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Post pandemic: Views on sustainability, racial equity, just development practices

By David Pendered

As the pandemic crisis passes, the new orders of life provide opportunities to improve conditions in terms of sustainability, racial equity in placemaking, and more just development practices. These are among the views expressed by the head of the U.N., a national author who examines Atlanta in an upcoming book, and a longtime urban planner now teaching at Georgia Tech.

Precautions to avoid contracting COVID-19 have reached a remote area of Mexico, where warnings were translated from Spanish to a pre-colonial language spoken in the area. Credit: GoogleEarth, David Pendered

Like all global tremors, COVID-19 could be an inflection point that prompts historic change. The U.S. space program resulted from such a tremor after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, in 1957. The collapse of the Soviet Union, on Dec. 25, 1991, resulted in change that seems perpetual.

Unlike past tremors, COVID-19 has touched almost every soul in the world. In rural Teotitlan del Valle, a dozen miles from Oaxaca, Mexico and a place where the native Zapotec language is still in everyday use, Reuters reported on elderly women following government guidance to practice social distancing and wash their hands. The guidance first had to be translated from Spanish into their language.

The three observations appeared at different moments along the spectrum of the pandemic. Each bears witness on new orders of life that could appear as the panemic passes and becomes, in some views, a chronic disease.

As the crisis was unfolding, the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, and Mike Dobbins, a Georgia Tech professor of practice, offered their thoughts. In a book to be released May 19, Brookings Fellow Andre Perry offers thoughts on racial equity that precede the pandemic.

Here are excerpts of the views:

António Guterres, environmenal portrait

António Guterres. Credit: flickr.com/photos/67163702@N07/486820260

Sustainability: António Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, in an April 28 opinion piece published in nytimes.com:

  • “Addressing climate change and Covid-19 simultaneously and at enough scale requires a response stronger than any seen before to safeguard lives and livelihoods. A recovery from the coronavirus crisis must not take us just back to where we were last summer. It is an opportunity to build more sustainable and inclusive economies and societies — a more resilient and prosperous world. …

Guterres named six actions for “governments to consider once they go about building back their economies, societies and communities.” The six actions are: Decarbonize the economy; create green jobs; shift economies from carbon to green energy; end fossil fuel subsidies; halt investments in unsustainable growth; work as an international community. Guterres continued:

  • “For years, we have failed our young by damaging the planet and failing to protect the people most vulnerable to crises. We have a rare and short window of opportunity to rectify that — by rebuilding a better world, not reverting to one that is good for only a minority of its citizens.
  • “We must act now to tackle the coronavirus globally for all of our sakes — and, at the same time, pursue immediate ambitious climate action for a cleaner, greener, more prosperous and equitable world.”

Andre Perry. Credit: Bart Everson / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Racial equity: Brookings Fellow Andre Perry, in the book to released May 19, Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities offers views that, while written before the pandemic, resonate in light of questions about the future of urban redevelopment in a post-COVID-19 era.

Brookings intends to host a webinar with a panel discussion May 19 to mark the book’s release. Advance copies of the book are not advertised. Brookings provides this description of the ground Perry explores:

  • “The deliberate devaluation of Black-majority cities stems from a longstanding legacy of discriminatory policies. The lack of investment in Black homes, family structures, businesses, schools, and voters has had far-reaching, negative economic and social effects. White supremacy and privilege are deeply ingrained into American public policy and remain pervasive forces that hinder meaningful investment in Black communities.
  • “Author and Brookings fellow Andre M. Perry and his fellow panelists will discuss the historical basis and present-day implications – particularly in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic – of the devaluation of Black communities. Through profiles of places like his hometown, Wilkinsburg, Pa., as well as Detroit, Birmingham, Ala., New Orleans, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., Perry will highlight the important themes covered in his book….”
Mike Dobbins, environmental portrait

Mike Dobbins. Credit: Mike Dobbins

More just development practices: Mike Dobbins, professor of practice at Georgia Tech, offered an array of views in Covid-19 and Futures for City Planning:

  • “I am an old planner, urban designer, and architect. I directed local planning, design, and development agencies for 35 years and for the last 23, I have taught these fields at Georgia Tech’s College of Design.
  • “Where should I begin with my students this fall? With democracy, I believe. Democracy based on the tenet that all people and their lives should be valued equally, the ‘promissory note’ as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, from the Declaration of Independence. …”

Dobbins names nine topics that are standard city planning areas of study, which he suggests comprise a framework for action. A few highlights, which he illustrated in one of his freehand drawings:


  • “Car, lyft, uber, and taxi trips down, congestion down, air pollution down, crash deaths down
  • “Transit trips, air trips, rail trips, and passenger ship trips down
  • “Walking, biking, and probably scooter trips up
  • “To what extent will these patterns persist as the crisis eases?

COVID-19 has touched most regions of the world, according to this map devised and updated Monday by the World Health Organization. Credit: who.int


  • “Will the gulf widening between who has access to digital means and currency and who does not accelerate disenfranchisement and marginalization? Or, may the gap begin to close, providing an avenue for all people to participate in and contribute to society?

“Settlement patterns:

  • “Shifts in thinking from ever-greater densification of centers toward poly-nucleated regions – and what happens to towns that are away from metro regions?
  • “Health and environment:
  • “Health, individual and community, physical and mental, for the moment, maybe a long moment, must supersede environmental quality in priority, even as the Trump presidency sweeps away environmental protections across the board

“Housing and community development:

  • “At the microscale, the torturous dismantlement of housing access along with dissolution of community cohesion, is running rampant, denying the minimum security for millions of people to adequately shelter, to make a living, to maintain health, to attain fact-based education, and to even participate in the hollowed-out shell of democratic processes – the vote, union representation, and so on
  • “The spatial and societal consequences of these forces are unknown, but are likely to be massive

“Urban design:

  • “As the most cross-disciplinary and integrative of the planning fields, urban design encompasses all of those forces that act to build the world we live in
  • “Thus, listening to all parties of interest in any development activity must shape future agendas for responding to the full range of human needs and aspirations
  • In these times, the relationship between people and places is shifting rapidly, likely changing the communities and habitations where we live, the places where we gather, how we get there, environmental and health quality, how and where we make a living, how and where we learn

Dobbins concludes:

  • “Let’s get out our trusty SWOT analysis tool (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), and together we can do this. How about an international post coronavirus planning symposium?”
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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