The City at Risk: Urban Geographers Respond to COVID-19

By Richard D. Quodomine, Dayne Walling, Augusta Wilson, Eric Hoffman, Michael J. Allen, Ian Purcell, Toni Castro-Cosio, and Hannah Torres

In April of 2020, Urban Geographers from the academic and practicing sides of the discipline came together to begin to assess and address the public, social, economic, and scientific challenges apparent in the early stage of the pandemic because of how adversely, and disproportionately, COVID-19 had impacted several populations and institutions linked to urban environments. While the most serious outbreaks had occurred in places with large population sizes and high densities, such as in New York City, Chicago, and New Orleans, and clusters can theoretically appear anywhere, several other urban area characteristics and spatial factors of systems, such as mobility of wealthy suburban cohorts, mass transit patterns, locations of municipally supported housing, concentrations of poverty, immigration networks and status, air quality attainment, aging water infrastructure, occupational and industrial growth sector mismatch, and fragmented government authority, compound negative public health effects and complicate effective response.

The multi-faceted and multi-scalar demands of responding to the pandemic are immense in every urban area. In Philadelphia, for example, 53 percent of Philadelphia’s COVID-19 fatal cases were in prisons, senior living facilities or similar protective quarters, many of which are municipal facilities. The schools have been closed, but as that is also the source of nutrition for many young people, school food services have had to remain open and attempt to serve in creative ways. Providing access to instruction has meant the rapid deployment of a laptop loaner program and discount high speed internet rolled out to upwards of 50,000 students.

The COVID-19 outbreak has also overlapped with existing and long-term patterns of disinvestment, imposed austerity and fiscal distress, which limit resources delivered to communities that need them most. The tax base of central and older cities has been reduced through federal and state public policy decisions in recent decades. In Detroit, Michigan’s largest city, the virus had an early severe effect. This is part of a trend where the state retains a greater share of public revenues leaving cities with less funding for essential services than fifteen years ago. Additionally, revenues from many local sales and business taxes are significantly reduced. Drops in transit ridership not only worsen bottom lines but potentially impact local shares of capital projects and jeopardize the receipt of future matching federal and state funds. Cities operate as hubs for regional activities, transportation, medicine and government, and their ability to be that is heavily impacted by the pandemic.

Serious scientific questions remain about how COVID-19 is manifesting and intersecting with environmental, racial, and medical justice issues. Due to historical inequality, urban areas have seen this disparity has recently come into stark view with the Black Lives Matter protests. While seen as primarily in opposition to potentially racist or overly violent police tactics, there is as much concern over how people of color are treated in health and social services. In many areas, those attainment areas have higher vulnerable populations, including lower income, people of color, aging populations and people with disabilities, resulting in higher mortality or long-term morbidities in their resident populations. Public health, policing and other policies must help guide equitable recovery and pay keen attention to the challenges confronting urban areas that have created deeply disparate effects and outcomes.

Going forward, studies will be necessary to determine COVID-19 impacts on Urban spaces. Possibly more importantly, the impacts of the recovery efforts, in terms of return on investment and the equity of those investments as they impact many impacted populations of color, LGBTQ status, and incomes.

Participatory Forum on New Requirements for Ethical Geographic Science in Rapid Research

To continue the discussion of questions that have been developed throughout both the AAG Annual Meeting Breaking Theme sessions and this Summer Series, please join us in a participatory forum on October 1, 2020. Click here to register and for more information.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0075