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Urban planning in a pandemic with Adam Lubinsky & WXY Studio

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new challenges and accelerated many existing trends in cities across the world, which urban planners will be called on to address. 

To better understand how planners can respond to the complex interplay of issues surrounding mobility, public space and underlying inequalities brought into sharp relief by this crisis, we spoke with Adam Lubinsky, Managing Principal at WXY Studio, an award-winning multidisciplinary practice based in New York City, specializing in urban design, planning and architectural solutions. Lubinsky is also an associate professor of Architecture, Planning & Preservation at Colombia University and holds a Ph.D. in Planning and Urban Design from University College London. 

Lubinsky observes that COVID-19 has shone a light on underlying inequalities that were already a reality for many cities before the pandemic emerged. For example, he notes that In New York City, there are vulnerable communities that have been hit particularly hard. Not only due to health issues but because such communities are often disproportionately represented among essential workers and depend on public transit.” Indeed, beyond potentially increased exposure to COVID-19 itself, the pandemic introduces additional difficulties for many people. To illustrate, childcare and distance learning are especially challenging for those that must physically go to work during the pandemic and even more so in a small apartment. 

“It’s clear that urban planners need to see things in a very multilayered way,” Lubinsky notes, “A lot of people for a long time felt smart cities were going to make everything work better and we would be able to leapfrog all of these past inequities, however, COVID-19 shows that it’s not just about the equipment and having WiFi-enabled devices; it’s also about having space within your home and having family members around to help orient you to get started.” Addressing these inequalities is going to be a major task for urban planners looking to make effective and positive change. Lubinsky notes that much of how urban planners go about executing this task will involve public engagement, both to inform people and get their input. 

Still, with social distancing measures in place and the possibility of second wave emerging even if these measures are lifted, person to person interaction is not as feasible as it was before the pandemic. This is a challenge for which there are technical solutions. WXY Studio, for example, is working alongside a partner to develop interactive tools that facilitate engagement with communities to help them take part in shaping responses to issues that affect them. In addition to new tools, the firm is also thinking about how equity indicators can be used in their pilot projects. One such project involves working with a school to look at ways in which it can safely reopen. 

Reopening schools, and other major facilities, brings challenges that are necessarily associated with broader aspects of urban planning such as street use and mobility. As Lubinsky notes, “You can’t even start to think about the classroom until you start to think about what happens when a student leaves their front door and how you handle a thousand kids congregating on a sidewalk.” He goes on to point out that in New York City, for example, there has never been a concerted effort to get kids to school by bicycle, which allows for more social distancing than subways and does so without the carbon impact of cars (assuming students have access to cars). As such, some solutions WXY Studio is exploring include alternative modes of transportation, such as cycling combined with logistical initiatives such as staggered school schedules to reduce unnecessary person to person contact among students. Of course, mobility and street use issues do not apply exclusively to students. 

“Many aspects of addressing mobility are going to be critical,” Lubinsky points out, “It’s going to take a new conception of how we use urban space.” For example, using location intelligence to identify opportunities for opening more space for pedestrians and cyclists while also implementing transit improvements and modifications. Buses and subways can be made safer with regular disinfecting. Transit systems can also identify alternative means of boarding, such as only using the rear doors, and make use of contactless payment. Lubinsky further suggests that messaging and wayfinding technologies could help people plan safer, less crowded routes that consider factors like transit capacity. We should note that Esri users can leverage the Esri solutions to perform functions such as wayfinding and indoor mapping to help plan their procedures for reopening facilities and returning staff to the workplace. 

“We can think about streets differently as well, for example, as outdoor space that can be enjoyed and have some aspects of commerce,” Lubinsky says. Indeed, WXY is working with a business improvement district to look at ways in which building and sidewalk codes can accommodate much-needed solutions for businesses and the public at large. Industries like retail were already in a difficult position before the pandemic due to trends like e-commerce. Urban planners can find ways to make use of street and sidewalk space to facilitate commerce while also keeping the public safe. Outdoor dining, for example, typically allows for better compliance with social distancing than indoor dining. As such, opening sidewalks and streets to outdoor dining would help keep the public safe while also promoting economic activity that many restaurants need. When thinking about public spaces, we might begin to inquire into the density of those spaces and its implications for transmission of COVID-19. 

The call for social distancing could lead one to intuit that density might accelerate the spread of COVID-19. After all, it’s harder to stand two meters apart from other people on a crowded city street than it is in a car in the suburbs. However, as Lubinsky notes, the correlation between density and the rate of transmission is not so clear. “Density is clearly a challenge, but we have illustrations from very dense cities that took action earlier than American cities and are doing comparatively very well: Seoul, Taipei, Singapore and Hong Kong, for example,” says Lubinsky, “To my mind, an effective approach should not attack density but recognize that certain aspects of decentralization may start (or continue) to occur.” 

Many North American cities were experiencing elements of such decentralization before the pandemic that have since been compounded. “I think there is going to be an aspect of remote working and a continuing trend of what I would call fractured community patterns,” observes Lubinsky. In addition to remote working, there has been a trend of people “reverse commuting” from their homes in larger cities to work in smaller cities. Lubinsky believes some of these patterns will continue and potentially accelerate. Nonetheless, he thinks that urban planners should still strive to retain the qualities of good urbanism. Mixed-use development can reduce the need to drive to shop. Ensuring social services, such as schools and hospitals, are easily accessible by urban transit reduces carbon emissions while providing essential services to those who rely on public transit. 

So far, we’ve discussed various challenges that cities have been experiencing both before and during the pandemic, many of which will likely continue once the pandemic subsides. We’ve also reviewed various solutions to these challenges. But how can urban planners evaluate and validate such solutions? “Doing scenario testing is a critical part of this,” says Lubinsky, “We do a lot of modeling work, such as for the school exercise, that involves both technical platforms as well as the application of equity indices in our scenarios.” We should note here that users of ArcGIS Urban can take advantage of such modeling and scenario testing capabilities. On the importance of equity indicators, Lubinsky stresses these are essential to ensure that urban planners address the needs of the whole population rather than small segments of it.