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A New Way Forward

By Dan Pitera 

Redefining Density, Place, and Infrastructure in Cities 

We have all heard people say: “I cannot wait until we get back to the way things were!” or “What precautions need to be in place in a post-pandemic city?”

Perhaps instead, we should ask: “What has COVID-19 revealed that could help our cities be more equitable and healthier for all people?”

The issues we have confronted in our cities over the past year are byproducts of decades of decisions and policymaking. The pandemic revealed the flaws in our systems. We should all see this past year as an opportunity to challenge assumptions or things we have accepted for years: Long commutes in motor vehicles. The lack of year-round outdoor public space. A nearly unbridgeable digital divide. Density as solely a physical thing.

This change will bring logistical challenges but starts with people, place, and infrastructure. Cities are nothing without people, and more importantly, a variety of people. Social distancing has restricted gatherings, which in turn translated to many people that density is the problem and denser cities create riskier situations. However, density is not necessarily the problem. Living in and participating in dense communities keeps us safe. And density is also more than just a physical thing. It is the complexity and intensity of human connections, including video calls.

This leads to the second issue: access for all people to climate and pandemic resilient infrastructure including: transportation, water, civic engagement, electricity, and digital communication. Digital access is not ubiquitous. There still exists a digital cavern throughout our country.

While many of us have had the benefit of continued interaction with others — turning physical density to digital density — many have not had that opportunity and suffer because of it. As we move into the future, our civic digital infrastructure must be addressed.

So to should our thinking about outdoor spaces. When the skies become gray and the temperature drops, Detroiters retreat to the depths of their homes. Besides a few activities, we abandon the outdoors until temperatures rise again. Outdoor public space does not need to be all or nothing. Just like convertible cars can be transformed as temperatures change, perhaps our public spaces could convert seasonally to allow for distance and air flow.

The last item, which connects people, place, and infrastructure is our network of streets, which has the potential to be active community space. Streets should be seen as more than lines that connect us to distant places. Streets can be places, too, that promote healthy gathering. But when they do serve the function to move us from here to there, they should allow for multiple modes of commuting: by foot, wheelchair, bike, motorcycle, car, bus, tram, and so on.

The things we take for granted are the things that hold us back. We can honor our heritage without being constrained by it. Let’s not try to “get back to normal.” Let’s define a new way forward for our cities that learns from this past year and builds a better resilient quality of life for all people who live in Detroit and Metro Detroit.