an example of what devastation a climate change-enhanced disease might cause, population density may be the Petri dish it needs to establish a presence and grow. After all, the initial hot spots of this pandemic throughout the world have been areas of highly dense populations. 

The conventional wisdom of some of our political leaders is that our housing shortage will be resolved by widespread densification. But, if today’s trends persist, in an environment where telework is the standard and services are delivered to one’s door, what is the purpose of a dense city? Particularly if that city is going to suffer more frequent health emergencies.

The outlook on density is not as clear as it might have been just three weeks ago, when it was already somewhat muddled.

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