Lessons From the Pandemic: Rethinking Community Design and Investment

COVID-19 is causing professionals in the built-environment sectors to rethink how we design and create the housing and communities where we live.\ AARP’s Equity by Design global dialogue series, which continues with monthly sessions through February 2021, is generating solutions-oriented conversations among a few thousand built-environment professionals from around the world. Based on an age-friendly framework that tackles health disparities, the dialogue series is intended to lift up critical lessons and opportunities as we emerge from a tragic pandemic, and to catalyze action among professionals in the fields that shape the physical housing and communities where we live.

How COVID-19 Exposed Existing Health Disparities

The pandemic has exposed how policies and practices that physically segregate people in the U.S. by age, race or ethnicity, and the systemic disinvestment in the places where marginalized or vulnerable people live, have led to significant disparities in health and longevity. 

“Many of the comorbidities that COVID preys upon are tied to built-environment features,” Mariela Alfonzo, founder and CEO of urban design data analytics company State of Place, said during an Equity by Design dialogue. “Many of those features that would promote healthier behaviors and health outcomes are often missing from vulnerable communities.” 

Beyond safe housing, such features might include safe streets, well-maintained sidewalks, well-placed benches, good lighting, healthy food options and parks or other walkable destinations that provide people with opportunities to form social bonds — with the additional necessity to physically distance. 

In order to alleviate some of these disparities, we must prioritize improving the physical environment in disproportionately impacted communities.

The pandemic has also caused a disproportionate number of coronavirus fatalities in long-term-care facilities. While this is alarming on its own, it also illuminates another reality: We do not currently have a good alternative to such facilities, and consumers lack options. The design of housing and communities across the country is ill-suited for the rapidly increasing share of an older population that, as AARP research repeatedly shows, wants to age in their homes and communities. 

Henry Cisneros, the former Secretary of US Housing and Urban Development and former mayor of San Antonio, shared how during many public meetings, “someone in the audience, when they got up to speak, was crying from the frustration they had helping their aging parents contend with the built environment.”

Reimagining Homes, Rethinking Zoning

The current need for most of us to function almost entirely at home has driven professionals in built-environment fields to rethink the ways we use spaces. “Housing is now health care; housing is now education,” Paul Williams, president and CEO of Project for Pride in Living, said.  

Housing is now also an economic issue. Counties are leasing hotels that have gone underutilized during the pandemic’s economic slowdown and using them to house homeless residents — which is proving effective. “We’ve known all along: if you get people safe, stable housing, they in fact will start to solve their own problems,” Williams said.

The flexibility needed in our built environments applies to both retrofitting existing housing stock and building new ones. Environmental gerontologist Esther Greenhouse pointed out that our current housing was designed based on the needs of the average-height male between the ages of 20-40 — leaving the rest of us to adapt. One solution proposed by Cisneros for making current housing stock more enabling for people of all ages and abilities is to use the existing Community Development Block Grant program at HUD, a strategy previously employed to promote energy efficiency through weatherization. 

“Let’s create the lifespan home, with assistance to people particularly who are poor, in retrofitting homes,” he said.

In addition to retrofitting homes to work well across the lifespan, we must also create appropriate and affordable new housing options. Local zoning, which Streetwyze cofounder Antwi Akom referred to as the “DNA of the built environment,” is a major contributor to the problem. 

Yet zoning codes and regulations can also be a critical part of the solution. Through changes such as eliminating minimum lot size requirements, increasing density caps, and allowing manufactured housing, local zoning has the power to transform communities. “Cities across the US have kept manufactured housing out; it’s a polite way of discriminating,” said Stacey Epperson, president and founder of Next Step, which has worked with numerous manufacturers to incorporate age-friendly features into their housing models. 

Finally, private housing developers must also be ready to make the shift to affordable lifespan homes. Cisneros was surprised, given the scale of the aging population, “that more in the building community have not embraced this shift, because it’s so clear what is needed.”

Rebuilding Around People

In discussing how to help guide post-pandemic rebuilding, Williams pointed out that past efforts to redevelop neighborhoods with high crime rates have often missed the mark. While crime went down and property values went up as a result of efforts in Minneapolis, disparities continued and even increased. 

“We’d done a great job on the bricks and mortar and places have prospered—but people have not,” he said.

Helping people prosper by fostering empowerment and self-determination among our most vulnerable populations is at the heart of Akom’s work. “We must bring everyday people from the margins to the epicenter of participatory planning processes,” he suggested. “The people closest to the problem are the people closest to the solution.”

