COVID Lessons for Portland (and others)

by Ethan Seltzer (. . . with profound thanks to anonymous reviewers)

Editor’s Note:  We’re pleased to publish this essay by City Observatory friend Ethan Seltzer, reflecting on our experience with the Covid-19 pandemic, with widespread civic unrest over police violence and racism, and what the experience of the past few weeks and months means for the future of Portland. While his thoughts are directed at Portlanders, we think his essay raises questions that merit discussion in other cities as well.  This is an evolving document, and Ethan would like readers to know that it is draft number four, and that it will be revised.

This is a provocation, not a finished product. Just as our current experience with COVID-19 seems to take on new dimensions and complexity by the day, so, too, what we’re learning about our City and region during this unusual time. The murder of George Floyd, and the events associated with the remarkable outpouring of grief, anger, and desire for change have created new expectations that “business as usual”, a return to the world as it was “before” is simply not tenable.

What we’ve experienced for the last three months with the COVID pandemic and the more recent civil unrest are connected. As others have noted, the COVID pandemic is not the first one we’re currently dealing with: the crisis of racism has been with us for over 400 years, and there is no vaccine for it on the horizon. Yes, we have to respond to the COVID crisis, and yes, we have to respond to the racist legacy and underpinnings of our society. Both threaten our very existence, and both challenge us to break out of long-established patterns and practices. COVID has taught us that we’re all profoundly connected, and share the same fate. Similarly, the murder of George Floyd shows us that racism, unattended, does the same thing.

If, as Lewis Mumford said, “Each generation writes its biography in the buildings it creates,” then we are called, now, to reassess the “biography” we’re writing for ourselves in the buildings and districts and cities and regions we’re leaving behind. What would our cities and regions look like, and be and feel like, if the notion that “we’re all in this together” and “we share a common future” were truly organizing our thinking and actions?

What this moment calls for is paying attention, and learning from what we’re experiencing personally and together about our assumptions about the way that things have to be. And we shouldn’t stop there: we should be translating these new lessons into actions aimed at locking in what we’ve learned before a return to a more “normal” state of affairs makes it seem less imperative to pay attention.

We see this again and again. Something happens. We respond. The page turns, and we forget. When we quickly forget, we risk entering what Jane Jacobs called a “dark age,” a time when memory is lost. We simply can’t afford to be forgetful in these times of climate change, pandemic, and rampant inequality. Quite the contrary, this is a time for radical remembering at a societal scale.

Morally and ethically, we simply can’t squander this moment, one that involves everyone in what may be the greatest opportunity for a societal “reset” that we’ll see for generations. We’re all paying dearly for this pandemic, and we’re quickly indebting our descendants. We haven’t taken the fight against racism seriously, and it has caught up with us.

What have we learned and what needs to happen? What follows are some “lessons” born from observations of how the pandemic has affected our communities. Whether these are lessons in the long run remains to be seen. However, they are things that, as of this writing, seem important and significant, and therefore worthy of further thought and action. The suggested “actions” are provided not as a limit on what could be done, but as a place to start the discussion. And as with all discussions, after a good long talk we might find ourselves building some of these up and eliminating others from further consideration.

Consider this a working list, and in no particular order:

— Lesson: Racism in this society cannot be ignored. The unequal impact of the COVID pandemic on communities of color is indisputable and stark. It is not a reminder, but a wake-up call: our society has put people at risk based on their race. We’ve known for too long that zip codes have become destiny, that black and brown children face a less shining future, and that communities of color generally face less prospects than their white counterparts. None of this is new. COVID is the latest evidence that this can’t continue. The murder of George Floyd is proof, not that the loss of his life was ever necessary, that systems have to change. Action: Prioritize investment in schools, communities of color, and human capital generally before investing in infrastructure, police, or national defense. Ensure that public policy and public investment starts with the expectation that everyone should have a stake in a shared future, and policy and investment that don’t actively transmit that promise, particularly to communities of color, should not be pursued. Every unit of government can do this now. Every community organization can act on behalf of a shared future today. We must demand that actions taken on behalf of the community are taken on behalf of the whole community.

