A Green Pandemic Recovery: Applying Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic to the Climate Crisis

Quiet Manhattan streets, visible Himalayan skies, clear Venetian canals, and dolphins in Italian ports. Just a few months of humanity at a standstill have impacted our environment in shocking ways. The global shutdown of cities and economies has fast-forwarded us into a future where we view bold actions in response to unprecedented events as increasingly possible. However, we can no longer rely on bold and disruptive actions in lieu of integrated and adaptive change.

With the largest drop in greenhouse gas emissions since World War II, cities must now take the opportunity presented by the pandemic to reshape our thinking on disaster preparedness. The COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are both recognizable “gray rhino” events: highly probable, high impact yet neglected threats. In contrast to unforeseeable and improbable “black swan” events, gray rhinos are obvious dangers that leaders choose to ignore, often because they are more afraid of doing the wrong thing than of doing nothing. But confronted with a global pandemic, we must now institute a paradigm shift in the way we view intergenerational emergencies. Out of sight can no longer mean out of mind.

In cities around the world, leaders have begun to apply lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic to their climate crisis response, recognizing that in order to create a resilient society that can withstand shocks, we must prioritize a recovery plan with green strings attached. In particular, three strategies can help lead the way:

1. Redefine safe travel

By restricting access to vehicles and opening up space for safe travel by foot or bike, cities can reduce vehicle congestion, traffic fatalities, and carbon emissions. At the same time, cities can enable social distancing in such open spaces, thereby reducing coronavirus claustrophobia and overcrowding in parks and on sidewalks. By reclaiming streets for pedestrians and redefining which travel is essential, cities can align actions that are beneficial for both public health and the environment.

For example, the Seattle Department of Transportation has closed nearly 20 miles of residential Seattle streets to most vehicle traffic, creating pedestrian-centric “safe, healthy streets.” According to SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe:

Some of the responses [to COVID-19] are going to be long-lasting, and we need to continue to build out a transportation system that enables people of all ages and abilities to bike and walk across the city.

Though SDOT estimates spending between $100,000 and $200,000 on making the street closures permanent, Seattle may close even more streets depending on community demand. The city has also announced that it will accelerate the development of bike infrastructure and adjust the timing of traffic signals and pedestrian walk signals to create more space for bicyclists and pedestrians. Residents also have the option to provide feedback on Stay Healthy Streets through an online survey. Though many residents have praised the model, some community leaders have expressed concerns with the lack of biking and walking infrastructure in predominantly non-white neighborhoods. As many street closures become permanent, Seattle must continue to involve the community in key decision making.

The City of Oakland, California, has also installed over 74 miles of slow streets along 21 corridors throughout the city, transforming nearly 10 percent of the city’s streets. These streets provide residents with safe access to essential services such as grocery stores, food distribution sites, and COVID-19 testing. Though slow streets allow slow local traffic and emergency vehicles, they are closed to through traffic and hope to bring the pedestrian back onto the street.

Additionally, the streets are designed to be self-enforcing. According to the city’s website, police officers are not on standby to issue tickets or other financial penalties as the program is meant to increase social equity, not further disparities. At the same time, the city also gathers feedback through an online survey, guaranteeing flexibility in response to community concerns. The Oakland Department of Transportation (OakDOT) has held collaborative meetings and discussions with community groups, hoping to address traffic safety and speeding concerns.

2. Prioritize accessibility

Shelter-in-place and safer-at-home orders have brought new challenges to the forefront of urban planning. City residents need not only affordable housing, but also accessible housing, transportation, and urban living. As a result, an integrated urban fabric is more necessary than ever before.

The City of Carmel, Indiana, has unveiled 225 miles of bike trails that allow residents to get anywhere within the city of Carmel by bicycle. The routes are intended to guide users to various destinations across the city and provide access to key businesses and amenities.

With the development of these bike trails, Carmel hopes to shift the conversation away from affordable housing to affordable living, enhance environmental equity, and increase opportunities for accessible and green transportation in the city.

In Portland, Oregon, walking-distance-limited neighborhood planning is seen as crucial to responding to urban accessibility challenges. The City of Portland aims to provide safe and convenient access to all that one needs in their daily life through the concept of the “complete neighborhood.” Similar to Paris’ 15-minute cities, these neighborhoods will allow residents to reach all basic needs within 20 minutes of walking. By 2035, the city even hopes for 80 percent of Portlanders to be living in complete neighborhoods. As part of this work, Portland has already transformed over 90 miles of busy roads into neighborhood greenways, complete with street trees and green swales.

3. Drive equity through an interdisciplinary framework

City leaders must approach each tool and policy through a framework that purposely drives equity. It is not enough to view systems through a temporarily applied equity lens anymore.

Each framework must be consistently anti-racist and interdisciplinary in recognizing and responding to the disproportionate impacts of health and climate crises.

When Richmond, Virginia, developed their goal of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, its sustainability office created an equity index. They used 20 social vulnerability factors to identify where parks or open spaces should be, as well as where heat islands would be. When COVID-19 hit the city, Richmond applied this index to its pandemic response, offering a direct link between climate change and community health. As a result, Richmond was able to better understand who their vulnerable populations were, where they lived, and how to help them. In response, the city has been looking at blocking off traffic along certain streets in vulnerable communities, turning them into impromptu social spaces that provide plenty of room for social distancing and allow residents to temporarily forgo the need for costly indoor cooling.

Though the path ahead is still unclear in many ways, global leaders have begun to recognize the importance of a strategic green response. In July 2020, C40 Cities, an international coalition of mayors focused on fighting climate change, announced their goal of prioritizing green investments to create a just and resilient society. Today, as we watch our leaders learn the lessons of recovery in real-time, we must continue to push for a green response that innovates with intention. According to the Global Commission on Adaptation, if we invest $1.8 trillion in green technology and climate change resilient infrastructure over the next decade, we can generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits.

One thing is certain: The shape of our recovery today will define our society for decades to come. We must learn from this unprecedented moment of crisis in order to emerge from the pandemic with a sustainable reimagining of the way we live. The gray rhinos in front of us must serve as turning points for the trajectory of urban innovation. And as our cities continue to serve as core engines of recovery, we must renew our focus on building back better — toward greener and more resilient societies.