10 Principles for a Just and Resilient Recovery

By Carl Weisbrod
In the midst of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, government, civic organizations, and businesses are rightly focused on the urgent humanitarian and health crisis. In bringing major components of our economy to a halt, we have made a value judgment that saving lives is worth the economic damage caused by social distancing.
As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, our attention must shift to addressing the economic crisis. Civic leaders’ strategies to recover urban economies and neighborhoods must be premised on these observations about our cities:
The promise of cities has not been extinguished. Some have suggested that this pandemic will result in mass exodus from cities as the tide turns against density. This perspective is ill informed. Cities are not static. They have always reinvented themselves in response to economic and social change, and they will further evolve in response to this pandemic. Active streets, intellectual cross fertilization, brick-and-mortar retail, face-to-face interaction and all that makes urban life vibrant will return, perhaps to some extent in some new forms. Urban areas will continue to attract and retain people of talent and will regain their dynamism as centers of innovation and drivers of our local, state and national economies. That is the lesson of history, recent and ancient.
Diversity and pluralism – demographic, intellectual and economic – are cities’ greatest strengths. Recovery strategies must be inclusive, allowing a broad range of people to sit at the table to identify solutions that respond to the needs of the diverse residents of our cities – especially including those who often do not have a strong voice.
It is obvious that this pandemic has exacerbated deep inequalities that already existed in our society. The pandemic has disproportionately affected the poor, the undocumented, minorities, and service workers (including medical personnel) – the people who “take the early bus.” Strategies to support urban revitalization must make supporting them a priority. In the best of circumstances, they should help fuel the general economic recovery, not be the victims (once again) of it.

Ten Principles for a Just and Resilient Recovery

Building on those premises, any efforts toward economic recovery, particularly at the local level, will face challenges and constraints. A just and resilient recovery must take into account the following:

  1. “Recovery” from the pandemic will be gradual; as we have seen elsewhere in the world, the “lockdown” guidelines will decline incrementally and may even be restored to some extent. This crisis is quite different from previous ones in which the “recovery” could start almost at once. We should look to what should be done during the period roughly from the beginning of the relaxation of the “lockdown” period to about 18 months thereafter as we propose strategies for a longer term that includes institutional and permanent reform.

  3. We must equitably address demographic, economic and neighborhood disparities that have been brought into relief. Too often, government programs and bureaucracy leave out those who need it most. Crisis response should reframe how we are all connected despite demographic and economic differences. In a pandemic, the underprivileged becoming ill has direct negative risk implications for those with more resources and power.

  5. An equitable response must include finding ways to address the needs of those unlikely to qualify for direct federal assistance, such as the undocumented. This is, in particular, an issue for local and national philanthropies, whose resources in disaster recovery situations often bolster aid provided by government.

  7. City leaders must recognize that the economic damage will be widespread, affecting downtowns, retail strips, industry, and virtually all neighborhoods. Regulatory relief, support for job retention/creation, and aid to businesses large and small will be necessary. Our cities’ economies are densely woven tapestries. Those areas most damaged will need the most assistance, but making that assistance available will require the resources and tax revenue generated by the rapid restoration to health of each locality’s major economic engines.

  9. Local governments will have scant local resources. Because cities will experience severe fiscal challenges and are barred from deficit spending, they will need to rely largely on what is provided through various federal programs and what is allocated to them by the states, which will also be resource constrained. Federal resources will be critical to recovery, and how they can be accessed and deployed by localities will have meaningful implications for their effectiveness. In some cases, local and national foundations may be able to make up some of the difference; certainly, their talent and resources will be needed not only to ensure equity but also to fill gaps.

  11. Coordination between local and state government will be critical. Most federal aid is likely to flow through the states, so local governments need strategies to enable state/local relationships to function in a coordinated fashion, with the states inevitably the senior partners. Given the red/blue divide between many major cities and their states, this will be especially important – and, perhaps, even more acute in some states where the state and local governments have had different perspectives on how to address the pandemic itself.

  13. We must begin to identify an initial set of projects that can kickstart recovery when new federal funds become available. To avoid delays and to begin the recovery process that communities badly need, local government and its partners must tee up “shovel ready” projects.

  15. We must remove barriers to recovery embedded in local government regulatory functions. Local governments largely have control over land use, licensing, and other regulations that affect businesses. We must investigate how these regulations can be streamlined, suspended, deferred and/or permanently changed to ease or remove barriers to recovery, especially for small businesses that are more likely to employ lower income, less skilled workers.

  17. The channels through which recovery aid will be distributed at the local level need to be identified. Locally based organizations are critical partners in pushing out aid to local communities. Leveraging existing entities is often the fastest solution for immediate aid. But new or off-budget entities, such as local redevelopment authorities, may also need to be created to carry out certain functions that require more independence and flexibility.

  19. Finally, we must identify how major local institutions can contribute to recovery as both resources and intermediaries, and how to leverage and guide them strategically. These include universities, hospitals, and major businesses. For example, banks are processing PPP applications, which may meaningfully increase the speed at which at least their established customers get help, but should not occur at the expense of small, neighborhood businesses – often minority owned – with less well-established banking relationships.

The challenges local governments face in supporting economic recovery will be numerous. Leveraging federal resources thoughtfully, restoring to health major local economic generators, ensuring an equitable response that benefits disadvantaged communities, as well as identifying ways to deploy aid efficiently and effectively are all key. As the public health emergency slowly begins to ebb, we must start planning how we will surmount the formidable challenges to a just and resilient economic recovery.