— Lesson: We need public budgets to serve our hopes and dreams, not our fears. We’re simply spending too much on what we’re afraid of and too little on what makes livability better and communities stronger for all. For example, instead of funding an incarceration system in the name of public safety, we need to start funding a real public safety system based on the premise that public safety is a collective, social achievement, not a product to be delivered by the policy, technology, or private security systems. Instead of funding a transportation system to move goods, we need to create a transportation system that makes communities better for everyone. Instead of funding a health care system directed at illness, create a real health care system directed at preserving and enhancing community and individual health, and providing real, accessible care. Action: Redefine public budget objectives. Require that any public funding measures put before voters are done so in the context of all other public funding objectives, and with a clear explanation of why the proposed call on tax capacity, for the life of the measure, is the highest priority before the public. In all cases, any call on the public purse needs to explain what positive community serving public good it produces, not what problem it solves or avoids.

— Lesson: The status quo is a choice, not an inevitability. So much changed so fast, and in ways that no one thought would be possible. Race, class, education and who has power matter even more than we expected, and at the outset we expected that they would play a sobering role. We still don’t know how to effectively engage a broader cross-section of the community in solutions to our common challenges. We seem to have lost the capacity to surprise ourselves. Action: Invest in community organizing for ALL communities, and create a 21st Century, post-COVID vision of engagement for all of us, and for all communities. Reinvigorate civic discussions about the city that best meets the needs of the present, creates more opportunities for those with the fewest choices, and that anticipates the need for resilience in the face of circumstances we really didn’t expect. Right-size the match between the challenges we face and the problems we’re trying to solve with the geography and mission of the institutions we’ve created to respond. Commit to acting on the products of those discussions and create local employment projects modeled after the 1930’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to move these initiatives forward.

— Lesson: The digital divide is real and stands in the way of both our goals for equity and the ability of every Portlander to rejoin the economy and civic life. Simply put, everyone needs reliable and affordable access to the electronic networks that create a foundation for learning, innovation, employment, and engagement. Action: Make broadband a public utility. Make it available to everyone. No one should have to do homework in the parking lot of a library. Lease space on the system to cable companies and others that want to sell other services like cable TV and landlines to consumers. Dramatically re-work any infrastructure construction proposals from the Federal government, the State, Metro, or others to redefine infrastructure to focus on this issue….first.

— Lesson: We don’t have enough of our rights-of-way set aside for walking and biking. Whether for business, or pleasure, or exercise, Portlanders are out walking and biking, alone and with others, in numbers that reveal how unprepared the city is for its right-of-way to be used by the public for other than the storage and movement of automobiles. Action: combine neighborhood greenways, local traffic zones, and other designations into Portland Plaza Streets, essentially a citywide Woonerf system. Make the rights-of-way we already have do more for people, less for cars. Create safe places for people to move, talk, be, and, simply, breathe. If the streets work well for children and the less-able, they’ll work well for all of us.

— Lesson: Nature is our salvation. We find that our parks and open spaces have become social destinations and provide community connections. We recharge our souls in parks, and in and with nature more generally. We notice the activities of wildlife and gaze at stars through clean air. Action: Regreen the city, with a massive focus on interconnected habitats and the roles for the pieces. (Re)focus on the ecology of this urban landscape, enabling people throughout the city, whether in parks, natural areas, or simply moving around on the streets, to have daily, remarkable green “epiphanies”, experiences of nature that remind us of the larger and magical context we’re a part of. Build on the experiences that people are having in their neighborhoods with nature, and that pepper their conversations in ways that only the weather used to. Complete the job that was started by the Olmsted’s and advanced by the tireless efforts of folks like Mike Houck and the Urban Greenspaces Institute Council. Partner with schools, public agencies and organizations such as churches to de-pave the city and establish more opportunities for nature to become part of our daily lives. Demonstrate ways to teach and further the ethics of environmental stewardship.

— Lesson: Our senses, all of them, can still be alive in the city. The taste and smell of clean air, deep sounds of silence, birds and footfalls, the smells of spring and rain, and more can be part of what it means to live in a city, and still be in a city. Action: Develop a comprehensive approach for understanding how current urban conditions affect all of our senses, and with them our mental and physical health. Take action based on that to restore the sensory experience of the region in all neighborhoods. Recognize and manage the urban soundscape for the unique, scarce and rare resource that it truly is.

