A conversation with urban designer Ken Greenberg on ways COVID-19 is forcing us to reimagine cities and community

'The idea that wealthy people can somehow shield themselves from the impacts of this pandemic is an obvious fallacy. They will end up as prisoners in their own city.'

The challenges to cities posed by the COVID-19 epidemic are enormous, argues Canadian urban designer Ken Greenberg in this interview conducted for the podcast This Is Democracy. But the opportunities are also enormous, concludes the author and teacher. These are the opportunities to think differently, to reject received wisdom, to move beyond old ways of doing things, to bring new ideas, to form new coalitions, to engage with other people in new ways.

Greenberg is an urban designer, teacher, writer and former director of urban design and architecture for the city of Toronto. For over four decades, he’s played a pivotal role on public and private assignments in urban settings throughout North America and Europe. He was interviewed on May 19 by Jeremi Suri, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, and Zachary Suri. Their full exchange below has been edited and slightly condensed for clarity.

JEREMI SURI:  Well, Ken, this is your area of expertise. What is it that that city planners and city designers like yourself do to help cities deal with these challenges?

KEN GREENBERG:  Cities are one of the most remarkable of human creations, one of the most complex and one of the most interesting. And I think we’ve learned a great deal (from the COVID crisis) about a certain humility in approaching the design of cities. That it is not really a matter of command and control, but an understanding of human society and how it interacts with the places that we inhabit and how we can intervene in interesting ways in collaboration with the inhabitants of cities to shape change, as opposed to dictate top down what will happen.

I cut my teeth at a very interesting moment of great transformation. This was when we were coming out of a period of urban renewal, which you may remember was the disemboweling of city centers and the great exodus from cities out into suburbia. And I became part of a movement, which was really about recognizing the great value of cities. I was lucky enough as a young architecture student to find myself in Toronto within months of the arrival of (urbanist and author) Jane Jacobs.

J. SURI: That’s amazing. That’s amazing.

GREENBERG: I had the nerve to actually call her. As an architecture student, I had read her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I was enthralled by the book, and I asked her to give me a critique of one of my student projects, and she was kind enough and generous enough to do that. And that became a lifelong friendship and mentorship, which I enjoyed from 1968 to her death in 2006.

J. SURI:  Pretty extraordinary, a lucky man. Could you for our listeners, who might not be as familiar with Jane Jacobs work as they should be, what was her critique? That’s obviously embodied in your own work of this disemboweling of cities, as you put it. That would be the critique of the Robert Moseses  and the Ed Logues and the others who were hollowing out the cores of cities.

‘… in a fascinating way, the impact of COVID-19 and the pandemic has overtaken the previous agenda, which was the trajectory of my entire career, and in a sense is piggybacking on it and accelerating it…’

GREENBERG: So Jane started off her involvement with cities as somebody who just loved to walk the pavements of New York City as a young woman, driven by an insatiable curiosity as to how things work. And she ended up being a journalist. She wrote about everything — from how the jewelry district and how the sewers functioned, how pretty much any phenomenon that that caught her eye or caught her attention worked in the city. And she ended up married to an architect and writing for an architectural journal. She got caught up in the whole modernist project to redo the city as urban renewal. As an observer, trusting her eyes and not so much theory and not so much what she read, she began to see that that project was fatally flawed. And that led her to a lifetime of trying to understand how cities actually functioned. She brought a concept from biological sciences called organized complexity to explain that what people had seen as chaos and had reacted to, wanting to organize human life in a very regimented and systematic way, actually had a kind of order akin to ecology, akin to what we now understand about how the different habitats function and interact in a natural setting.

She brought that understanding of organized complexity to city life, ending up writing a whole series of books, but beginning with a powerful book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 which really questioned what was going on in city planning. It questioned the whole profession that I became involved in, and she was immediately, a kind of celebrity. She was highly criticized by certain people who felt very threatened, who called her an uninformed “housewife”. She intervened and raised all kinds of awkward questions. Others, who began to see the truth in what she was saying, joined in which led to a whole different way of thinking about the city. And a lot of it had to do with the over enthusiastic embrace of the automobile in the aftermath of World War Two. And so, my first book, Walking Home was really about decades of work having to do with getting us back on our feet, getting back to a better understanding of how cities actually function. And my work with cities across North America and in Europe and other places are all about revalidating the city and its workings, and especially dealing with the public realm and things public. It touches very closely on your theme of democracy because the city is the great place where democracy is acted out in space. People occupy public space where they can express their views freely where they interact with their fellows and where issues of equity become extremely important. And so that period of intense transformation was where I started my professional life, and it leads directly to what’s going on today. But in a fascinating way, the impact of COVID-19 and the pandemic has overtaken the previous agenda, which was the trajectory of my entire career, and in a sense is piggybacking on it and accelerating it.

