Summary

  • BACKGROUND:  More than half the states in the United States have started to reopen their economies to some extent or have plans to do so soon.  Dr. Steven Cohen, an expert in planning and sustainability, shares his views with journalists on New York City’s path to reopening and recovery in the aftermath of the COVID-19 peak.  He will provide a historic perspective of the city’s resilience and offer his insights on what the future new normal will be for city residents and visitors. 

NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR 

MODERATOR:  My name is Daphne Stavropoulos, and I am today’s moderator.  Welcome to the New York Foreign Press Center’s briefing on “The Resilient City: The Reopening of New York City and the Road to Recovery.”  Please keep your microphone muted while you are called on to ask a question.  If you have technical difficulties during the briefing, you can use the “chat” feature and we’ll try to assist you.  As a reminder of today’s briefing, this briefing is on the record, and I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce our briefer, Dr. Steven Cohen.  Dr. Cohen wears many distinguished hats at Columbia University in the schools of Professional Studies and International and Public Affairs, as well as the Earth Institute, and I sent a link to his bio in the media advisory.   

This press briefing is a opportunity to hear Dr. Cohen’s views on New York City’s path to reopening and recovery in the aftermath of the COVID-19 peak.  And as a reminder, our briefer’s opinions are his own and don’t represent those of the U.S. Government.  Dr. Cohen will provide some opening remarks and then I will open the meeting to questions and answers.   

Dr. Cohen, welcome, and please go ahead. 

MR COHEN:  Thank you, and thank you for tuning in today.  So I want to talk a little bit about New York.  It’s a place I know a fair amount about.  With the exception of 10 years when I was in college and graduate school, and in the federal government in the EPA, I’ve lived here for most of my life, which is – I lived in New York City for over half a century, so I’ve seen a lot of the city and I think I know it pretty well.  The high school I went to, for example, Madison High School in Brooklyn, is where Bernie Sanders went to school, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Chuck Schumer and Carol King, and so those of us who are from this place have a fair amount of attachment to it.   

But New York City has had its problems, and its been counted out before.  Historically, during the Revolutionary War, we were occupied by the British in 1776 to 1783.  We had draft riots during the Civil War.  During the Depression in the 1930s, we had homeless camped out in Central Park.  We lost a million people in population from the end of World War II until the 1980s, as people were saying well, that’s it for New York City, that’s it for cities.  We nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s as the city transitioned from being a manufacturing city to being a service city.  People don’t realize this, but we used to make things in New York City.  In fact, at the end of World War II, almost half the GDP of New York City was in clothing manufacture.  Last year it was about 1 percent.  New York City has – was going through a transition from a manufacturing city to a service-oriented city, didn’t quite realize it, and in the process we almost went broke.  In the 1970s we came very close to going bankrupt.  

In the 1970s and 80s we were overrun by crime and drugs.  In fact, in the early 90s, at its peak we had over 200,000 homicides in New York City.  Then we had September 11th, we had Hurricane Sandy, we had the recession of 2008 and 2009, and New York City has been counted out over and over and over again, yet always comes back.  And the reason for that, I think, is because of the people of New York City, and even though we’re all in hiding these days, we’re going to come back.  The city is extremely diverse; 40 percent of the people who live in New York City were born in other countries.  It’s very high-energy, very ambitious, and even in the face of a pandemic, you’re still seeing signs of that, and it’s not going away. 

I know there’s a lot of discussion about what’s going to happen with the global economy because of xenophobia and nationalism and these extreme forces, but the economic power of the global economy is not going away, and it’s not going away because it provides us with extremely high level of wealth and productivity.  And the force of the technologies and the connections of global supply chains, even though they’re under crisis right now, they will come back and they’ll come back strong again, because it’s simply the power of the technology and of economic development.   

The attraction of New York City to that global economy is also not going to go away, and the reason for it is the number of languages spoken here, the diversity of the city, and the intensity of the city, and the attractiveness of the city, and the level of quality of life that people enjoy here and will enjoy again.  So I have a high level of confidence that that’s going to happen.   

My field is basically environmental sustainability, and as we make this transition from the manufacturing to the service, to what I think will be eventually the sustainable city, which will be a decarbonized city and a more attractive place than it was in the 60s and 70s when we were pretty polluted, the infrastructure for sustainability requires density as well as the lifestyle that people wish to live in.   