— Lesson: We don’t need more lane miles of pavement, we need much better management of the lane miles and bridges we have. Everyone trying to go everywhere at the same time is unsustainable and unaffordable. The future needs to be different than the past, not a bigger version of a failed or failing model. Action: Develop and implement roadway pricing, bridge tolling, and other strategies for using the transportation facilities we already have more efficiently before we invest in more lanes. Make investment in both maintenance and new facilities a strategic choice. We need to know that we’re investing in the future we want, not the past we inherited. Use the proceeds from pricing to, at least in part, ensure that the benefits and burdens of management strategies are shared equitably.

— Lesson: We desperately need a 21st century vision for transit and mobility and the institutions needed to manage them. What should “transit” mean and look like in a post-COVID world? Is transit merely a similar form of mobility as with the use of automobiles, or is it something with much more profound characteristics and implications for our society? Action: Rescue TriMet from itself. Use the existing provisions in state law to place TriMet under the direction of the Metro Council and instruct the Metro Council to re-envision what our regional transit system should accomplish as a tool for mobility, accessibility, sustainability, and resilience. Use any new transportation funding for transit to fully convert the TriMet bus fleet to electric propulsion and install anti-pathogen air/UV-C systems on all TriMet vehicles.

— Lesson: Economic inequality is the tip of the inequality “iceberg”. The impacts of COVID on communities of color and, in particular, low income communities dramatically illustrates the massive extent to which market failure pervades and characterizes our economy. The stress placed on low-income communities has been inescapable, and the fragility of household economies in the region needs immediate attention. Livability, long a hallmark of this region, has been revealed by the pandemic to be a public, societal project, and cannot be left simply to the narrow perspectives of a market economy. Action: End all direct subsidies for investors and corporations, and reinvest all funds committed to economic development in efforts to support small entrepreneurs and to increase human and social capital in our region.

— Lesson: We need to live close to what we need, who we need, and what we do. We can no longer afford or support the creation of a region that requires traveling long distances by car to work, shop, and recreate. Action: Revisit our understanding of and commitment to “complete, walkable communities” in the post-COVID world. Redouble efforts to ensure that every neighborhood has a mix of housing types suitable and affordable for all the region’s households.

— Lesson: For some occupations and households there are real benefits for both those households and our region from working at home. Further, more folks at home means more eyes on the street, more opportunities for chance encounters and meeting neighbors, and less time spent on the road. It also means fewer people trying to get to work during rush hour, and less congestion overall. Action: get together with major employers to try to lock in as much home-based work as makes sense. What makes it work best? What can the public do to help ensure that home-based work does not exacerbate the social and economic gulf between knowledge workers and workers who keep the city running? Encourage employers to develop staggered work hours, when possible, and to lock in home-based work as part of how we do business.

— Lesson: It’s tough to shelter in place if you don’t have a place. Homelessness has become a growing condition of epic proportions in our city and the west coast as a whole. More and more people are unemployed and families and especially the senior population are either homeless or on the verge of homelessness. Action: Build more housing within the existing UGB. Make a range of housing types legal and encouraged in every neighborhood. Enhance the capacity of the public agencies and nonprofits that are addressing the basic needs of homeless persons, providing services, temporary shelters and hygiene stations.

— Lesson: Government matters. When the chips are down, we depend on the public sector to pull us through. Private enterprises are wonderful things, but exist in partnership with the public and nonprofit sectors. In this pandemic we’ve learned that the public sector is hugely important, is really the only “safety net”, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Acton: It’s time to recognize that public and private do not exist in opposition, but in fact are complementary. Both need to be efficient, but neither can be “just like” the other. The sectors are different, and we need to support the public sector as if we believed it were so. We need to immediately reassess both how we prepare to support our entire community in times like these, and how the public is necessary in times not like these. We need to find new and more stable ways to pay for what only the public sector will provide, and to ensure that public goods are available in needed quantities and accessible by all.