J. SURI: Interesting. Before we get to that, and I want to hear a lot more about that. I know our listeners do too. But just to understand this paradox that I know you’ve thought about more than almost anyone else. If cities are these sites of democratization in their public spaces, but  yet as we know as historians, they’ve traditionally been, as you said before, very top down, very much controlled by bosses of one kind or another, how do you manage that that paradox? How do we work our way out of it? How have you thought this through in your work?

‘… Cities, in essence, are about cooperation. Virtually nothing in a city can be accomplished without people collaborating and cooperating at a fundamental level…’

GREENBERG: Well, if we go back to the history of cities we find republics in the Greek city-states. Which, of course, had slaves and so were not republics for everybody but had the notion of a citizen. And we’ve kind of gone back and forth in history between autocracy, dictatorial rulers with cities and then periodically movements that were about empowering citizens, not just subjects. And it’s interesting how that has played itself out over time. In the earlier stages, there wasn’t universal suffrage. Obviously, for a long time, women didn’t have the vote. We had terrible inequities. We have the whole history of slavery throughout the world, but particularly in the U.S. And now we’re at a moment where all these issues are coming to the surface about refugees, about immigrants, about racialized people who are most affected, who are turning out to be most vulnerable in this period of COVID-19. All these inequities are being revealed. There’s constantly been a kind of push to extend the rights of citizenship, the full rights of citizenship, and I don’t just mean legally in the sense of who has a passport, but the sense that all human beings in a city have a kind of basic set of rights and ability to live together peacefully. Cities, in essence, are about cooperation. Virtually nothing in a city can be accomplished without people collaborating and cooperating at a fundamental level. So there is that kind of tension that plays itself all the way through.

But the other thing that’s interesting about cities is the idea of diverse populations actually cohabiting the same space as opposed to a kind of homogeneous tribal society in which everyone in the society is of one type or kind. And so you have a really interesting examples, like Andalusia before the Inquisition in Spain, where you had Christians, Muslims and Jews sharing the cities and bringing great prosperity. As a result, great discoveries coming from a diverse gene pool of ideas that was incredibly valuable. My own city in Toronto, to take this all the way to the present day, has some very unique characteristics, which I wrote about in Toronto Reborn. One of them is that over 50 percent of us come from another country, and many other countries. I mean, literally a couple of hundred countries, and over 50 percent identify as visible minorities. In many other places, this fact of difference is seen as problematic or troubling. It happens to be for us the thing that Canadians generally, and Torontonians and Vancouverites and Montrealers, are very proud of because they see that while we still face challenges in terms of inclusion, it works. It actually gives us enormous advantages.

J. SURI: This brings us up to COVID-19. How do we understand the two sides of this coin? So especially in US cities like New York, you have this incredible diversity that we all recognize is the energy of the city. It’s exactly what Jane Jacobs commented on as she was walking through Greenwich Village and elsewhere. On the other hand, these cities are also places of corporate power. This is this is where the big corporate entities are located. And if you’re talking about New York or Chicago or Austin, Texas a lot of the power is centered on these organizations that don’t necessarily reflect the experience in the street. How do you as an urban planner, think about that and think about giving agency to these attributes, these citizen attributes, these resident attributes that you’re describing?

‘… COVID_19 is shining a really harsh light, both on remarkable things that are working as we collectively face this this human tragedy that’s upon us, but also on the things in our society that have not been working…’

GREENBERG:  So I think a lot depends on what we do with what it is that COVID-19 is showing us. And I, like many others, am arguing that it is shining a really harsh light, both on remarkable things that are working as we collectively face this this human tragedy that’s upon us, but also on the things in our society that have not been working. And one of those has to do with a combination of on an over reliance on the markets, on market-driven capitalism, the shrinking of Res Publica, of things public. And that is coupled with the austerity agenda which really goes back several decades. You can trace it back to Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, our own prime minister, Stephen Harper, which really kind of inculcated a belief that government was the enemy. They were running for public office, but they were basically enemies of the public sector, and they succeeded in reducing it. And at the same time, the working out of the marketplace, particularly with globalization chasing a competitive advantage, outsourcing, the manufacture of pretty much everything we rely on, was creating what we are now experiencing as tenuous supply chains but also taking away decent salaries, putting people in precarious employment without benefits.