Human beings are social creatures; we like to hang out together.  There’s a reason why you get on a plane from New York and sit on it for 15 hours to go to Hong Kong for a two-hour business meeting, then get back on the plane and come back.  You do that because you get more done in those two hours then through countless Zoom meetings and email exchanges.  There is something about communication in three dimensions that’s extremely important and that we’re going to get back to.  It’s true that we’re going to use technology more.  Some of the tendencies of working from home and all of the rest, that will continue, but as soon as people can get back, they will get back.   

We will carefully reopen over time, and I look at this a little bit like what happened after 9-11.  You probably – most of you are probably too young to remember this, but when I was a younger person, I used to fly to Washington every week on something called the Air Shuttle, and the Air Shuttle had – there was no security, there was no TSA.  You basically went on the plane, and in an hour you were at Washington National Airport.  Well, that’s all over; you can’t do that anymore.  So we’ve created in office buildings, at airports security to make sure that when people get on transportation that there’s no bombs and there’s no weapons and so forth.  Now, in addition to that, we’re going to be adding biological scanning to make sure people don’t have pandemics, diseases.  Because we’re going to see more – this is not the last of these kinds of events we’re going to have, and we have to build the public health infrastructure locally, nationally, and globally so that we can quickly isolate these things.  The one thing that I think everybody’s learned is the multitrillion-dollar impact of the pandemic, which people like Bill Gates have been warning about for at least a decade if not longer, and many other people have been warning about, but we haven’t taken seriously.  I think now you could say people are going to be taking this quite seriously.  So we’re going to reopen first with testing and tracing and isolation until the prevention and a cure will be discovered, and I believe they will be at some point.   

Tourism will probably be the slowest industry in New York to recover.  Last year we had 66 million tourists to New York City.  I don’t think 2020 is going to be a good year for tourism, and it will take a while before people have the confidence to come back, but I think it will come back.  But New York also has other businesses – education, which is the business I’m in, is one of its largest; health care is another large business; communications, the business you’re in; and media strategy and all of the arts and cultural activities will be gradually coming back.  At first they’ll be with social distancing, and then over time those will be relaxed.   

So I think – I’m confident.  I guess I’d say that New York is going to come back, and I think that large cities around the world are there for a reason.  We’re going to see more of them developing over time.  More than half the world’s population now lives in cities; I don’t think that’s going to change.  I think that the advantages of the lifestyle that we have will reassert themselves.  And one of the reasons you can tell that we’ll have – people are afraid right now, we’re all afraid, but eventually our fear will go away and the risk level will become tolerable.  So that’s my overall perspective.  I’d be happy to enter into a discussion about this with any or all of you.  

MODERATOR:  Thank you. Dr. Cohen.  Let’s first hear from those participating via the Zoom app, and then I will turn to those of you who called in.  For those of you participating via the Zoom app, please click on the “raise hand” feature at the bottom of the participant list, or indicate you have a question via the “chat” feature at the bottom of your screen and I will call on you.  And as a courtesy to our briefer, please provide your full name and outlet.  Okay, looks like the first question is coming from Niki.  Please, go ahead, Niki, and introduce yourself. 

QUESTION:  Is it okay to put on my video or should I just go ahead and ask?  Whatever works for you. 

MODERATOR:  Let – I’ll try to enable your video right now.   

QUESTION:  That’s okay, I think I’ll just go ahead.  No problem. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Thanks.  

QUESTION:  Good afternoon, Professor.  This is Niki from the Indo-Asian News Service.  It’s a news wire headquartered in India.  I also work with a thinktank called Observer Research Foundation.  Thank you for your opening remarks.  I just wanted to know, since you’ve lived here so long, what is that future New York going to look like and how different will it be?  What features of this do you think will change in a way that’s material? 

MR COHEN:  Well I think you’re going to see – if you think about entering a large building in New York City today, you now go through a security checkpoint where they take your picture and you get your identification, they look at your license, and things like that.  I think we’re going to add to that biological scanning of one kind or another.  What gets developed over time – I mean, initially they’ll take your temperature, but after a while, my guess is there’ll be rapid testing to make sure that you’re free of communicable diseases.  I think there’s going to be a very large industry in that area because the advantage, the productive advantages of density – people getting together in cities – there’s simply too much investment of infrastructure and of production for that to go away.  So I think what will be added will be an additional level of security.  

