EJBTalks: Will The Cities of the Future Change?

There has been both in- and out-migration from cities now for years depending upon economic conditions, but the pandemic has hit our cities and high-density areas the hardest. After years of re-urbanization, are we going to see a new wave of urban flight? Has the shift to staying home, working from home, and having all of our necessities being delivered to our homes going to fundamentally change the way we work and live? In our newest episode of EJBTalks, Stuart Shapiro talks with Professor Tony Nelessen, an architect and urban designer, who discusses some of these questions facing our the future design of our cities. 

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to another episode of EJB Talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the Associate Dean of Faculty at the Bloustein School, and the purpose of this podcast is to talk with my colleagues about issues affecting people in New Jersey, the United States in the world. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve discussed the health crisis and the economic crisis that COVID-19 has wrought. Today, we start to look at some of the other societal implications of both of these crises. I’m very happy to be talking to my colleague, Professor Tony Nelessen, who teaches in our highly ranked urban planning program. Welcome, Tony.

Tony Nelessen
Great to be here Stu.

Stuart Shapiro
Tony, can you tell us a bit about your background in urban design?

Tony Nelessen
Sure. My career as an urban designer started really in my sixth year of architecture training when I was exposed to not just doing single buildings for multiple years, but actually doing a redevelopment of a neighborhood. And that really turned me on to the whole idea that this was more than just a single building. And this new profession that was emerging was called urban design. I worked for Victor Gruen for a while, and worked with projects in Tehran, a number of new towns in downtown Hawaii, and in Kansas City. And it was really multiple sets of buildings and transportation issues combined. My career has just been like that, from there, to Harvard, and then from Harvard, to working with a number of other national organizations in multiple new towns; and then returning to private practice of my own, developing multiple new towns in the United States. And I can’t tell you how many redevelopment plans.

So since my early years, I have been what has been called an urban designer and was one of the few people to go to Harvard under the urban design program, which really began at that point to hone my skills. And later after teaching at Harvard, I came to Rutgers and have been teaching urban design here now for 40 years.

Stuart Shapiro
COVID-19 has hit hardest in our cities, New York City in particular, also New Orleans, Detroit. Are you concerned that as a result of this, people are going to start thinking they shouldn’t be living in cities? And once again, we might see a wave of movement out of cities?

Tony Nelessen
I think that’s going to be inevitable for the next couple of years. It’s clear to me, given the circumstances with my own son and daughter-in-law, who are living here with me now. And coming out of Manhattan, there is a certain discussion with other folks, that there’s a certain fear of things like elevators, congregating, narrow hallways; a lot of people have escaped [the city], but unfortunately, many people cannot.

I think over a short period of time, there will be some of this movement. But I really think that once it begins to slow, if we “beat the curve” and we get the 14, 15, 20 days or so of a decrease, I think it’s pretty clear to me that because of the resources that the cities have, people are going to move back. There’s just too many resources deposited now inside these cities–culturally, socially, economically, physically, interactively–that people inevitably who are, “congregating” kind of people will move back. But I think it’s going to be a relatively slow progression back. And I think it may take as many as two, maybe three years.

Stuart Shapiro
Right. So we may see a little movement at first, but hopefully, that will reverse itself, once the pandemic is a thing of the past.

Tony Nelessen
Yes, I think, that, for instance, if people are still living someplace else — let’s say my son and daughter in law who are living with us — they’re still paying rent in Harlem. They’re there, everything is still there. And, we’ve had multiple discussions and I said, why don’t you just stay here, or buy a place or rent a place here? No, they want to go back. So, I think people who are really urban people really have a kind of propensity to want to live in these urban areas. Their jobs are there, their friends are there, the grocery store is there. They know the system. Now, that will not be for all people. Some people will inevitably say, listen, I’ve had it. But there’s been both in- and out-migration from cities now for years depending upon economic conditions and what have you. But this one has a tendency to have hit the cities and the high-density areas certainly harder than most.

Stuart Shapiro
One of the other big changes that we’ve seen in the past couple of months has been the cratering of gas prices. Some of that’s demand-driven; we’re not driving right now because we can’t leave our houses. Some of it is supply-side driven. What do you think the implications are for people’s choices about how to live their lives?