All of these things were just accumulating and in fact getting worse and worse. And so now we see with this pandemic a dramatic example of what we’ve done to our seniors — putting them in places where we thought we had a market solution to the last years of their lives, in with companies who found it convenient to feed them badly and minimize staffing. Those poorly paid people who, as you know, are the most marginalized people themselves, were also struggling, performing acts of care for those in their final years. And you know that both residents and caregivers are the ones who are disproportionately dying. It’s dramatically revealed. We’re also seeing it in the in an unequal way in which the pandemic is affecting disadvantaged populations: minorities, people of color in the U.S., particularly immigrants, people who are forced to take transit because they can’t work from home. They don’t have any options, and ironically, those are the people we’re now calling the heroes. They’re the ones who are keeping us alive and then we suddenly look and say, well, you know what? We haven’t allowed them to have a decent living. We’re paying them so badly that they have nothing to fall back on. They’ve been working on part-time contracts and haven’t been able to have a single place of employment. So it’s making us vulnerable because of what we’ve done to others and one way in which we may come out of this with that recognition. And it’s only one of the many great uncomfortable revelations, not the only one from COVID-19. There is certainly a lot of talk in the world that I live in of dealing differently with the issues of homelessness, of lack of affordable housing, of precarious salaries, all these kinds of things that have created these terribly inequitable and damaging conditions.

Z. SURI: How can we use urban planning specifically to alleviate inequality and poverty in North American cities and across the world?

GREENBERG:  Well, I think we have to have deliberate strategies that deal with a number of things: how we move around the city, housing, understanding that housing for a significant percentage of our society cannot be supplied successfully only by the private market. I think we have to understand the importance of public health and preventive community health care. There is a really interesting analogy that Malcolm Gladwell has been quoting from someone else, which I think just remarkably captures the whole idea. It’s about a soccer team. If you want to improve a competitive soccer team, who do you lavish your attention on? If you’re a coach, it’s not your stars, it’s your worst players. Soccer is a team sport, and it depends on the strength of the whole team. Another way of saying that is with the example of the city of Helsinki which brags that it has the best, worst schools of any city, and that is the reason why Finland has one of the best education systems in the world. And I think what we’ve seen is the fallacy of the kind of winner-takes-all philosophy with the idea that people will somehow hit the jackpot, leaving so many people behind. So if you apply that to pretty much everything that goes into making up a city, you end up with a different city. A lot of the work that I’m doing now is about a concept called the 15-minute or the 20-minute neighborhood where my life’s work around dealing with the aftermath of the automobile, the segregation of land uses and urban renewal is intersecting with COVID-19 and our reaction to that. So the idea of the 15- or 20-minute neighborhood is that you build neighborhoods that have housing for the entire population all ages, household types, income levels together, anchored by community hubs that have libraries, schools day care, recreation, healthcare opportunities for young entrepreneurs to gather and community services all within walking distance which makes them inherently resilient because one of the things we’ve learned as a defense against something like a pandemic is social cohesion is a very critical factor.

There’s a famous example in Chicago in 1995 with an extraordinary heat wave. They discovered that in the neighborhoods of equal income level, but with the difference that they were neighborhoods where people knew each other and looked after each other, the mortality rate was much, much lower — because they were looking in on each other. It’s just a basic understanding of what makes society work. There is no running away from this. The idea that wealthy people can somehow shield themselves from the impacts of this pandemic is an obvious fallacy. They will end up as prisoners in their own city, because they won’t be able to move around freely. That’s what we’ve learned in terms of all the people who do all the work for them are the very people who potentially are spreading the virus. So it basically comes down to: we are ultimately going to succeed together or we will not.

J. SURI: I love the idea of the 15- to 20-minute neighborhood. It sounds to me like that 15 to 20 minutes is the time it takes to walk through the neighborhood, right? How do you think about density in that context? Because one of the concerns coming out of the pandemic is a concern about density about, you know, elevator buttons, crowded hallways.

