Downtown Orlando has been dead for about six months now. It used to be a vibrant and active community with office workers in the daytime and party goers at night. Restaurants abounded everywhere. Now, restaurants are few and people are scarce. Downtown Orlando has become a ghost town. The Houston Chronicle reports the same for downtown Houston. Friends in Austin report a similar experience for Austin’s downtown. The Chicago Suntimes is reporting a similar dead Chicago downtown.

Between civil unrest in some cities and the Covid-19 pandemic across the nation, the nation’s downtowns have become ghost towns.

Google El Paso downtown news and the results are nothing but Covid-19 news saturating the results. Not news about business activities but rather the grim pandemic death and sick count, pretty much what the rest of the nation is reporting. Typically, the El Paso news media follows the national scene and completely ignores the important local news that El Pasoans need.

Like the news media, El Paso city officials are busy trying to emulate other cities they perceive to be successful while ignoring the local scene. One of the things that El Paso officials have tried to emulate, albeit years behind the trend is Smart Growth.

El Paso city officials believed that Smart Growth would be the economic renaissance of El Paso.

But like the taxpayer funded ballpark that is straining the city’s economy and further marginalizes the surrounding poor neighborhoods with another taxpayer arena, the city is now facing the reality that the Smart Growth plan they invested so much into is dying a slow painful death.

The key to surviving a pandemic like Covid-19 is social distancing.

Smart Growth is about making dense communities to create environments where people live, work and play. The more people that are packed into a footprint the more economically feasible Smart Growth becomes.

Smart Growth is the antithesis of social distancing.

Smart Growth advocates are now stating to realize that the pandemic is the death nail to their urban renewal projects and thus have begun to retool their messaging away from dense populations towards economic prosperity through less pollution, healthy cities and more equality.

Studies seem to suggest that density alone does not translate to higher rates of pandemic infections. But the ongoing debate over masks is driven by the unknown. People fear Covid-19 and that translates into a dying economy. Fear is further killing Smart Growth.

Smart Growth is based on the notion that people can work, live and entertain themselves in a small footprint ending the need for cars.

But Covid-19 has taught people that packing themselves into offices is not as needed as once thought, thanks to being able to work remotely. Not all workers can work remotely, but the workers targeted by Smart Growth work in environments where remote working is not only possible but more convenient than a crowded office. The people that Smart Growth targets, the highly educated can work remotely.

That leaves two of the three prongs necessary for Smart Growth to be economically feasible. They are housing and entertainment.

Covid-19 has closed bars, museums, night clubs and many other entertainment venues like event halls and movie theaters. Movie houses have been in a decline with the advent of online movies from services like Netflix. Covid-19 has shown online movies entertain as well as going to the movie theaters. But home movies are much more family oriented and less expensive.

Restaurants are focusing on pickup and delivery services bringing meals to the home where entertainment is being held while Covid-19 remains a threat to people.

Public transportation is also facing the threat of fear. Subways and other public transportation are petri dishes of Covid-19 and other diseases. Retail establishments have transformed away from walk-in traffic towards online shopping services like Amazon. Retail was already on the decline because of online shopping. The pandemic has all but killed retail shops.

The problem for Smart Growth has always been the human need for space. Urban sprawl is about space. Space to experience life in backyards with families and friends away from the noise of city life.

People gravitated away from downtown because they wanted space.

Smart Growth tries to herd people together into dense areas where they can work, play and live.

But Covid-19 has made density something to fear and social distancing the key to staying safe. As a result, people have learned that they can work remotely and entertain themselves at home.

Does a need for movie houses remain? Are night clubs coming back? Yes, but in much smaller scales because people now know that they can live in their homes safely away from others for the most part. When they want to party with others, they will venture back out to the night clubs, but only when they feel safe and not as frequently.

Thus, urban sprawl is back and Smart Growth is dead.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...