Tony Nelessen
Heretofore, if you were a city dweller, you might have had a car but you were primarily a walker or a transit user. And the higher the densities, the greater the use of public transit. That’s worldwide. No question about that. But now that gasoline is now — or oil, let’s say, not gasoline, because gasoline is a $1.85, maybe $2 a gallon — but oil is has fluctuated, the fear is going to be that once this is over, slowly over the next two years or so, we’ll have this phenomenal surplus of oil sitting in tankers in the middle of every major harbor. There is going to be a tendency to think, wow, gas is really cheap; we can kind of go back to what we had. But the question is, will there be places for people to go other than the places that they are going to now? How many restaurants and what have you aren’t going to reopen? How many McDonald’s on the end of the highways are actually going to reopen or go back to business as usual? I think soon, we’re going see a major decline in the use of the cars. Or maybe that’s optimistic on my part, but I just see that for the next couple of years because where are you going to go to that you’re not going to now?

And what is really fascinating is how people have begun to cope without their cars over the last six weeks. I mean, it’s like an urban designer’s dream come true. People are walking; they’re bicycling. They’re still making it to the supermarket. But delivery is now just extraordinary. I mean, we can get anything from baby diapers to avocados delivered now. There’s hardly a reason to go out. You just simply have to order it and you know it arrives 5, 6, 7, 8 hours later on your front porch. So this adaption is a process at work and the longer it’s there, the more we’re going to become used to it and assume that it’s normal. It’s normative.

Stuart Shapiro
You mentioned that we were driving to supermarkets. Many of us aren’t even doing that. Like you said, we’re ordering stuff and maybe that just becomes a permanent change. Maybe that’s how we get our groceries from now on.

Tony Nelessen
It’s not just getting groceries, it’s about you getting your prescriptions delivered. You know, you can have anything now delivered. But you know, that was the trend. It’s so interesting that the trend, the retail trend, was changing so radically before this virus happened. And now this virus has happened, and it has taken this industry and propelled it to stardom. I mean, it’s just remarkable how efficient it has become. But it had a start. It was like a child walking, you had the child, the child was walking, was starting to move at a rapid pace. Now it’s on a bicycle. It’s so fantastic to see what happened. And I kind of wonder if people get so used to living at home, walking at home, having this stuff delivered, how many of them will go back to those kinds of normative things, go to the restaurant, what have you.

But on the other hand, it’s the same thing with work. The majority of your time is commuting back and forth, whether to Manhattan or like me back and forth to school. You know, we just got used to driving our cars back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. It’s really been a tremendously interesting learning experience, having to do your courses online. It has just been quite remarkable actually. So I think it’s never going to go back to the normative time; in fact, Stuart, this is really interesting, I commute from Princeton, and I usually drive back and forth. Now, I’ve gotten more free time than I’ve certainly ever had before. And also, there are things that you can begin to do with that time you have just generated that you didn’t have time to do before. I mean, it’s really fascinating as to what’s going on. It’s just extraordinary from an urban design perspective.

Stuart Shapiro
Picking up on your comment on work, there; employers are going to figure out, maybe I don’t need this big facility anymore. I can have my people work at home 80 of the time. Whether it’s a university like Rutgers or something else that provides service. Now some places obviously you need a physical plant for; but you might not, you might see steep changes in the way work changes. And that will change in the way people live as well.

Tony Nelessen
Absolutely, you’re absolutely right on that. And that’s really been fascinating. But that, then, also has implications. I’ve talked to several of my designer friends that are still running big offices, and they’re saying the big thing that is going to change is the new housing that will be done or retrofitting older housing. They’re going to have to have a live-work-studio space built inside in lieu of the dead or the extra bedroom. That’s going to become a mandatory part of all new planning for housing. Of that there’s no doubt, there’s no doubt about that.

Stuart Shapiro
Right. So that’s one big change we might see. What other changes in design generally, and urban design, in particular, do you think we will see after the pandemic passes?

Tony Nelessen
I think there’s going to be a greater emphasis on what I will call the “walk-up.” I think the walk up is going to become a much more pervasive element because of two things. One is, well, let’s back up. Do you remember when the elevators were out at the Bloustein School, we all had to walk up five flights of stairs?

Stuart Shapiro
Right!