GREENBERG: So interestingly enough in Death and Life, the book by Jane Jacobs in 1961, she wrote about the difference between density and overcrowding. And the reason she wrote about that is that the great social planners of the early part of the 20th century, when they were reacting to the cities created by the Industrial Revolution, and particularly were looking at places like the Lower East Side in New York area where you had the tenements, they basically drew the conclusion that it was density that was the evil. And that’s why they wanted to spread people out, either in the form of what they called ‘towers in the park’, based on the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier and his plans for the Radiant City, which became the model for much of public housing across North America or for spreading out thinly into auto-dependent suburbs. And it was a false correlation, as it is with COVID-19. Because what we’ve seen is that even though New York City, which was terribly hit which caused a lot of people to jump to that conclusion, there were so many other factors at play. And there are so many other cities in the world denser than New York — Asian cities, cities like Berlin, for example — who were better prepared in the first place, and who had a different response to the pandemic. There were so many other factors at play that it was not density itself. So the question is that just density itself is not a good or an evil.  The advantage of density is, going back to my 15- or 20-minute neighborhoods, that you need enough people to support that range of services that I was talking about. That doesn’t mean a world of spiky 40- 50- 60-story towers all together without that social infrastructure, without the public spaces or supporting amenities.

Ryerson University in Toronto and the City Building Institute, of which I’m a co–founder, has just put out a study called Density Done Right, which I would recommend to the listeners of this podcast. It really talks about dispersed density that, rather than having these extreme concentrations of hyper density, ‘tall’ and then ‘sprawl’, and advocates for the ‘missing middle’. The missing middle, both in physical terms, mid-rise buildings, buildings that form streets, blocks that form neighborhoods that have walkable public spaces, those are extremely important. But it also means the missing middle socially so that we don’t have the extremes of enclaves of the ultra rich and, then areas where only the most disadvantaged and the poorest people live. It’s about mixing it up in the city, giving everybody access. And it’s not just income as a factor. We’re also learning something about the isolation of seniors, the warehousing of seniors, which is in fact what we have done. Having them be part of society, and the benefits that come with that, are also very important. So being intentional about that, I think, is extremely important.

J. SURI: It’s a wonderful vision, and it fits with a lot of democratic theory also. It sounds like a wonderful way of moving forward. How do you design a process for that, though? Because you’re obviously not in favor of some benevolent city mayor dictator doing this right? So how do you create a process for this, recognizing the cacophony of interests and motivations that people in a city like Toronto or Austin or New York will have?

‘…The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki, really talks about creating the right table and getting the right people around the table under the right circumstances, and that if you do that, the crowd is smarter than the smartest individual sitting at the table…’

GREENBERG: The city is, in its very essence, a cultural enterprise, a cultural artifact. People like me who work in this area, we are dealing with a serial creation which goes on for generation after generation. For people who work in European cities the cities are often 2,000 years old or 1,000 years old. In our cities we’re talking about a few hundred years. But we basically get to spend the length of our careers working on something that so many people have worked on before and that so many people will work on after. Ultimately, on a daily basis and a weekly basis and a yearly basis, cites are shaped by the autonomous and semi-autonomous actions of thousands of people. That said, what has been a hallmark of all of my work goes back again to Jane Jacobs, who became reluctantly a citizen activist. She certainly didn’t intend to be. She didn’t want to be. She was drawn into it because of various destructive things that were happening in her neighborhood in Greenwich Village, then when she moved to Toronto encountering similar things, which really led to the need for a high level of community engagement. And again, like density done right, community engagement done right is extremely important.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, who wrote an absolutely fantastic book, which talks about creating the right table and getting the right people around the table under the right circumstances, and that if you do that, the crowd is smarter than the smartest individual sitting at the table. So that realization has been the underlying thesis of everything I have ever done. Working with professional colleagues, working with politicians, working with citizens’ groups, working with people in the development industry. And I have remarkably found that if you approach that table in a spirit of openness, as a good listener, with good will and you try to understand people’s points of view and — most importantly — get them to listen to each other, this inevitably leads to good outcomes. It’s not as easy as saying, ‘I have a blueprint for what success looks like and I’m going to tell you what it is, and man, I hope you like it’. It is complicated. It can be messy, but it is so rewarding in the end.

I’ll just tell one anecdote. When I left the city of Toronto, one of the first places I ended up working with was St. Paul, Minnesota, and I ended up working there for over 10 years, advising a city that was hemorrhaging, losing jobs, losing population that had been disconnected from the Mississippi River. The city was really in trouble and I was called upon by Mayor Norm Coleman, at the time who was a Republican before that a Democrat who switched parties. I ended up working for three mayors, Democrats and Republicans. So in a sense it was nonpartisan. Randy Kelly, Chris Coleman being the others. I’m actually going to participate in a webinar about St. Paul to talk to along with my former colleagues about what happened. It was a 10-year adventure for me of being involved with that city and basically doing a remarkable series of community workshops and eventually developing a a highly resilient framework that would guide how development would occur over several decades. It was all was about reconnecting the city with the Mississippi River, connecting neighborhood to neighborhood, leading with public spaces, making every chess piece that came along add to that larger vision that the community had bought into. And one of the highlights of that process was a celebratory dinner that was held every year by my clients, the Riverfront Corporation, a nonprofit broadly based community based organization, where they would get everybody together, hundreds of people to celebrate the successes of the previous year and all the heroes, the people who had contributed to those successes. It was one of the greatest experiences of a community engaged in reshaping itself that I have been privileged to be part of. I’ve used that method everywhere. I have worked ever since, and invariably it works.