MODERATOR:  Great, thank you.  The second question comes from Magda.  Magda, please, go ahead.   

QUESTION:  Good afternoon.  Thank you for doing this online meeting.  My name’s Magda Sakowska.  I’m the correspondent to Polish TV Polsat News.  Professor, I have two questions.  First, how do you think – how much time it will take to reopen New York City for tourists and visitors from overseas? 

MR COHEN:  I think that a lot will depend on the medical technology of prevention and cure, and also the degree to which we’ve isolated people with the disease so that people can travel around in the city with a fair level of confidence.  The technique of identifying who has the disease and tracing them and then isolating them will mean that for the most part you can move around with confidence.  When people develop that confidence, tourism will return.  So it’s really a question of how quickly the testing and isolation and tracing protocols take that are put into place.  They’re moving very aggressively in this city to do that right now.  They’re hiring – you may have heard that in New York state, Mike Bloomberg is helping to coordinate the effort with – for Governor Cuomo.   

In New York City and the surrounding areas, this work has – of hiring these tracers has begun.  The increased level of testing is very important, so that will be the short run, and then the long run will be when this particular pandemic recedes and fewer people are in the hospital, fewer are dying, and it’s not the only thing you hear about in the news, when we can actually look at a newspaper and see some other story or watch the evening news and hear about some other story, then I think people will start to regain confidence and travel again.  

QUESTION:  And my second question is:  Do you think how long the fear against viruses and diseases will stay with us?   

MR COHEN:  How long this one will?  

QUESTION:  The fear against — 

MR COHEN:  Oh, the fear.  Well there – I think right now people are in lockdown.  I think that people want – don’t want to stay in this place, would like to get out.  I think what happens is it’s a little bit like dipping your toe in the water.  You – you check it out to see what the temperature is like, you start to move around a little bit more.  I mean, I’ve been – I live by Columbia University.  I’ve been working from my apartment for the last two months.  At some point – I go out every morning to walk in the park and in the late afternoon, but at the same time, I haven’t been outside of my neighborhood in two months, and I think most people are experiencing that now.   

So it’s a question of really what kind of tradeoffs you’re willing to make between the risk, your fear, and how adventurous you are.  Right now, the prudent thing to do is to stay inside or to stay away from people.  It’s not a natural human tendency, so the pressure to not do that is great.  How long it will happen – I mean, we’re in an unprecedented situation in the modern era, so I wouldn’t predict it, but I think that it will happen over time.  We’re seeing it in some places.  New York state, because of our governor, is moving very slowly and methodically to try to reopen.  If we demonstrate you can reopen without spikes in disease, then people will gain confidence. 

QUESTION:  Thank you very much. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  So the next question comes from Alexis.  Alexis, please go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Hi, yeah, my name is Alexis Buisson from the French newspaper La Croix.  I am – thank you for organizing this.  I’m wondering whether you think that New York City will lose a lot of its population because of the situation we’re in, and if a lot of people will end up moving permanently away from the city. 

MR COHEN:  The short answer is no.  I know that a lot of people are in their county homes, if they have them, or are people who are all over the place, but the attractiveness of the city doesn’t go away.  And like I said, we’ve gone through periods of time where the city has lost population, and eventually it rebuilt it and regained it.  I think the attractiveness of cities is still here.  And I’m not just talking about New York.  I mean, I’m talking about Singapore and Hong Kong and Paris and London.  I mean, the idea that somehow density itself is something to be avoided – people like to be in crowds, they like social interaction.   

So the real issue for the long term is what kind of medical technology gets developed, and do we build really robust public health systems that allow us to think that the risk of disease is low enough to tolerate it and to be back in crowds.  And I believe that the urgent priority of building both the prevention and mitigation technology, but also the detection and isolation standard operating procedures, and really build up public health organizations around the world, I think the priority for doing that is great.  I am counting on human ingenuity to build those systems so that we can live the way we want to live.   

So this is a long way of just saying that I think we want to live in cities, we want to be with each other; it’s a very human tendency.  It’s part of our – it’s part of how we are wired.  It’s part of our – it’s part of the genetics of being human.  And I think we will not be losing population over the long run.  The short run thing is, there may be some of that, but I wouldn’t consider it a long-term possibility.  

QUESTION:  Thank you. 

