The COVID-19 pandemic is like a ruthless magnifying glass, exposing the vicious inequities at the core of our society. Those affected most have been the overlooked communities who had already been disproportionately struggling before the virus, like minorities, the urban and rural poor, the working class, prisoners, and the elderly.
Unfortunately, due to a long-standing combination of systemic racism, disinvestment, and questionable policy decisions, the built environment around us exposes virtually the exact same inequities. In marginalized places, so many buildings—from public housing to schools to hospitals—are substandard, out-of-date, falling apart, or simply not built at all. These neighborhoods also suffer from uneven investments in public space, infrastructure, and basic services. There’s a dire cost: Unequal access to healthy, safe surroundings has been linked by study after study to higher instances of poverty, obesity, asthma, depression, traffic collisions, malnutrition, social fracture, and crime, and more pronounced impacts from environmental hazards like natural disasters, pollution, heat waves, and more.
Addressing these blatant spatial disparities must be a major moral imperative for the Biden administration and our new Congress. But the benefit of remedying these injustices goes further: It could be a major driver of our economic rebound. Let’s call it the spatial equity recovery: significant enhancements to buildings, streets, and public spaces that could create jobs, seed economic opportunities, drive productivity, and dramatically cut costs related to health, crime, and more.
While reconfiguring much of our built world is admittedly ambitious, now is the perfect moment to take this step. Our economy is stagnant and uncertain; unemployment remains high; the president is already preparing a major infrastructure plan, and he’s begun issuing executive orders designed to help narrow our racial equity gap; the pandemic has proved just how vital the design of our communities is to all of us; and the Black Lives Matter movement has made it impossible to keep ignoring historic wrongs. Rebuilding the fabric of our neighborhoods through a singular initiative with exponential benefits is something all of us—Democrats and Republicans, myriad agencies, and residents of all types of neighborhoods—can rally around.
Sadly, the opportunities to rethink and repair our inequitable built environment are endless. In housing, for example, we face a nationwide shortage of more than 7 million affordable units due to barriers like funding shortfalls and restrictive land use policies. Incentive programs like block grants and tax credits don’t go nearly far enough in creating ample, humane housing while our chronically underfunded public housing stock is one of the most degraded in the world. Public schools in underinvested areas are equally troubled. In its latest Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. school facilities a D+ grade, assessing 24 percent of school buildings—most in poor urban and rural neighborhoods—as “fair” or “poor.” The same can be said for our prisons, with their cold, hard interiors, poor ventilation, little natural light, and outdated design emphasizing punishment over rehabilitation. That’s not to mention poorly designed or unkempt senior facilities, medical clinics, community centers, and so on.
Beyond buildings, many marginalized people lack access to green spaces, public plazas, and other opportunities for healthy recreation and social cohesion. Parks are strapped with budget shortfalls and maintenance issues at all levels, and, according to the Trust for Public Land, 100 million Americans don’t have a park within reasonable walking distance from their home. Poorer neighborhoods—often encased in concrete—have temperatures ranging from 4 to 6 degrees hotter than those of better-off residents.
Neglected places also suffer from crumbling, inadequate infrastructure. Not just roads and bridges but community-level infrastructure, too. This includes street design features, like lighting, sidewalks, outdoor seating, and street trees, as well as pedestrian-friendly fundamentals like curb cuts, bike lanes, and improved crosswalks (pedestrians in low-income neighborhoods are three times more likely to be killed in a traffic collision than those in higher-income areas). Neighborhoods also need effective utilities, like clean water, broadband, reliable energy, and well-managed trash, and basic amenities, like access to healthy-food stores and proper medical facilities. These gaping disparities result in areas that are often unsafe, uncomfortable, and lacking opportunity. They become detriments to well-being, community, and prosperity, not producers of them.
Addressing these long-standing built inequities could have a profound impact. The revitalization of long-neglected areas could create thousands of construction jobs, putting people—especially those in underserved neighborhoods—to work creating and rehabilitating buildings, parks, and infrastructure. It could also create an engine for small-business development, employment growth, and increased tax revenue (for instance, a recent Brookings study found that increased walkability augmented neighborhoods’ retail revenue by 80 percent). The subsequent wealth and well-being could, in turn, help ramp up productivity, bolster education funding, and save trillions on costs associated with health care, climate change, and crime. (For example, every year we spend more than $100 billion treating chronic diseases tied to obesity, sedentary lifestyles, and poor quality community-level infrastructure; most of those health issues affect underserved populations.)