Tony Nelessen
And we all did it, right? I mean, we complained a little bit. But we all did it. You met people in the hallway, and it was probably healthier for all of us. Nonetheless, the question is, can you introduce — which I know people have done in Europe — introduce a walk-up? But the caveat is a dumbwaiter. A dumbwaiter means that you bring your case of beer or your groceries inside, you set it on the dumbwaiter, it goes up. You don’t have to carry it up. So, all you have to carry yourself up. So that might be one of the things that put much more emphasis upon walk-up units and unit configurations differently.

But I also think that there’s going to be very much of a difference in parking ratios. I think parking ratios are going to start to go down; because of this [pandemic], there is no need to have to park that many cars. I think that’s going to be very important. And I also think that there may be the question of designing new high rise buildings very differently than they were before. I really think that we’re going to be thinking about high rise buildings in a very, very different way. Perhaps even limiting their height, or else breaking them down in increments of five stories, so you can walk up and down five stories within a high rise building.

So those are things that we’re starting to think about as ways in which we can begin to do it. But I also think that because human beings are such social congregate animals, and have been since the beginning of time, that there’s going to have to be a point in which you can leave your home and be on a very positive of what I will call the urban walking experience. And I think we really need to rethink, now, that walking urban experience. And to me, it’s really interesting because for instance, if I take my bike out now — which I’ve been doing a lot and filming in the little town that I live in — to what the streets are, it’s like a bicyclist’s paradise. There’s no parking, I mean, all the parallel parked cars are gone. And so all of a sudden the bicycle has free rein, people are walking in the middle of the streets. And I think based on the number of things that have been done in other cities they’re starting to think about widening sidewalks, for social distancing, what have you, but completely closing off more and more and more streets.

Stuart Shapiro
Right. Wow.

Tony Nelessen
Places like Manhattan, Boston, and what have you will start to take out entire shopping streets in order to get social distancing in effect. And they’ll say, listen for the next two years, we’re just going to close the streets off. We’re going to close them and at the end of two years people will be going, we’re not going to put the cars back on here! Are you kidding me? We love it the way it is! So these are all things that we are starting to think about, of changes that are occurring and again. This is not new. It just that this virus has accelerated the process. Let’s say in New Jersey — Jersey City has places where they’ve closed streets off for pedestrians; Somerville has it. There’s a whole number of cities that now have it, but this, like everything else, it’s just accelerated the whole thing. Witherspoon Street [in Princeton] has no cars on it. Why don’t we just close Witherspoon Street off completely, forever, and you know, put little green spaces in? You see what I mean? The whole idea, there, is that this may give us two years to rethink it.

Now, this isn’t going to happen everywhere. But those places that have been more prone to walking and more mixed-use, I think are going to thrive. I mean, I think those are the cities that are really going to thrive. Then there’s the thing of mixed-use, the idea that zoning kind of put everything in its place. So you had retail here, and you have housing there, and you have higher density housing there, etc. I think that’s also going to go by the wayside. I think people are going to say, why can’t I have a daycare facility in my building? Why can’t I have this? See what I mean? So again, there has been a tendency to move in that direction, but this has just accelerated it. This, you know, why can’t I have a supermarket, a small little supermarket, for my local stuff within walking distance? Why can’t I have that? And I think there will be some of that pressure as well. So, to me, it’s really an exciting time to rethink the program.

Stuart Shapiro
That’s fascinating stuff that I bet a lot of people haven’t thought of yet. Looking backward and forward with regards to the sort of preparation for things like COVID-19, what could cities have done better? Or, what should they do better to minimize the number of people that are infected in the future?

Tony Nelessen
You know, that’s the most interesting question about that. And it depends on which side of this debate one is on, or the political debate. I really, honestly, think that the whole key was testing in the first place. And I think that those places that have had the best results are the places that tested more often and tested more thoroughly, with a larger group of population. And then we’re able to isolate those folks really early on in the game. And, I find it interesting because you think about it, [the virus] clearly came from China, and clearly the whole idea that we stopped the flight from China, and of course that 40,000 people from China still came in. But if people come from China, they don’t go just anywhere; they don’t fly to Indianapolis, they fly to the major airports in the major cities. And then they get into a taxi or whatever they do. And it’s just logical that if it was spread by air, which they think it was, then wherever you have these major congregating points or wherever the people landed, that’s what we should have tested.

