COVID Insights, Perspectives 05.01.2020

Go Big and Stay Home

By Adam Glaser, Planning and Strategies Leader

This story is part of our insight series around the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As millions of us now shelter in place, COVID-19 has triggered the greatest involuntary experiment in human history—staying home may save our lives in more ways than one.

These unprecedented weeks of remote working and learning will soon provide comprehensive insights about the impact of three emerging trends: work from home (WFH), work from anywhere (WFA), and online learning. Even before COVID-19, these trends were reshaping classrooms and workplaces worldwide. Going forward, whatever “new normal” emerges will be vastly different than the one we left in February.

This may be good news.

While our new routines help flatten the pandemic curve, they also offer broader solutions to threats even greater than the coronavirus: climate change and social inequity.

Map of the Bay Area depicts spatial mismatch of the region, with the dark blue indicating the locations in which most workers have a longer commuter time.
Source –ESA Sentinel-5P Satellite
High NO2 emissions levels blanket the Bay Area and show a correlation to the density of the region.
Source –ESA Sentinel-5P Satellite

Recent satellite data illustrates dramatic improvements in air quality resulting from the global shutdown. NASA imagery of Northeastern China, or cities like New York and Seattle, show spectacular reductions in emissions after just weeks of fewer vehicles and industrial production. Ibrahim Ibrahim, Futurist for Perkins and Will partner company, Portland Design, predicts fewer Chinese citizens will die from COVID-19 than the number who will not die because of these current climate improvements. Similar insights from the coming months will paint a stark picture of the costs of our pre-pandemic lifestyles that must inform our efforts to slow climate change.

As pre-COVID-19 mobility and production patterns threaten the environment, they also undermine social equity in interrelated ways. Last year, CityLab documented how high property values and low wages cause “spatial mismatch,” forcing millions of workers in many cities to commute long distances, mostly by car. If our economy continues to concentrate in a handful of “superstar” cities, inequality—and by extension, greenhouse gases—will grow as regions with extreme spatial mismatch exacerbate both problems.

A different type of spatial mismatch plays out nationally centering around educational anchors. Like high-paying jobs in superstar cities, regional economic activity tends to concentrate around America’s research institutions. Cities and towns with research universities generate higher household median incomes than the national average of $54,000, offering more diverse, dynamic opportunities to wider ranges of workers.

 

Location of Tier 1 and Tier 2 universities in the Upper Midwest.
Sources – Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education/Perkins and Will
A correlation is shown in the location of the universities and a higher household income.
Sources –US Census Data (2011-2015 ACS)/Perkins and Will

Messages from these images are clear—our pre-COVID-19 lifestyles and business models desperately need an overhaul. Now, we must do a better job distributing economic and educational resources to the millions who cannot access high-quality educations or the jobs they support.

Which brings us back to today’s unprecedented experiment. Is it possible our current pivot to virtual offers a playbook for solving our bigger existential threats?

Consider two more pairs of images:

As a result of the Covid-19 stay home order, lower levels of NO2 emissions have been recorded in the Bay Area and across the world
Source –ESA Sentinel-5P Satellite

Since February, the Bay Area’s shelter in place protocols have slashed NO2 emissions to vastly healthier levels—as it has in most metros restricting mobility today.

Although we can’t map it as precisely as NO2, millions of students returning home from colleges are redistributing—at least temporarily—higher education back into hundreds underserved communities, something along these lines:

With students returning home, knowledge is no longer concentrated where the universities are located, but instead has been redistributed to their hometowns.
Sources –US Census Data (2011-2015 ACS)/Perkins & Will

As with COVID-19, these maps suggest the partial continuation of WFH/WFA and distance learning activities can also “flatten” our climate change and inequality curves.

Imagine the upsides if governments, companies, and academic anchors—precisely the coalitions addressing the pandemic now—facilitated part-time WFH/WFA protocols for millions of employees to work remotely one or two days every week. Strategies like this could help us reassess core facilities and community planning strategies for thousands of clients. Initiatives like this would push us to use space more strategically where face-to-face is essential and to distribute non-essential work throughout thousands of WFH/WFA locations, reducing social and environmental damage. There’s a business case for all of this too—a recent Harvard study indicates WFA strategies boost productivity 5%.

Imagine what new partnerships and businesses might form in our new normal. Recent initiatives like Amazon’s HQ2 competition highlight which metros are positioned for success and which are at-risk. The winner, the Northern Virginia/DC Metro area, epitomizes spatial mismatch with demographics deeply divided along socio-economic lines, meanwhile too many major states and cities are literally not on the map. Imagine if Amazon, one company thriving during this crisis, worked with dozens of anchor institutions to create technology-focused distance learning resources committed to employing its graduates in hundreds of underserved communities—a virtual HQ2020?

Let’s take the next few months to beta test remote work and learning as tools for delivering economic hope and knowledge to the millions of Americans off the social and economic grid. Let’s explore how distance learning and work can make in-person interactions better and more equitable. Let’s seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to address our most significant challenges.

Before COVID-19, “Go Big or Go Home” was a visionary mantra. Perhaps ours should be Go Big and Stay Home.