— Lesson: We’re not ready for the big one. All of us live with the expectation that the next big earthquake to hit our region is just around the corner. If our response to the COVID pandemic is any indication, our capacity socially, politically, and economically to respond to life-changing events is clearly lacking. Action: Begin now not to merely envision survival in the face of the big one or other disruptions, but what it will take for our communities to continue to be healthy productive places when those things happen. Act to (re)build our region with resilience as an organizing principle. Invest in preparations for the disruptions likely to come, and for those we can barely imagine.

— Lesson: COVID-19 is a compressed, accelerated sample that foreshadows the unfolding climate crisis. How can we harness the collective energy and willingness to make big changes (personally and socially) to bend the carbon curve for the benefit of future generations? How can we use the insights gained during this pandemic to intentionally tackle the slower acting but even more devastating threat of climate change? Action: At a minimum, use any new infrastructure money to invest first in those things that reduce our regional carbon footprint and dramatically increase the share of our electricity derived from solar and wind. Establish new goals for carbon reduction that seek to minimize the use of fossil fuels in our region, reserving their use for only those purposes that cannot be met any other way.

— Lesson: We miss each other. Some of the most important aspects of being human fully, together, are, as of now, no match for the pandemic. Art, music, and literature have long served to bring us together. They must similarly do so in the future. Action: We must re-embrace the role for cultural institutions and performance venues in our communities, and re-envision what they need to be to be just as resilient as the seismic reinforcement we add to our oldest buildings. We need to consider public investment in the arts and in education as basic community infrastructure, and we need to address it before we commit all of our investment capacity to old notions of infrastructure and resilience. We need to recommit to the time and space needed for active and regular neighboring in every neighborhood.

— Lesson: Credible, fact and science-based information is needed more than ever. With the demise of local newspapers, and local news gathering generally, we find ourselves trying to reconcile, on our own, multiple narratives about the state of our city and region. As the song goes, just waking “up to see what condition our condition is in” has become a challenge to our ability to respond to new conditions efficiently and with a sense of shared purpose. Action: Create new support for publicly owned community media organizations able to apply strict journalistic standards to the gathering and presentation of news. Look to models like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the BBC for ideas and inspiration.

Of course, making change is not easy. It takes political will, and political will stems from the interest and support of constituents. As someone once said, “We get the government we deserve.” Nothing has changed that. We need, among other things, a heightened sense that we’re all in this together, and that what matters will, in fact, entail shifting priorities. Perhaps our experience with the pandemic is already helping to make this clear.

Making change also requires resources. No decision, no choice is without cost. At the same time that we work to build an economy with a place for everyone, we need to build an economy capable of creating the revenues needed for the reinvestment implicated in the preceding pages. On one hand, we already have resources being allocated to similar purposes, and what this calls for is allocating them strategically towards new ends. But on the other, in all likelihood, we will still need new revenues to take the action envisioned here, and that requires, overall, a robust economy.

We often use time in the absence of money. We do half the job when all we can afford is half the investment. However, the issues laid bare by COVID-19 in our communities cannot wait. We need to invest commensurate with the challenge, and the challenge is great and immediate.

Now it’s your turn. What would you add to or subtract from this list? What needs to happen first? Who should take the lead, and for what? Are the actions proposed here all complementary, or do some conflict with others? If the latter, how can we resolve the conflicts? If the former, how can we make them not just complementary but mutually amplifying and synergistic? If we’ve learned anything from the COVID-19 experience, maybe it’s that we, as citizens and community members, should expect more from what urban life should offer. And with that maybe we should be expecting much more from those we’ve asked to lead us. With so much to be learned, and acted on, we desperately need leaders able to leverage what we’re all experiencing into real change. Tough work certainly but this is the moment. In any case, have fun with this . . . before the moment passes!

Other Efforts/Food for Thought:

From Crosscut:

From the Coalition of Communities of Color:

From Medium:
View story at

From Strongtowns:

From The New York Times:

From The Guardian:

From The Atlantic:

From The Seattle Times:

From City Lab:

From The LA Times:

From Medium:
View story at

From The Conversation:

From Alan Durning at the Sightline Institute:

The Plague Brought the Renaissance. What Could COVID-19 Bring?

From A.O.C. on Defunding the Police: