The pandemic required changes overnight. Millions are out of work. People have been asked to stay at home. Some are working remotely. Traffic has been reduced.
As part of the big picture, post-COVID, what changes are being considered in our cities and towns and who will be hired to implement those changes?
“There is a lot of looking into crystal balls right now,” Petra Hurtado, Ph.D., research director for the American Planning Association, tells WorkingNation. “We, ourselves, probably have more questions than answers to what the future of cities will be.”
Hurtado says, historically, it’s not unusual to see change after a catastrophic event. “When you look at pandemics from other times, there was always some sort of infrastructure or some sort of land-use change happening afterwards.”
Steve Garcia is a city planning associate with the External Affairs Division of Los Angeles City Planning. Both he and Hurtado say changes that cities might now be discussing have been on the table for a long time, but consideration could be accelerated due to COVID-19.
Typically, a city planner is a career that requires a Master’s degree, but both Hurtado and Garcia say there are other positions that do not require an advanced degree that support the work of city planners and their projects.
Both cite, as Hurtado calls it, “the digitization of life. The whole skill set of people, in general, is shifting towards digital solutions, understanding things like data privacy, data protection, and digital inclusion.”
“Telecommunication companies have seen smaller job losses than other industries because there is such huge demand at the moment. There are all kinds of complaints all over about how slow people’s internet is now that so many are sitting at home using it,” according to labor economist Julia Pollak of ZipRecruiter, an online jobs marketplace.
“There definitely is a case to be made for increased investment in broadband infrastructure. And that requires people who can climb up ladders, do installations and inspections,” says Pollak.
She also notes that with the increase in working from home, employers and employees will not be restricted to specific geographic locations.
“I think work from home has enormous benefits for a lot of people. A lot of companies are being forced to make changes now that perhaps they should have made all along like improving their online interviewing, hiring, and onboarding process processes.”
Pollak adds, “It has diversity implications, too. I think some of the excuses and barriers to diversify their workforce will go away.”
Protecting Online Meetings and Hearings
APA’s Hurtado says cybersecurity is an increased concern now that so much business is being conducted virtually. “We do public engagement meetings and public hearings where people usually come together in a room. All of that had to move to digital overnight,” explains Hurtado.
“No one knew exactly what we needed to consider in terms of data protection for the people that are part of these meetings. A lot of planners came to APA to ask, ‘Hey, can you help us with this?’”
According to Accenture, 68 percent of business leaders feel an increase in cybersecurity risks. A report from Cybersecurity Ventures says a workforce shortage has left CISOs (Chief Information Security Officers) and corporate IT security teams scrambling for talent.
The report says, “Every IT position is also a cybersecurity position now. Every IT worker, every technology worker, needs to be involved with protecting and defending apps, data, devices, infrastructure, and people.”
Hurtado says communities need to address the inequities that have been further exposed by the pandemic. She stresses, “Right now, broadband is the new essential utility. We have to avoid making the same mistakes that we’ve made in the analog world, in terms of equity, diversity, and inclusion, to not have those happen in the digital world. Obviously, there is a whole broadband discussion that will have to happen in the near future.”
Repurposing Commercial and Industrial Spaces
“There are some industries that are just not ever going to recover. Commercial real estate is one of them. It’s going to have to reinvent itself,” says ZipRecruiter’s Pollak. “I do foresee office buildings being converted into apartment buildings. And that will require a lot of labor—construction workers, manufacturers who produce appliances and windows, carpenters.”
L.A. planning associate Garcia says the city is looking for ways to more easily re-purpose former commercial and industrial spaces for residential use. He points to an older adaptive reuse ordinance that has allowed for the conversion of office and bank buildings to residences in the downtown area.
Garcia also cites a repurposing plan to help the city’s unhoused population. “Another ordinance is called the hotel/motel conversion. And so for former hotels and motels that might not be living up to their full potential in terms of bookings, property owners can convert their hotel or motel into permanent supportive housing for the homeless population. And we tax incentivize that.”
The Greening of Public Spaces
Meanwhile, as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to surge nationwide, there is increasing pressure on public parks, according to the The Trust for Public Land.
The nonprofit’s recent report The Heat is On finds not everyone has equal access to the kinds of parks that lower temperatures and allow for safe social distancing.
The findings say, “This year, that risk of extreme heat is amplified by the coronavirus, which is complicating and in some cases even scuttling cities’ plans to help residents stay cool. Many cities are closing pools, beaches, and spray parks in order to limit the spread of the virus, while others are scaling back the capacity of indoor cooling centers or closing them all together. In the face of these pandemic-enhanced challenges, there’s one piece of public infrastructure that is proving itself more vital and necessary than any other time in our history: parks.”
The APA’s Hurtado says the pandemic has taught us that cities are not built for physical/social distancing, specifically maintaining a distance of six feet away from others. “The major part of the public space that we have in cities is really for cars. It’s streets and parking spaces.”
She says the greening of cities is a vital issue, adding, “Honestly, if you ask me personally, I think it’s not big enough on the agenda yet. So many studies out there show the benefits and impacts of nature in cities. It’s been a trend for a while, but it’s still not where it should be to really have big impact.”
Hurtado says green plans have to be inclusive. “New York’s Central Park is not going to help much if you live in a different neighborhood.”
Hurtado says there are jobs that will be needed to green those spaces, including “everything that’s related to engineering and landscape architecture planning, for example. But then also the people who then actually go work on site—all the construction and planting that needs to happen to implement it.”
Who Supports the Planners?
Garcia says there are several non-planner positions within his division of the city planning office.
“We have data analysts. They’re called the performance management unit. They basically analyze and synthesize all our data in order to provide us with the real time data of what is happening, in the universe of city planning. How many housing units have we approved in the last month? What’s the total square footage of office space that we’ve approved in the last month? All of that is happening in real time. And the performance management unit helps us gather that information.”
Garcia says a great deal of responsibility falls on the graphic designers who make the gathered information understandable and relatable. “We have a graphics team that is able to take that data and really tell a story with it. So our social media, our e-blasts, our newsletters, our quarterly reports—they are all storytelling documents because of our graphics department. It’s not just the data that’s important, it’s also need to be pleasant to look at and pleasant to digest as well.”
ZipRecruiter’s Pollak says there are good long-term prospects for people with data analytics skills, but cautions “the current environment is very, very tough and competitive.” But she adds, “As more and more companies move everything online and capture more customer data, the companies that will do the best will be the ones that use the data in the smartest ways.”
Pollak notes, “Graphic design is another area where I think there’s enormous long-term potential. There’s so much emphasis on user experience. Things don’t need to just work. They need to look pretty for people to want to use them.” As another competitive profession, Pollak suggests, “One way to get a foot in the door is to join one of these freelance communities. Build a portfolio and develop clients that way.”
A Post-COVID World
Looking forward, Pollak takes a look back at the 1918 flu pandemic. “It was followed by the Roaring Twenties in which there was huge economic growth, new technology, mass production. It would be hard to find a decade where there was more progress in terms of material well-being and reductions in infant mortality, and all of those kinds of measures. So it’s possible that companies will emerge from bankruptcies stronger.”
Hurtado acknowledges the uncertainty going forward. “We don’t know how long it’s going to take until we actually have a vaccine for this illness.”
She adds permanent changes due to the lessons learned from COVID-19 are going to require a cultural shift and behavioral adjustment. “Now is the time to think big and plan for permanent change, to acknowledge mistakes from the past and correct them, and to ensure equitable, sustainable, and resilient cities will be the new normal.”