Pandemic forces planners to rethink everything

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Gov. Charlie Baker isn’t the only one thinking about what work will look like after the pandemic.

The COVID-19 virus arrived last year as the Metropolitan Area Planning Council was in the middle of developing its next big long-term plan for economic development in the region — MetroCommon 2050. That has forced the agency to reconsider everything from where people will work and how they will commute to whether the industries creating jobs before the pandemic will continue to do so.

What will happen to office space? Will commuters return to trains and subways?

“A lot of it is unknown,” said Betsy Cowan, chief of economic development for MAPC.

The regional planning agency held its winter council meeting Wednesday where it reviewed some of the original research that has been done by MAPC, as well as some of the data collected by agencies like the MBTA, to raise many of the questions that planners will try to answer in the coming months and years.

MAPC Executive Director Marc Draisen said that the pandemic has changed a lot about the nature of work, but he believes there’s a danger in over-correcting.

“It’s very easy for people to look at this tremendous impact of the pandemic and say it’s going to change everything. It’s become popular for people to say no one will go back on transit, nobody will live in the city anymore and everyone will work from home,” Draisen said. “It’s important to remember that there will probably be some motion in those directions, but people do not make their judgments based only on what’s happened in the last year. They don’t completely change their perspectives, and they don’t completely change their life stories.”

Draisen said the economic trends observed before the pandemic are likely to continue as the economy returns to familiar rhythms, and he noted while MAPC was once entirely focused on real estate development it has had to shift to put an equal emphasis on workforce issues.

“Economic development depends on markets. It depends on people buying stuff, services and goods. And yet we’re living in a time when low wage workers are earning less, high wage workers are earning more and middle class jobs are disappearing and that is going to have a tremendous impact,” Draisen said.

Sarah Philbrick, senior research analyst at MAPC, presented the agency’s council with research that showed how wage polarization since 1990 has gotten worse. She said middle-income jobs in construction and other fields have been disappearing, while high-wage careers in the life science and low-wage jobs in food preparation and other service industries have grown.

A pre-pandemic national survey in 2018 from the Federal Reserve found that 48 percent of households could not handle an expense of $100 without worry.

Philbrick also said that despite a 15 percent increase in employment in the region between 2010 and 2018, utilities, manufacturing and public administration shed 7,866 middle-wage jobs, hitting the Black community particularly hard.

Some of these trends made the impact of the pandemic worse, particularly in communities of color.

“We really need to think about who is still most at need and what other people we need to be targeting with assistance going forward,” Philbrick said.

As Massachusetts emerges from the pandemic, she urged close attention to care workers, higher education and the medical care industry. For instance, she asked if remote learning becomes more prevalent what will Greater Boston’s footprint as a higher education hub look like and what will that mean for jobs and housing?

Cowan said MAPC’s planning work has begun to focus around three five-year goals: help everyone achieve financial stability for three to six months in the event of a hardship; increase wealth parity for the communities of color and create geographic diversity of jobs where people can live, work, shop and enjoy reasonable commutes.

To achieve the first goal, Cowan said MAPC is looking at how to partner with the private sector to implement workforce development supports, improve predatory lending protections, expand access to financial services and provide publicly funded income enhancements.

Achieving greater racial wealth parity will require expanding access to stable housing, supporting minority small business ownership and advancing tax reform to address “systemic inequity,” Cowan said.

Finally, the agency is exploring how to expand affordable housing options near transit and jobs, improving digital access in both rural and urban communities to support telework and education, and making transportation affordable.

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