An argument for a regional approach to recovery (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)
Even for a metropolitan area that experienced the trauma of September 11, 2001 and the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, nothing could prepare residents of New York and their neighbors in New Jersey and Connecticut for the COVID-19 crisis. The death toll has already far surpassed that of the World Trade Center attack and will continue to climb. The economic damage is certain to exceed the job and income losses of those events and the 2008 financial crisis combined. The impacts on our collective psyche won’t be fully known until well after the pandemic has passed.
More than even in those earlier disasters, the response to this crisis requires a coordinated effort from the states and communities that are intricately tied together in family, social, and business networks that use the same roads, trains, stores, offices, schools, parks, and public spaces, drink the same water, and breathe the same air.
The decision by Governors Cuomo, Murphy, and Lamont, and their fellow governors in four other northeastern states, to form a Regional Coronavirus Reopening Council is an unprecedented collaboration that is crucial to reopening their interdependent economies. The council can have an even greater impact if it lays the foundation of a coordinated, long-term strategy to build a region that is healthier, fairer, and more resilient.
Planning for the recovery needs to start with the realization that the region is very sick and still in intensive care. Easing stay-at-home orders and other restrictions too soon will result in more deaths, a likely return to lockdowns and a longer recovery.
Returning to full physical and economic health will also require treating the underlying conditions that made us so susceptible to this disease.
The vastly disproportionate impact that this has had on black, Latino, and Native American populations, and the racial profiling the has been targeting the Asian community, is rooted in our history of racism and segregation. The sharp divides between the affluent, the middle-class, and low-wage workers without benefits or savings is a glaring outcome of decades of growing economic inequality. High levels of air pollution and other environmental hazards have always been a health risk, and appear to make us particularly susceptible to serious coronavirus effects. The fragility of vital systems like the transit network and unemployment insurance is the result of decades of underfunding and a failure to modernize. Slow adaptation to climate change will lead to even greater vulnerability and inequity. Even immediate measures to restart the economy need to address these fundamental flaws.
All of these conditions are national in scope and call for a concerted national response. But both the unique character of the region and the scale of the epidemic here require a vision and plan for the tri-state metropolitan area at least, if not the entire Northeast. The governors, through the regional council, can set a course that both speeds recovery and begins fixing structural problems.
A starting point for the long view can be Regional Plan Association’s 2017 Fourth Regional Plan, a once-in-a-generation vision for the tri-state metropolitan area. Many of its recommendations will need to be reassessed in a post-COVID-19 world, but the long-term challenges addressed in the plan are, if anything, now more important to overcome. The values of health, equity, prosperity, and sustainability that shaped the plan can guide the actions we take at each stage of recovery and renewal.
As we transition to recovery, the immediate focus on coordinating guidelines for reopening and physical distancing can shift to incorporating health goals and metrics in all regional and state agencies. New York State’s health-in-all-policies guidelines are a good place to start. These will be particularly important in reducing the vast disparities in health outcomes by race and income.
A united effort to secure the region’s fair share of federal transit assistance is the first order of business to keep the region’s circulatory system from spiraling into decline, but why stop there? With support from the governors, the region’s transportation agencies could join in creating a universal fare-payment mechanism and start to integrate rail services to allow more direct, one-seat rides to different parts of the region.
The council could spearhead an effort to give affordable, reliable Internet service to every household in the region, eliminating a leading source of both urban and rural inequality while reducing the region’s vulnerability in future disasters. This could set the stage for more difficult but essential conversations on how to expand affordable housing and reduce segregation throughout the metropolitan area.
An economic restart may be our best opportunity to rebuild in a way that supports a healthier environment and greater resilience to both future pandemics and climate change. Interstate cooperation to reopen the economy can be a foundation for large-scale climate initiatives, such as expanding regional greenhouse gas reduction programs, scaling up renewable energy, and capitalizing adaptation trust funds.
Recovering from the coronavirus pandemic will require a mobilization of the region’s talents, resources, and political will to a degree not seen since at least the deep fiscal crisis of the 1970s. We have a chance to not only recover much of what we lost, but to heal the wounds and divisions that new calamities would otherwise exploit.
Chris Jones is Senior Vice President and Chief Planner at Regional Plan Association. On Twitter @RegionalPlan.