Construction in Carmel, Indiana, in 2018.

Building a future in a corona paralysis

Note: I am traveling today, picking my oldest daughter up from university. I hope that you and yours are safe. Public Square will continue to report on urbanism next week. All the best.

How quickly we have gotten used to a world that has seemingly stopped. I was out running yesterday morning, and came across construction workers who were moving and positioning heavy equipment for a development project near the waterfront of my city. It seemed odd, and yet highly reassuring, that these workers were carrying on with preparation for foundations of townhouses and apartments. 

We have shut down nearly all activity in Ithaca, New York—the state that leads the nation in cases with 1,700 as of today. The grocery stores are struggling to keep their shelves stocked. Employees at the pharmacy two blocks away are dealing with a rush of prescriptions—not due to the coronavirus directly, because we have only a few confirmed cases in our region, 200 miles from The City. People are rushing to fill prescriptions in the same way that they are buying toilet paper. And many are calling the doctor at the first sign of illness, which is understandable.

The cops are out and the banks are open. Most of the activity in the town is restricted to “essential services.” Those are activities that people need immediately, or at least day to day. The construction workers are different. Nobody is going to move into those dwellings anytime soon. And yet, the guys were moving dirt like normal. 

Few people are thinking beyond the next few days or weeks. The music has stopped, and nobody knows when the band will play again and the rhythms of life return to normal. It could be a month, two, three—who knows? And how drastically will the tune change when the music starts again?

But these construction workers—they are getting on with building a future. They are constructing housing that Ithaca will need a year or two down the road. 

Developers get a lot of flak in this town, as they do in most places across America. Many people don’t appreciate change in our communities. Change is unpredictable and we are not sure how it will affect our lives. The change itself is inconvenient and painful. Travel lanes and sidewalks are closed, streets are made temporarily ugly with dumpsters and fences and piles of material. Construction is noisy and irritating. 

But today, as nearly everything else has stopped, I realize just how much we need that construction. We need to think and act on the future. That’s what being an urbanist is all about. We may question the design or the plan or the impact, but we are about making a better world. So, let’s appreciate the construction workers who are still digging and pounding and hammering.

I'm not sure how long this will continue. Currently, there are no restrictions on construction work. But this industry will be affected like any other. For now I am reassured that in this time of coronavirus crisis, somebody is building the city of tomorrow, today. I hope they are able to stay on the job. 

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