The airport should become a major testing facility. I mean, we scan people for guns, right? Really? You know, how many times have you gone through an airport checkpoint with thousands of people — and I’ve gone worldwide — and I’ve never seen anybody caught, ever. Why couldn’t you at the same time check everybody that comes in? With temperature, scans, viruses, the whole thing. There’s got to be technology; there is technology to do that. So that would be my first notion. In the United States, it may be too late. I mean, in the Wisconsin vernacular, the cows are out of the barn. Now the question really is, how in the world you test 300 million people in the United States, and maybe six or seven billion in the world? I mean, how do you do that? And they have been extremely slow doing that, although more of these testing facilities are starting to be put in place, including a new one in Harlem as of yesterday or the day before. It’s in Harlem, my God, that’s the highest density place.

Also, the pundits have begun to say, well, you know, there’s nothing happening in Montana, or there’s nothing happening in Iowa. Well, the density there is like one person for every five square miles. In New Jersey, it’s the highest density in the United States! It’s about density. It’s not about the number of people in the size of the place. And so density is the key factor that has to be controlled in this map that we create. You have high density, that’s where you have the highest amount of testing that has to be done. And okay, so Montana, it’s got a few cases out there, I fully understand that. But they have no density except in Billings and a few other major cities. And even then, those cities, because they’re so sprawled,they don’t have as many people living in them.

Stuart Shapiro
Right, where those places are seeing problems are where they have a big factory, and someone has gotten infected like the pork plant in South Dakota, and other meat facilities. There, you see sort of artificial density if you will, work density rather than living density, and that’s where you’ve seen spreads in the more rural areas.

Let me wrap up by letting you go on to whatever else you want to talk about, in terms of the implications for urban design, and design in the wake of this pandemic. Anything you haven’t covered yet that you’d like to like to get in there?

Tony Nelessen
There’s a couple of things that I am really excited about. As you know, we have this really extraordinary school, the third-best [planning] school in the country. And we’re one of the few schools that also has a major health component built into the school itself. And I think that the focus and combination of health and urban design, to me, is like — it just couldn’t be better. I mean, I came to New Jersey [from Harvard] because I wanted to study sprawl. Well, did that turn out to be fantastic! And, we developed some really good solutions. Now, the thing that would be interesting is to see the manifestation of this physical response, and health response in all our studios. So that we, as a school, would become a kind of focus to say, hey, here’s a kind of a new urban design with this health-bent to it that will train students in the future. Because I know that I’ve interviewed a number of students already who are really concerned. And I guarantee you that next year, in my healthy cities class, 95% of those kids are going to be interested in how we do it, how we build it, and what the future starts to look like, relative to what we’re going through now. And I think we take all of the issues that we talked about, the trends that were starting and now are being magnified. I think this is an opportunity, which is really pretty extraordinary.

Stuart Shapiro
Yes, healthy cities certainly have a meaning and an appeal that it didn’t have two months ago. A lot more people are going to be interested in thinking about questions, to what to do to keep our cities healthy, and how to use our cities to promote health, that didn’t ever think they were interested in those questions.

Tony Nelessen
Already, the healthy cities classes have 80-85 students in it. And I assume — we’ll see what happens with next semester — but however that goes, they will be focusing on design work, the physical containment that people live in, and the future direction that people may want to go in the future to feel safe. I think as much as it is psychology, it is marketing, and maybe marketing and psychology are the same things at this point. But the fact that they’re going to be looking for solutions where they feel safe. And then the big serious question is, can we make it through the next two years without people getting, really, really angry, because we’re not moving fast enough. That’s a big concern of mine, that people are already starting to carry guns.

Stuart Shapiro
Yes, it’s scary stuff. And there are definitely some scary scenarios here too.

Well, thank you very much, Professor Nelessen, for speaking with us this morning. It was a great discussion. You raised a lot of things I hadn’t thought of. And I think our listeners will really, really appreciate it.

Tony Nelessen
You raised some great questions, and you only get good answers if yo’veu got great questions. And I thank you, again, for doing this. The reach out is really good.

Stuart Shapiro
Thanks so much, Tony. I’d also like to give a big thank you to our production team, Tamara Swedberg, Amy Cobb, and Karyn Olsen. We’ll be back next week, and we’re going to be talking about transportation implications of the COVID-19 crisis with Professor Bob Noland.

And until then, stay safe and we’ll talk to you then. Thank you.