MODERATOR:  The next question comes from Kasumi Abe from Cross FM Japan:  “On the issue of sustainability, New York City banned plastic bags in retail stores on March 1st but has gone back to using plastic now.  What do you think of the future of plastic bags and plastic in the city?” 

MR COHEN:  I think that the city has done a few things that I don’t agree with.  They also stopped collecting food waste, which they had a separate system, and leading to bringing the food waste to anaerobic digesters.  I think it was foolish to do that.  I think that right now the idea of plastic bags is that, because of the disease, if you carry around a bag, you might have COVID-19 on it, and so plastic is a better solution over the short run.  The basic logic of moving away from disposable, one-time use plastic bags is still there, and I think it will reassert itself when we get past this crisis.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Let’s go to Bukola.  Bukola, can you introduce yourself, please? 

QUESTION:  Yes, hi.  I’m Bukola Shonuga.  I’m an independent journalist with Global Media Productions, and thank you for this opportunity.  I am just wondering, what do you think mass transportation in New York looks like in the future?  Looking back to how condensed everyone is given the train has just been crazy in retrospect.  How do you view this? 

MR COHEN:  Yeah, well, it’s going to take a while before people want to be packed into subway cars, not that anybody ever wanted to in the first place.  So what I am hoping for, and perhaps this will happen, you may realize that New York City is – the problem with New York City subway system is, the reason why it’s so crowded, is it has a signaling system from the 1930s.  If you go to other parts of the world, you can run many more subway cars per minute on the same tracks, so this may lead us to modernize the system faster, which should reduce some of the density.  But I think that over the short run, people are going to be – it’s going to take a while for people to get fully back to work.  You’re going to see people, you’re going to see 10 percent of the workforce, then 20 percent, and I think people are going to be reluctant to get onto crowded subway cars and to crowded stations.   

So the ramping up of mass transit will take a while, but I think that, again, once we have an inoculation, once there are some cures, then people will find the level of risk acceptable.  Remember, the subway is crowded; you could catch the flu, you could catch other kinds of diseases not as serious as COVID-19, but you could still get sick on the subway.  People worried about that before.  I think they’ll worry about it now.   

I mean, the interesting thing is because of the closing of the subway at night and cleaning all the cars, the subway system’s probably the cleanest its every been right now, and the fact is not that many people are riding it.  But it’s going to take a while for it to recover.  There’s no question about that.  That’s going other be a difficult problem.   

I think that when the city’s school system reopens, you’ve got a million school kids and most of them take the subway to go to school, that’s when I think people will start to build a little bit more confidence.  If the kids can go on the subway, then probably the grownups could. 

MODERATOR:  The next question comes from Maria Teresa Cometto from Italy.  She’s asking:  “When do you think Columbia and other universities will reopen?” 

MR COHEN:  Well, we haven’t closed.  Actually, one of my jobs in the School of Professional Studies is we run the summer session, which we moved from face-to-face to online.  We’re offering over 500 courses this summer, including some courses by some of our most famous professors who have agreed to teach because they can’t do a lot of other things and because they want to help the university. 

There’s a lot of discussion about what the fall will look like.  I know that the Cal State system has already decided to go completely online in the fall.  That’s not been Columbia’s decision yet.  My guess is that we’ll start with a combination of largely online and then move to face-to-face with lower density, and we’re talking about things like having classes that would be livestreamed, taped, and then some people would be in the classroom itself.  So we’re probably looking at a low-density model to start the school year, hopefully leading to a full, normal course just by the spring semester, but a lot depends on the course of the disease and the course of the technology to treat the disease.   

But Columbia – interestingly, we have more students registered for summer session this year than ever before.  Students during recessions and during times of uncertainty flock to universities because it gives them some structure and certainty in their lives, and that’s exactly what’s happening at Columbia this summer. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  The next question comes from Ilja Willems from Nieuwsurr, the Netherlands.  Her question is:  “Does the city have enough means to implement sustainable solutions since food scrap collection has been suspended, also in relation to more mobile lanes and other sustainable solutions? 

MR COHEN:  Well, the city does have the resources to do it.  I mean, one of the issues right now in cities and states around America is that because of the lower level of economic activity, there’s lower tax collection because people are losing jobs; there’s more demands on the state’s budgets and cities’ budgets, and so right now the entire country is – the entire world in many respects –  is strapped for resources, but that human energy that generates the wealth is still there and will be coming back.  I think it – in all likelihood there will be a fifth subsidy to the – that our Congress here will pass and the President will sign which will include aid to state and local governments, including New York City. So I think the resources will be there eventually.  Some of the politics has to get worked out.  

