Covid-19 Long Term Solution – Small, Self-Contained Neighborhoods?

The case for small self-contained neighborhoods. 

Once upon a time, towns and cities looked like settlements out of fairy tales.  A medieval collection of buildings and businesses along a main street here, and small 2-4 story  residential buildings tightly woven around them there, amenities and government buildings prominently placed in the most important locations, all with a city wall to be closed at night.

While the days of needing stone city walls to keep out attackers are long gone, this setup had a few benefits that we have come to forget:  

  1. Controlling who comes in or out of the population and being able to ensure safety before entry.
  2. Having a defined number of people capable of actively being tested, monitored, and aided in the event of a pandemic.
  3. If the settlement is self-contained, then everyone gets to carry on about their lives, unless a threat reappears : )

As our nation tries to valiantly flatten the covid-19 infection curve with mandated lockdowns and shelter in place policies, these temporary strategies skip the hard truth we will need to face in the coming months and years:

Even if we are able to flatten the curve in the coming months, this virus and others will stay present in our world, as they slowly reverberate around all the far flung locations and populations of the world, they could ramp up at any time in any locality.  As long as we have large portions of the population without immunity, how long are we willing to stay in lockdown as a nation? Months? Years? Decades?

Possible Solution?

I happen to live in a beautiful part of Denver that was built before the invention of the automobile .  That means that we have small walkable streets, commercial corridors and businesses woven throughout the neighborhood, and a relatively large number of people living in a smaller area that may prove to be a viable and enthusiastic workforce.  This social distancing has been unique in that cars are now largely street ornaments. As people are walking to the store, the park, the hardware store, or any of the other essential tasks that pop up, people are once again living their entire lives within the neighborhood.  I imagine if people were allowed to reopen local businesses that were accessible only to local residents, most people would live just fine within our beautiful old walkable neighborhood, without exacerbating the spread of the virus into, or outside of our neighborhood.

Cars that are normally absent during a workday haven’t moved all week.

When Capitol Hill and Denver was built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the region and particular neighborhoods were largely self-sufficient and self containable.  Before globalization and national freight lines, and before interstate highways and cars and unending suburban sprawl, new people weren’t really introduced to a city unless they took the railroad, and people weren’t introduced to a neighborhood unless they took a city trolley. Just like gates on a walled city, maybe it is time to look at containing the amount of “entrances” to a neighborhood, so that we can maybe go back to living our lives.

Looking north on a normally busy one-way street (Washington) in Capitol Hill of Denver.

What we have gained in efficiency in moving from city and regional economies to national and global economies we have lost in fragility as one virus that affects one locality spreads like wildfire across the whole country.  What we have gained with national companies absorbing the nation’s business and providing low cost consumables we have lost with local business owners that were able to adapt quickly, have redundant slack in local supply chains, and do what is right for their locality, economy, and workforce.

In order to allow people to go back to living their lives, maybe it is time to look at creating smaller, self-contained, and self-manageable neighborhoods, so that we can close the city walls when we need to? 

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