Doing this demands two important undertakings: capacity-building and democratizing data. Teaching members of the local community the language of design enables them to “contribute their unique expertise in a meaningful way and really step up as community leaders,” Ifeoma Ebo, urban designer and strategist, said. 

Similarly, it is important to incentivize the utilization of local tradespeople and small businesses, including engineers, designers, and developers, and to invest in enhancing their capacity where needed.

The second necessary undertaking is investing in platforms that facilitate the generation of data directly from community members and ensuring that these community-derived data help drive local decision-making. Akom refers to this as “culturally community-responsive technology.” 

This allows the “design of places to be shaped by people to fit the behaviors that they want,” Alfonzo said. 

Dr. Bill Thomas, a gerontologist and social entrepreneur in the senior housing space who moderates the Equity by Design dialogues, pointed out that soliciting and using community-derived data is a great way for the community to drive demand for the enabling and safe housing and community spaces that they want.

Ebo sees this community-driven planning approach as part of a shift from the current digital era’s focus on smart cities—or using technology for efficiency, “toward a more thoughtful city.” 

“Community members should also define what success looks like and how it is measured,” she added.

Perhaps this is a key lesson as we embark upon post-COVID-19 rebuilding. Let’s strive for Ebo’s thoughtful city, where, as she puts it, “communities and residents are engaged meaningfully and are being integrated into both the process and product, the operations and maintenance of spaces—in order to achieve a more equitable outcome.”

You can watch recordings of these dialogues and register for upcoming sessions on AARP’s Equity by Design webpage.

What Are ‘Political Entrepreneurs?’ This Guy Believes They’re the Heroes Who Will Disrupt Washington’s Gridlock

“Political entrepreneur” is a phrase NationSwell Council member Kahlil Byrd uses to describe nonprofit leaders and techies who are tackling America’s biggest problems “in a completely innovative, nontraditional, and entrepreneurial way.” And without a dose of partisanship.  

“Their bias is to create a tool, an idea or a process that will cut through the challenge,” Byrd wrote earlier this year in Forbes.

Byrd, a Republican, has been dedicated to cross-partisan policy reform for more than a decade. He’s worked with Massachusetts’ former governor Deval Patrick and Michelle Rhee, both Democrats. And during the 2012 presidential primary he ran Americans Elect, a startup that worked to get a bipartisan presidential ticket on all 50 state ballots. More recently, in the wake of the 2016 election, he’s noticed a new league of people across the political spectrum determined to reform American policy.

As he wrote in a December 2016 LinkedIn post, political entrepreneurs are “tackling the biggest issues that directly affect citizens’ lives [and] they refuse to accept the failure, division, and deadlock that dominates our politics.”

But as an investor with deep ties to the nonprofit and tech sectors, he knows firsthand the challenges his beloved “political entrepreneurs” face in getting the financing they need to transform their civic innovations into nonpartisan policies.  

“Even the best ideas — making it easier to vote, using data to connect citizens to Congress or deploying new talent into undervalued sectors like child welfare — have profound trouble finding the capital needed to scale,” the New York City–based Byrd says.

Taking action, Byrd co-founded the Invest America Fund, an advisory firm and seed fund that supports political entrepreneurs and matches them to what he says are “the business leaders, philanthropists and others who have already succeeded and want to spend their time and capital.”

Byrd and his co-founder, Kellen Arno, believe they are among the few investors focused on creating a financing pipeline for these types of policy innovators.

One organization they back is Foster America, a startup devoted to child welfare reform founded by Sherry Lachman, a foster child herself who later went on to serve as a policy adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden. The nonprofit’s fellowship program recruits talent from the business, education, technology and health fields, and supports them in their efforts to transform child welfare policy.

Early success has led Foster America to double its impact, expanding from eight fellows in 2016 to 16 this year. By 2020, Foster America plans to have 50 fellows working with 25 child welfare agencies nationwide.

“We are trying to bring together two groups on opposite ends of the success curve: Political entrepreneurs on one end, and on the other, successful and creative funders who can provide growth financing,” says Byrd. “Entrepreneurs are still trying to prove worth — both their own and of their ideas. Funders have sustained success and know how to build value from the ground up. Both care deeply about the country.

Kahlil Byrd is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of Invest America Fund, which provides seed money to entrepreneurs working on bipartisan policy reform.