• Eric Carlson

Connections in the Cascade Corridor

What will the covid pandemic mean for urbanism in general and for the evolution of the Cascadia region in particular. A webinar I joined a few days ago was thought provoking. I have concluded that connections in the Cascadia Corridor must also consider general trends at work in society and the economy, climate, etc. not to mention the impacts, shorter and longer term, of the covid pandemic.

Defining Connection

The gist of the subject webinar was a proposal to link its principal cities, Vancouver, BC, Seattle and Portland with high speed rail and to develop intermediate “hub” cities to absorb anticipated growth. This prompted me to consider what connection means in this era? How much is physical and how much is virtual? As painful as it has been, the pandemic has redefined the term. Yes, most of us likely long for a return to more face to face social, family and business interactions. Yet, we have been surprisingly resilient with respect to maintaining these connections thanks to technology. How much face to face time do we actually require for various activities? What price in time, money and health are we willing to pay for in - person connection? The trend to remote working was already underway and gaining ground pre - covid and the pandemic may have made it a permanent fixture of business, family and social life.

As a nominally retired person, pre – covid, I nevertheless spent at least 8 hours a month commuting to and from meetings; generally non - productive time in a combination of car and transit. Now I attend these same meetings and more but I have all those commuting hours back, although I do miss some of the social contact. I wonder how many regularly employed people, spending dozens of hours a month commuting pre - covid really want to surrender again to non productive commuting?

Trends Pre Covid

In my view there were already several trends impacting urbanism before the pandemic. They included:

· Online Retail; driving dire ramifications for bricks and mortar stores. Urbanism has been traditionally built on the pillars of housing and commerce with retail as street level “glue.” What happens when retail goes away? With the disappearance of retail and the decimation of restaurants and bars due to covid where does that leave at street level in cities and towns?

· Decline of the Office; the gradual decline of the conventional office workplace. This was already afoot in the late ‘90’s and ‘00’s but gained full momentum during the “teens.” Working at home, the coffee shop and co working spaces redefined the workplace. The pandemic has for the time being put paid to the coffee shop as a place to meet and co working has declined drastically with the pandemic, but working from home has proliferated.

· Tech - Virtualization and AI: Tech has enabled the virtualization of retail and the workplace. It has also made huge inroads in social life. It will continue to impact these domains and have increasing influence in transportation with autonomous vehicles and aircraft.

· Housing Affordability; Housing affordability in vibrant urban regions was a growing issue before the pandemic. It was increasingly out of reach for lower wage service workers. Now many of them have drawn down what savings they had, lost their jobs temporarily or permanently and had to find even cheaper housing, if any. The housing problem isn’t going away.

· Climate; Recent wildfires in the Cascadia region are reminders that not all regions are easily and safely habitable and there may be intra regional climate refugees to accommodate.

Compounding Trends Post Covid

In addition to the above trends a post - covid world may spur the following:

· Slower densification of urban cores by individuals and businesses leery of health risk.

· Renewed interest in single family detached housing or at least housing with private entrances and private outdoor space, suggesting more suburban development.

· Less interest in the sharing economy; housing, co working spaces, ride sharing, vacation rentals.

· Decline of densely packed hospitality and entertainment venues and activities.

In some respects the pandemic has been the cosmopolitan urbanist’s nightmare. Things valued by the urbanist such as: ubiquitous transit, high density housing/working and reliance on common indoor areas, elevators, taxis/car services, sidewalks and small parks, crowded shops, restaurants and bars will be viewed with caution. I believe it's going to be some time, even with a vaccine, before people voluntarily hop back on tightly packed public transportation and travel to urban cores for recreation and amusement.

Covid aside, influenza still infects many people each year. Experience in the Southern Hemisphere during their covid winter, just past, shows how social distancing made a huge dent in influenza cases. Will people willingly go back en masse to their socially gregarious ways, crowding restaurants, bars, entertainment and sports venues? 

Role of the Hub City

With the proposed Hub City concept in the management study, I understand the idea is that the primary workplace will be within a short commute distance of the residence, walking, biking, or using transit to reduce non - productive commuting. But to a degree, people have already reduced commuting now, wherever they live.

I therefore wonder how improved physical connection among the cities of Cascadia is absolutely essential given a new definition of the term? In my view, what connects the communities of Cascadia are generally progressive values such as shared concern for the environment and an orientation to outdoor recreation in its waters and mountains. The highway corridor is important but shared values seem moreso. And if better physical connections are needed, perhaps we should look farther ahead technologically, by considering autonomous electric vehicles and aircraft rather than expensive, slow to implement rail transit.

In closing, does this mean we residents of Cascadia are resigned to a meager and isolated existence: working at home in suburbia, shopping online and with infrequent face to face interactions for the foreseeable future. I can’t say for sure.

Where does this leave us in terms of connectedness? It likely means a more circumspect approach to the sharing economy. It suggests need for creative approaches to urban design: housing, working, shopping, socializing, recreating and moving around safely; testing the acceptable physical and public health boundaries of density, requiring new layouts and operations for housing, offices, schools and transportation connecting activities. Regarding scale, I see connectedness a priority first at the more intimate levels of person – to - person, neighborhood and community, such as opening schools, shops and places of work safely. Connecting cities by rapid rail, a lofty goal, just seems to me a secondary need and perhaps one that will be rendered less important through a combination of social innovation and technology.