J. SURI:  I love the idea of celebrating rather than dividing and bringing people together to talk about their common interests. In many ways, it sounds like you do as much facilitation as you do design work Ken. How can our listeners make a difference? This is what we always like to close on. How can they make a difference? So many of our listeners are young people who are moving back to downtowns. Or they were at least before COVID-19 was taking jobs, but also struggling to find affordable housing. Thinking about avoiding cars. My students, when they enter professional life now, are less likely to want to drive. How can they be a part of this movement that I think you are describing here?

‘…The pandemic is opening up a vast terrain of opportunity for people to engage in all kinds of ways with the city. What we’re seeing in Toronto and cities around the world is how civil society is stepping up in to the breach to come up with extraordinary ways of dealing with vulnerabilities, inventing new ways of transforming public spaces, reaching out to people through digital media in ways that nobody had ever imagined…’

GREENBERG:  I was very honored to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Toronto, my alma mater, this year, and I was supposed to give a convocation address, which I obviously couldn’t do. It was published in Toronto Star, our major daily, and I’m actually going to do a webinar with some students coming up next week on this. But I’m going to go back to what I said to the graduating students, and I think that applies to the young people you are talking about. You didn’t choose this moment to enter into the next stage of your life. It chose you and this is a moment like no other that any of us have ever experiencedThe challenges are enormous, but the opportunities are also enormous, the opportunities to think differently, to not accept received wisdom, to not accept old ways of doing things, to bring new ideas, to form new coalitions, to engage with other people in new ways. And so I think it’s opening up a vast terrain of opportunity for people to engage in all kinds of ways with the city. What we’re seeing in Toronto and cities around the world is how civil society is stepping up in to the breach to come up with extraordinary ways of dealing with vulnerabilities, inventing new ways of transforming public spaces, reaching out to people through digital media in ways that nobody had ever imagined. So there’s everything that’s happening immediately which is so fascinating. But also it’s an opportunity to think about the next couple of stages as we move back into a different kind of society, both before and after we have a vaccine. And this, in a way, is more possible now than would have been the case before. And I’ll give you one example. We’ve been working on taking back street space in cities around the world for active transportation for pedestrians and cyclists, and this has been a slow, painful transformation. Some cities have done better than others. Suddenly with COVID-19. This is erupting all around the world, and hundreds and hundreds of kilometers in city after city are being transformed and people are walking and cycling in record numbers. Because in part there is not that much else to do. But also this will be the new age of cycling. Yes, cycling is becoming a major form of transportation that we’re not going to walk away from. So I take that as one example. I think the way we’re going to deal with living arrangements for seniors will be another example. The way we’re going to deal with issues of social equity, with affordable housing, the way we’re going to deal with public space, the way we’re dealing with health care, the way we’re dealing with education. All of these things are open to people to innovate in extraordinary new ways. And I would just say to those young people, Grab the brass ring. This is your moment.

J. SURI: I love it as a cyclist myself. This is one of the most positive things I’ve seen. I will say you probably saw this. I think it was in the New York Times recently. which had a piece on how there’s a shortage of bicycles now because everyone is buying bicycles.

J. SURI:  Zachary, do you find this vision, this optimism, this call for innovation and civic renewal and civic engagement, that Ken is talking about, do you think this resonates with your generation?

Z. SURI: I think it definitely does. And I think what’s really powerful about this moment of pandemic and of crisis is that it’s forcing young people to think in a collective sense of our smaller communities and our larger communities. And I think this will allow us to start to really have serious discussions about what the future of our cities will look like because it it really matters to the future for all of us.

J. SURI: That’s great. Ken you’ve given us so much today? I encourage our listeners to go to  Ken’s website. Your vision of cities as centers of change and optimism and democratic renewal is so powerful and so historically correct if we look to the past. Which I think is our best guide to the future.  Thank you for joining us Ken.

GREENBERG:  It’s really been a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me

This interview was opened with a scene-setting poem by Zachary Suri. Please read ‘Actualizing Emerald City’ here.


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