InsightsJuly 2, 2020

“The New Normal?”

Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, CSU President

It is beyond obvious that the familiar world we knew in 2019 will not be the world we return to in 2021. The Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU) has long focused on the challenges and opportunities of global urbanization and how it can achieve not only sustainability but resiliency as well. We see great population growth and the move from the hinterlands and countryside to cities that began during the industrial revolution as the origin of urbanization on planet Earth. In the early twentieth century, the advent of the automobile, coupled with the later post-WWII boom, led to decentralization from the city to the suburbs. That pattern is now morphing into a new and unknowable future. As change accelerates exponentially, we are trying to figure out what exactly to do. This is the new normal, the what to do normal.

Contemporary movements of people around the world are generated by:

  • critical changes in climate
  • lack of food and water
  • extreme heat or storms
  • political conflict
  • genocide
  • oppression
  • the search for jobs
  • the search for greater opportunity

Now this list includes people once again seeking ways to avoid exposure to devastating diseases.

The decades-long arguments for, and promotion of, advantageous models of higher-density development and living are brought into question because of our current novel coronavirus pandemic. Governments, institutes, think tanks, and professionals in all walks of life are looking for ways to restart economies, enhance public transit, and create new paradigms for doing business while physically distancing. So, everything from settlement patterns to dining out is up for re-examination. This is a time to take maximum advantage of “silver linings.”

In France, there seems to be a renewed interest in living in the suburbs or the countryside. According to Ms. Catherine Barbé, the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Société du Grand Paris, the classic Paris flat, always extremely small, exacerbates the suffering from extreme heat. The desire to be out of doors combined with the ability, if not regulation, for staying apart, is fostering moves into the Grande Couronne of Paris and beyond. Small flats may remain as pieds-à-terre but will people now drive to further public transit stations in distant locations beyond the Grande Couronne?

In a small progressive private school in upstate New York, applications for new students in the Fall 2020 semester are up by 50 percent. Whether the result of permanent moves or temporary departures, housing prices in the suburbs are increasing, and local traffic is higher compared to previous years.  

CSU Advisory Board Member Feniosky Peña-Mora recently joined Ms. Barbé and others in asking the question, “What will the future look like?” Will there be a resurgence of suburbanization? Will commercial office centers and urban cores hold? What will be the combined effects of population growth, climate change, responsible public health policy, rapidly emerging technologies, and long overdue equity issues be on our increasing urbanization. Predictions are flying.

CSU has addressed many of the above issues in major programs and publications. However, climate change, the novel coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), and this spring’s season of civic protest require that we, too, examine our policies and programs and continue to do whatever we can to promote and take action in pursuit of a better world for all. CSU supported formulating and promoting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 11, addressing Sustainable Cities and Communities. We believe that Goal 10, Reduced Inequalities, and Goal 16, Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, are dramatically illuminated by current events. We encourage all to review the entire 17 SDGs and incorporate these living and evolving goals, objectives, and metrics into their activities however they can.

Juneteenth march in Lower Manhattan and the 23rd day of Black Lives Matter marches in New York and around the world. Credit: Sabina Pringle

CSU is currently planning, in partnership with the United Nations, our major 2020 event, the World Habitat Day celebration that will take place, most likely virtually, next October 5. Our focus on how to address the addition of 2.5 billion people to our global cities in the next 30 years will incorporate the ongoing realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and how we will, going forward, as the United Nations has pledged, “Leave no one behind.”

Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, is an architect and urban designer, an ACSA Distinguished Professor of Architecture Emeritus at the Spitzer School of Architecture, The City College of New York, an author, a curator and the President of the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization. His most recent publication is Piermont 2100: Eight Visions (2019).

More News


May 29

Green Cities Sao Paulo


Reflections from the 2024 Gala