Three Regional Strategies Essential for a Just and Resilient Recovery

Written by Kate Collignon with Adam Tanaka
Recovery Will Be Regional
The impacts of COVID-19, coupled with the national outcry for racial justice, have the potential to transform urban landscapes socially, physically, and economically. For this to be a positive transformation, we need regional coordination. Fortunately, notes NYC Dept. of City Planning Director of Regional Planning Carolyn Grossman Meagher, “During and immediately after a crisis, government tends to be more open to innovation. We are now seeing more coordination than ever before… Success … breeds trust: the more we see regional actors working together and creating positive local outcomes, the more local leaders will … accept these … partnerships.”
Regional collaboration has long been important for leaders seeking to align housing, employment, and transportation systems to ensure workers have physical and equitable access to jobs. Emergency response to COVID-19 has spurred new regional coordination around the purchase and distribution of personal protective equipment, supply chain support to ensure food security, and safe reopening. Regional coordination must now expand for recovery. In a June conversation hosted by HR&A, the New York Metro Regional Planning Network’s 23 member jurisdictions and the Regional Planning Association discussed regional coordination to support a strong recovery. As communities not only in the New York area but also nationwide look beyond stabilization, just and resilient regional planning must:

  1. Plan for remote work
  2. Meet changing housing needs
  3. Sustain regional transit & TOD systems
      Plan for Remote Work
      I am a New Yorker. As COVID pummeled New York City, I watched colleagues, friends, and neighbors who were able to work remotely relocate to suburbs or to other regions altogether, where they could be closer to family at less cost – most temporarily, some permanently. Their moment may reflect only a pandemic-driven acceleration of the natural churn that has always moved population among cities, suburbs and regions; on average 200,000 residents leave NYC every year, 2/3 for other regions, making way for new arrivals. Or it may indicate that remote work is loosening the threads that tied workers to downtown offices and the high cost markets that surround them. Should the latter prove true, offices are likely to continue to be important for building corporate culture, and employers will likely continue to seek locations that are physically accessible by large populations of skilled workers. We won’t be able to distinguish specter from fact for some time. But we do know that cities and their surrounding suburbs have a shared interest in retaining residents and their tax-paying employers within the region. This shared interest is as strong in relatively affordable regions as in places like NYC; cities and counties around Tulsa, Savannah, and Topeka are already partnering to attract remote workers and bolster their talent base.
      Collaboration between cities and suburbs to ensure regions can meet telework needs can help stem a loss of – or attract new — population, jobs and fiscal resources. Data analyses of trends in office markets, commuting patterns, and population flows can be generated and shared regionally. Pairing this data with information about best practices – for liberalizing zoning that allows for live-work situations to enable properties and neighborhoods to adapt to shifts in use demand over time, for adapting suburbs to meet new daytime service needs of teleworkers, for mitigating affordable housing pressures – can arm regions for collective recovery. To ensure residents don’t get left behind amid the shift to remote work, jurisdictions also need to assess telework capacity among their residents, ensure broadband access, and identify other approaches to bridging the digital divide.
      Meet Changing Housing Needs
      The COVID shutdown is affecting residents’ ability to meet rent and mortgage obligations. Although the economic downturn may slow rent and cost appreciation in some markets, a June HR&A analysis found that in New Haven, for example, financial pressures will put one in 10 households at risk of losing housing over the next six months. Simultaneously, relocation by more affluent households with the ability to work remotely may increase affordability pressures in the places to which they move, particularly as many are relocating to areas that already struggle with a constrained housing supply. While new multifamily and affordable housing could relieve these pressures, opponents of development in the suburbs may now argue that density brings contagion, even though it is increasingly clear that viral transmission is associated with overcrowding, institutional living, and other factors rather than density.
      In the face of these risks, planners and policy makers are calling for immediate housing supports for at-risk residents and collaborating across jurisdictional boundaries to deliver them as Revere and Chelsea, MA did in creating a “quarantine hotel” to assist individuals living in overcrowded housing. In Connecticut, long-standing efforts by advocates to secure fair share housing strategies that extend regionally are receiving renewed attention. For such efforts to succeed, planners need to be armed with data articulations that show the relationship between health outcomes and density in anticipation of contemporary expressions of systemic racism that weaponize COVID concerns to fight multifamily housing.
      Sustain Regional Transit and TOD Systems
      Public transit and transit-oriented development are threatened by COVID. The Chicago Transit Authority is currently losing an estimated $1M per day in fare box revenues, while incurring increased cleaning costs, jeopardizing this anchor of the mixed-income neighborhoods in its path, even as these communities’ ability to bear housing costs becomes increasingly tenuous, and shelter-in-place and social distancing requirements threaten their main streets. Here in New York – where I am privileged to be able to work remotely, and my personal ridership has fallen from ~14 rides/week to 0 since March — our Metropolitan Transportation Authority is facing a $16B budget shortfall over the next four years. Weakened transit systems will jeopardize regional employment, increase adverse environmental impacts from cars, diminish opportunities for multifamily and affordable housing, make walkable retail districts and employment centers that strengthen social and community connections in suburban locations less viable, and put in peril workers who cannot telework and rely on public transit.
      To meet these challenges, communities are rallying to save transit, uniting regional resources and voices to advocate for federal funding, while looking for ways to save costs without harming service. Notes Bay Area Council Senior Vice President Gwen Litvak, “With 26 individual transit operators within the [San Francisco] Bay Area, many reliant on farebox and sales tax revenue to fund operations and thus in a precarious position, there may be opportunities” to reduce overhead – a conversation now taking place among stakeholders convened by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
      Start with Data
      Participants in the New York Metro Regional Planning Network forum identified both long-term opportunities for collective strategy development and short-term opportunities to collaborate around data and best practice sharing to maximize resources and impact. Realizing the short-term opportunities is a prerequisite for deeper engagement. Regional networks that recognize this fact are:

      • For remote work, facilitating conversations with major employers around return to work expectations to inform transit planning, and modeling how remote work may change travel behavior and demand, as the [Boston] Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s Deputy Director Rebecca Davis reports.
      • For housing, aggregating stark data on residential segregation to support campaigns like Desegregate Connecticut, which is capitalizing on the pandemic’s spotlight on disparities – and the Trump administration’s recent rollback of fair housing laws – to expand housing supply and diversity.
      • For transit and TOD systems, providing frameworks for targeting recovery resources that recognize potential equity impact, like the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s open-source Community Cohort Evaluation Tool, which enables users to analyze projects and investments through an equity lens, and is being leveraged by partners to distribute CARES Act and transportation dollars equitably.

      By starting with data and best practice sharing, cities, counties, states, employers, foundations, and other partners can help fuel economic recovery that makes our regions more just and more resilient.