Fixes to buildings and community infrastructure could also bring wider, intangible benefits, like improvements in mental health, social cohesion, and community stability. And if new structures and landscapes adhere to aggressive green building standards, we could facilitate better air quality, declines in greenhouse gas emissions, and the mitigation of environmental hazards and natural disasters.
So how would we implement a spatial equity–based recovery? First, it will require ramping up spending—especially in underserved places—for community-level infrastructure like schools, parks, main streets, and water systems, and for reimagining obsolete highways, bridges, and viaducts into community assets, such as the reclamation of former railways as public pathways. Second it will entail seeding communities through housing assistance, community development grants and financing, small-business loans, targeted opportunity zones, community restoration funds, and land trusts. While we believe this approach would have widespread appeal, Democratic control of the White House and Congress means funding for many of these efforts could be feasible through budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority.
To fairly, effectively, and cost-efficiently distribute these resources, we need to employ a holistic process, replacing our outdated, piecemeal approach to spatial justice via three pillars: cooperation, technology, and community.
Cooperation means breaking through our existing siloes of research, entrepreneurship, and governance, and collaborating across diverse fields ranging from urban planning and engineering to public health and even national security. For instance, the “green” stormwater management project proposed for Lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy not only tackled environmental hazards and mitigated climate change but offered much-needed green and public space. Likewise, rebuilding main streets means funding public buildings but also investing in local businesses, schools, and housing.
Nothing should stay in its own box anymore. To make sure it doesn’t, we need a dedicated Office of Spatial Equity within the White House to coordinate policies, programs, and funding across all federal agencies corelated with the built environment, including those in charge of housing, transportation, education, health, energy, defense, justice, economic development, and environmental protection.
The second pillar of the spatial equity recovery is technology, which can help us not only quantify disparities in the built environment but also identify optimal local infrastructure investments. For instance, the city of Philadelphia, working with Mariela’s company, State of Place, is extracting urban design data (such as the presence of street trees, lighting, and public spaces) from digital street images to identify neglected areas. They are then employing predictive analytics to prioritize improvements that mitigate issues like heat waves, crime, and chronic disease. Other initiatives could utilize air and water sensors, smartphone apps, and geographic information system temperature mapping to gauge environmental degradation in specific neighborhoods, then use so-called digital twin cities—computer-created models of the city itself—to simulate the impacts of potential solutions. To integrate and fund these types of tools (and to ensure their ethical application), the Office of Spatial Equity would need a chief innovation officer, who would work closely with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The third major pillar of the spatial equity recovery is working with communities to shape solutions, rather than dictating from above. This doesn’t mean we can’t involve experts. But those experts need to leave their offices and labs and collaborate with constituents.
This approach has been lent various names—like “community-based participatory research” or “translational research.” At its essence, it pairs researchers and community members as equal partners in identifying and solving problems. Such bottom-up approaches can help mitigate the threats of gentrification and displacement historically tied to previous “recovery” efforts. The post-COVID, post–George Floyd world also requires that these approaches acknowledge the trauma caused by damaging planning policies and offer opportunities for healing. One example is Destiny Thomas’ dignity-informed community engagement, which has, among many other efforts, helped reduce pedestrian and bicyclist deaths in Los Angeles while simultaneously addressing neighbors’ concerns about overaggressive traffic enforcement.
Biden has not yet submitted his next economic recovery proposal, which he has said will “make historic investments in infrastructure.” On his website, however, his “Build Back Better” plan echoes (albeit in preliminary, piecemeal fashion) some of the suggestions we’ve outlined, like employing data, involving the community, and connecting racial justice with economic and environmental recovery. This is a good start. But we believe that spatial justice shouldn’t just be part of building back better, it should be at its core, facilitating a systematic, efficient, and implementable framework connecting vital issues like climate change, public health, economic development, mobility, education, safety, and well-being.
The spatial equity recovery makes a just built environment the backbone of our country’s long-overdue economic, environmental, and racial justice reset. Yes, this is a bold step, but being bold has lifted us up in the past. Government investment and resources helped pull us from the Great Depression. It created many of our libraries, hospitals, museums, parks, public buildings, schools, and universities, and seeded Silicon Valley’s rise. It’s time for the government to step up again, righting decades of unfair policy, bringing our physical surroundings into the 21st century, and delivering exponential return on investment, both economically and socially. Good spaces make our lives better. The spatial equity recovery will do that for all of us.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.