'Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste' and Planning in the Pandemic

The latest in a series of compendia collecting news and commentary focusing on the complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic's effect on communities.

March 23, 2021, 12:00 PM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Mass Shooting Protest

A taxi caravan participates in a rally in Columbus Park in the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan on March 21, 2021 in New York City, following a mass shooting that targeted Asian women in Atlanta on March 16, 2021. | Ron Adar / Shutterstock

Ever since the early days of stay-at-home orders, the hope for a silver lining has persisted—that the response to the unprecedented economic and public health pressures of the past year might move society and the planet in a more prosperous and sustainable direction.

That hope for a better future was apparent in the way we talked about the clean air and water of the first weeks and months of the pandemic "lockdown." It showed up on the campaign trail, as the ultimately victorious Bien campaign adopted the slogan "Build Back Better"—a phrase that has been mimicked many times sinceto describe its recovery plan.

Speaking of mimicked phrases, how many times have you seen Winston Churchill quoted in the past year? Churchill is quoted as saying, "Never let a good crisis go to waste," in the middle of World War II (although the origin of the phrase is still subject to debate). The phrase has been trotted out repeatedly in the past year, as it has been seemingly every time the world has been turned upside down since the middle of the 20th century.

Quoting Churchill and campaigning on slogans like "Build Back Better" is the easy part, however, because there is no consensus on the forms a brighter future might take—notions of a better future forged diverge quickly after passing through the prism of public perception and the politics of the built environment. Many looked to the expansion of car-free streets and al fresco dining as a sign of a more humane and healthy future. Others saw the shift in the use of the public realm as another sign of systemic inequality.

Others saw the growing numbers of urban residents decamping cities like New York and San Francisco for more suburban climes as a sign of the free market's final, inevitable victory. Others saw the "urban exodus" as a sign of congestion and carbon emissions to come.

The divergence continues. Eventually, automobile drivers pushed back on the lack of parking, and the same decline of driving that helped clear the air in the spring of 2020 eventually started killing more pedestrians and drivers per miles traveled than ever before.

We've seen similar questions about how to rebuild from mass tragedy before—in New Orleans after Katrina, New York after Sandy, and Houston after Harvey—but never at such a thoroughly national scale. While it was perhaps therapeutic to think of the outcomes of the pandemic in terms of a silver lining, the need to discover these desired silver linings is much more of a necessity when considered in the face of climate change. We must prepare for more such large-scale crises.

Since March 2020, Planetizen has been tracking the stories that have attempted to make sense of the world during the pandemic, and how the pandemic might alter the future direction of communities. Many of the themes have repeated, with only slight variations as the coronavirus has revealed its effects for public health, the economy, and society.

For just about everyone in the nation, it's been at least a year of pandemic life. My last day at the office was March 17, 2020. Something in the ballpark of 550,000 Americans have died of this terrible disease in the process—so any discussion about silver linings is crass vis-à-vis such terrible a terrible scale of loss and tragedy. As is apparent in the news and commentary of the past month, however, we're still collectively trying to find silver linings and identify the lingering threats caused by the multiple crises introduced to the world by the novel coronavirus. 

Status Check

The New Realities of Housing

Disparate Impacts

New Travel Patterns

The Uncertainties of Public Transit

In Search of Silver Linings

James Brasuell

James Brasuell is a writer and editor, producing web, print, and video content on the subjects of planning, urbanism, and mobility. James has managed all editorial content and direction for Planetizen since 2014 and was promoted to editorial director in 2021.

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