The COVID-19 pandemic crisis of 2020 is a change opportunity as well as a community health check. It has and will continue reshaping local communities and our politics.
This pandemic will not gracefully unwind in 2021, and its impact will be felt in ways not yet known.
As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill often said: “All politics is local.” So, how can local governments and communities become opportunity facilitators for multiple challenges arising from the pandemic? How are we going to absorb business closures and at the same time encourage new beginnings?
The virtual “Zoom Effect” is real and many employees are leaving cramped city quarters and moving to suburbia to support a working at home lifestyle. Our education system needs an overhaul as we reconnect with students who lost the joy of learning. Add the looming crisis of evictions, and cities of all sizes will be at the forefront of a new crisis of homelessness, affordable housing and lack of jobs.
Local governments have been here before and need to step up again. For cities to exceed expectations and avoid mediocre standardized “law and order solutions” for problems, they must redefine themselves as being people connectors and quality of life facilitators.
Maybe the Biden administration can find ways to help lessen the burden. We know the ideologues and proponents of small government have no interest in seeing local government thrive, but thrive we must.
Businesses are reassessing their office space needs, service delivery options and incentivizing working from home. Cities are grappling with uncertain revenue streams, unhappy businesses, socioeconomic challenges and maintaining services. Most are also missing the opportunity to reposition themselves as leaders in a framework for elevating the arts, personal experience and quality of life resources.
The work at home movement may be temporary, but not likely. Our sense of cubical office world once being the norm is morphing toward flex-space, home offices and workers leaving cities, and more will do so as the capabilities of virtual connectivity increases. Investing in human interaction opportunities for those who are working from home is essential for a community’s well-being.
People crave connection, and without direct contact with co-workers, people will seek new adventures to get them out of their habitat shells. Part of this new paradigm will include investing in personal development as well as group activities.
Educators are assessing their effectiveness at virtual learning. Schools need to get back to being the great homogenizers of education, ideas, socialization and hands-on learning that children and teenagers need. Schools have had their successes and failures with virtual education delivery, but technology capabilities will improve and so will the way education is offered and managed.
School districts are being redefined by this forced virtual experiment. Expect virtual learning to become a desired niche option for some parents. Our notion of school boundaries, districts, and bricks and mortar classrooms are going to be tested. The next generation school system will be measured on its capability of merging high level information technology and virtual delivery capabilities with essential human interaction.
Our continuing growth in communication technology is exacerbating society’s economic divide. High-speed internet and cellular access are now essential. Not every parent can afford or access these resources. What can schools and cities do to support students who are technology, household, food and income insecure?
Politicians who have as their deceptive priority the desire for power accumulation, personal wealth and prioritizing serving corporate oligarchs do our democracy a disservice. The pandemic has exposed and increased our society’s weakest members and the coming fallout as eviction moratoriums lapse will release a new wave of people forced to relocate, find affordable housing and new jobs. An economic rebalance must be part of the discussion.
The likely navigators of retooling our society happen to be the artists, creatives and thinkers that politicians and corporations struggle to control, understand or ignore because they don’t conform to their standard operating models. Regardless, rebuilding and investing in the arts is the key to reconnecting community.
Combining artists’ creative skills with parks and recreation departments and cultural institutions will bring people together. Their collective capabilities are the essential building blocks for connecting community. They offer opportunities for advancing education, promoting personal well-being and elevating life skills. But, these resources have been starved of revenues or have been forced to operate as self-sustaining businesses competing for dollars at the expense of building community.
Cities can be empty shells designed to house people and support commerce, or they can be vibrant living-scapes focused on resources to unlock peoples’ potential, passion and purpose. Local governments are quality of life facilitators. Generally, due to lack of imagination and politics, they are trapped in being ordinary.
Healthy vibrant cities elevate their resources to help residents achieve greatness. The arts, creativity access and recreation resources are society’s great equalizer. Cities that embrace the arts and life skill activities build resilience and value into their present and future.
Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.