EVOLVING NEEDS & WANTS IN URBAN PLANNING

COVID-19 has impacted nearly every aspect of daily life, including our collective mental health. Learn how Wichita's mental health professionals are coping with the pandemic.

SHIFTING PRIORITIES AMID A GLOBAL PANDEMIC

Before COVID-19, there was momentum growing in downtown Wichita. Adding to the cultural vibrancy of the city’s core, mixed-use developments were under construction, companies were moving their workers downtown and young people were electing to live in the heart of the city.

Much of this development was focused on the idea of creating density — a critical mass of people and businesses that creates vibrancy in downtown areas.

Now, post-pandemic, that same density represents a public health risk. Crowded bars and coffee shops that once signified a successful urban core now signifies a greater need for social distancing and virus prevention.

This presents a major problem for a city whose priorities have shifted in recent years toward creating this urban feel. But Scott Wadle, director of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Planning Department (MAPD), is confident that the benefits of downtown won't forever be lost to COVID-19.

"Downtown has a distinct advantage in that you have lots of companies, businesses and housing all kind of mixed up together," he says. "There inherently is the advantage of this cross-pollination of people running into each other from maybe the same industry or the same sector. That type of advantage that draws different types of businesses to cluster in downtown — that's not going away, and that's not necessarily changing with COVID."

What could change is how Wichitans behave. With mask mandates, business closures and social gathering limits, the public is changing the way it uses downtown spaces — and spaces in general.


EVOLVING WANTS & NEEDS

With the emergence of COVID-19, priorities have shifted for not only the way cities should be developed, but for spaces and amenities they provide.

Before the pandemic, working downtown was common. But since March, many people have worked from their homes, often far from the city center. This puts recent downtown developments like Wave, Naftzger Park and the new Riverfront Stadium — built to enhance and take advantage of downtown density — further out of sight and out of mind for many Wichitans. But Wadle says the pandemic is actually accelerating other trends in which Wichita has invested recently.

"People are spending so much time, I think, sitting in front of a keyboard, doing the video chats and everything, that getting outside is just that much more important," Wadle says. "It's accelerated a demand for high-quality walkable areas, bikeable areas, places where people, again, can get out and do different things."

The City of Wichita has invested heavily in bike paths around the city. Today, there are over 100 miles of quality trails and paths. Similarly, Wadle says there are investments outside of downtown, in neighborhoods across the city, that are now getting put to good use.

"The City of Wichita is also making quality-of-life improvements in the neighborhoods right outside of downtown. Talking about the new aquatics plan, and the investments into public swimming pools, park investments and, beyond that, bicycle and walking investments," Wadle says. "It's interesting to see how they're being used in different ways than what we had forecasted a few months ago."

Despite these non-downtown investments paying off during COVID-19, there's still a potential for the pandemic to reinforce old ideas of urban sprawl, with workers spending more time in their homes outside the city core and less time in the cultural centers of our city.

Scot Rigby, assistant city manager for the City of Wichita, says businesses and residents will find a way back to the city center.

"The more I talk to business leaders and read literature, there's still a need and will always be a need for social interaction," Rigby says.

And when it comes to that level of social interactions downtown, the investments being made in quality gathering spaces are invaluable.

"People are going to look for that," Wadle says. "I'll call it a center of gravity that people are going to gravitate to, that has activities."


LEVERAGING WICHITA'S SIZE

COVID-19 has also emphasized the need to be a diverse city — to have amenities not just for large gatherings and a dense city core, but also for wide-open spaces and opportunities to explore nature.

The global pandemic has had a huge impact on every city across the U.S., but cities like Wichita, with far less population density, saw less spread early on compared with dense cities like New York and Chicago. It got many thinking: Is there a perfect-sized city in this post-COVID world?

"I don't know if there's a perfect size," Rigby says. "I say you always need to be growing. You may not want to grow as fast as Phoenix, but you always want to have an opportunity for people to see a future, and growth is part of that."

COVID-19 may offer some new ways for Wichita to compete for talent. Perhaps many who experienced the early, rapid spread of COVID-19 in cities like New York or Miami are now looking for a more spread-out city like Wichita, with better balance between rural and urban offerings. There's also the opportunity through remote work to recruit workers with jobs in big cities.

"It's an opportunity to work with businesses saying, 'Stay in New York, and recruit whoever, but they'll continue to work out of Wichita remotely,'" Rigby says.

Wadle says these opportunities highlight the importance of diversifying Wichita's investments to create several ways of life within the city.

"Really, I think that there's an advantage to having distinct and different types of development," he says. "There's different compositions of urban development, and that's going to allow for different types of lifestyles. And the more of these different nodes or development patterns that you have, I think the more diverse you are in terms of who you can attract and retain."

Some may be looking for a vibrant downtown with events and activities — even if they're on pause for the time being. Others are looking for a quieter life, with a larger yard adjacent to well-kept parks and bike trails. Still others are looking for a mix of the two — homes with yards close to that urban core.

Regardless of how COVID-19 continues to impact Wichita's downtown, having all of these types of development ticking in our city will go a long way to ensuring Wichita's ready to grow going forward.


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