A More Equitable and Sustainable Post-Pandemic World

Rapson Hall staircase

The following is a guest post from Minnesota Design Center Director Tom Fisher.

Pandemics have long-lasting effects on economies and on the built environment. The historian Laird Easton has written about the relatively rapid economic recoveries that typically follow pandemics, but he downplays the severity of their short-term impacts and undersells their long-term outcomes.

Economies recover quickly from a pandemic in part because it accelerates changes already underway and often overdue. The sewers installed after the 19th-century cholera epidemics didn’t just allow urbanization to proceed; they sped it up. The 1918 flu pandemic didn’t just reduce unemployment afterward; it propelled privatization, as people sought isolation in suburban houses and private automobiles. Previous pandemics also highlighted the inequalities in society. The cholera epidemic had a bigger impact on the poor, who drew water from public wells and used outdoor latrines, and the 1918 pandemic more heavily affected the poor, who lived in crowded quarters with inadequate sanitation.

We see the same happening today. Trends like online shopping, distance learning, and telecommuting existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have become much more prevalent and will likely last, to some degree, long after we have this coronavirus under control. Those accelerating trends have also revealed inequities based on race and class that have been ignored for too long, as people of color and essential service workers are dying at higher rates because of their greater exposure to and fewer protections against COVID-19. Following Easton’s argument, the global economy will come back after this pandemic, but that economy will be a very different one than what we left behind, with disruptive effects on myriad industries and many aspects of our lives. And if we start now to think now about what those changes might be and to start steering them in a more equitable and sustainable direction, the “new normal” could be a better one as well.

The Minnesota Design Center (MDC) is launching an initiative in fall 2020, focused on achieving “A More Equitable and Sustainable Post-Pandemic World.” With funding from the McKnight Foundation, the MDC will host a series of remote, community based, design workshops that will explore the unequal, disproportionate, and disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and focus on the likely long-term impacts on people’s lives, on the regional economy, and on the built environment. The purpose of this work will be to help the municipalities in the Met Council’s seven counties prepare for the changes already underway and develop strategies and potential addendum language for their comprehensive plans, all of which were submitted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal of this work will also be to see how we can use the pandemic as a chance to create a more equitable and sustainable future for everyone in the Twin Cities region, especially those who have suffered the effects of institutionalized racism, geographical segregation, and a lack of access to resources and economic opportunity.

The workshops will look at a range of post-pandemic issues along the Marshall and Lake Avenue corridor that runs from downtown St. Paul, through Minneapolis, to St. Louis Park. Each workshop will focus on a particular location along that corridor and on a specific challenge and opportunity raised by the pandemic. We hope to have a variety of participants to get a diversity of perspectives and to encourage the greatest range of ideas about what might be possible during and after the pandemic. The MDC staff will host the workshops and will produce a document summarizes the work for online distribution to decision-makers and the general public in Spring 2021.

Workshop Logistics and Schedule:

The workshops will take place, remotely on Zoom, every other Thursday afternoon, except for holiday weeks. The series starts in mid-October and ends in early January, with the intention of completing the documentation of the ideas and recommendations generated during the workshops by the end of February 2021. Each workshop will last two hours, from 2 – 4 pm, with the first half-hour devoted to setting the context, providing background information, and posing the questions we want workshop participants to consider. We will then break into smaller groups for an hour to work on particular aspects of each site and problem, with MDC staff capturing the ideas and documenting the
conversations and recommendations. The final half-hour will be devoted to reporting out from each group and summarizing the key take-aways and aspects needing further study. While we hope participants can all stay for the entire two hours, we recognize how busy everyone is, and so coming a half-hour late or leaving a half hour early will still enable us to capture everyone’s ideas and insights.

Here is the date, time, and focus of each workshop, three of which will focus on St. Paul and three on Minneapolis, with the last one extending to St. Louis Park:

For further information or questions, you can contact me, Tom Fisher, at tfisher@umn.edu, or Joseph Hang at hang0049@umn.edu.

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