But there’s – New York City is an economic engine for the United States and also for the world, and so I think there is a – the people that – the economic powers in this country understand how important a viable New York City is, and that pressure will certainly be exerted in Washington. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Next question comes from Jana Ciglerova with Czech Republic.  “Is there a plan for the city to reallocate street space from cars to cycling and walking in response to the coronavirus like some European cities have done, for example, Berlin (inaudible) Milano?” 

MR COHEN:  Well, that’s actually been going on for a while, and there has been some – there have been some streets that are being closed off to reduce density so that when people are out and about walking.  So I think you’ll see more of that.  But New York City’s been building a public bike lane system that started when Mike Bloomberg was mayor and Janette Sadik-Khan was the transportation commissioner.  Since a great deal of that activity have gone on already – you’ve probably seen Times Square.  We’ve removed most of the automobile traffic from Times Square and replaced it with a pedestrian mall, so there’ll be more of that.  I think we’ll see more of it particularly over the summer months when people are outside more.  There’s going to – they’re going to fill up the parks and there’s going to be a need to provide more open space.  I don’t know how permanent some of those changes will be.  But there is a long-term trend to reduce the amount of space given on streets to automobiles and provide more of it for bicycles and for pedestrians. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Another question in the group chat comes from Amanda Mars from El Pais, Spain.  “New York is pretty known as a city where everything is fast, everybody runs and is in a hurry.  Given all the new security measures that are likely to be put in place, i.e. entering buildings, getting food from a place, even the distance between people in public transportation, can we expect New York to become a slower city?  Thank you.” 

MR COHEN:  Well, I think the city has slowed down a little bit over the short run.  And in the longer run, I think it’s hard-wired into the culture.  It’s a very fast-paced place.  I don’t think that’s going to change and I think the level of energy and intensity will return.  I think it will take a while.  Nobody knows how long, but it will come back.  It’s sort of fundamental to the nature of the place.  I don’t see that changing. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Let’s go to Weier, who has raised her hand and can ask her own question.  Weier. 

QUESTION:  Yes.  I had two questions.  First, there is lots of – on the cure, medicine, and vaccines these days.  But what if we cannot have the vaccine for the next 12 months?  What do you (inaudible) life would be like for New Yorkers for the next 12 months?  And the second question is:  In retrospect, how city should be better prepared for such pandemic in the future?  Thank you. 

MR COHEN:  Yeah.  Well, I think that nobody really knows the pace that medical technology will advance over the next year.  There is so – there are so many scientists working on this and there are so many resources being devoted to it globally it’s hard for me to believe there won’t be a solution.  I think one of the interesting things is in the media sometimes you see about there being a national competition of who’s going to get there first.  Nobody’s told the scientists about this.  I worked in the Earth Institute with scientists studying climate change and other aspects of environmental issues, and science is a global community.  They don’t care what country you’re from.  They don’t really care what kind of passport you have.  What they’re mostly interested in is what do you know and can we share information.  And so the urgency of addressing this problem is so great, and I think you are also seeing a tremendous amount of effort from business and from governments to try to – and scientists to work on this.  I think that we will come up with some solutions.   

In the short run, though, it’s – people are going to be more careful in how they interact with each other.  There’ll be an effort at social distancing.  If you walk in a park in New York today, people stay away from each other.  They’re wearing masks.  Taken – you can’t gather for a picnic, things like that.  But eventually people will go back.  Restaurants will start to open.  The restaurants that open will – you won’t be seated as closely together, so the economic model of the restaurants is going to have to change.  Probably the price structure is going to have to change.   

So I think we’re going to see those kinds of changes, but I do have – maybe it’s because I’ve seen so much of this in my lifetime.  The technology that’s needed, it’s so urgently needed that I simply believe that we will figure out a way to deal with it.  And not everybody feels that way, and I think some of our experts think that the political people are too optimistic, but I think that the need for this and the effect that it’s having economically is so great that I really think there’s very little choice and I think the options – I think the odds are that we will develop the technology to keep us safe. 

QUESTION:  And how we can – how the city should better prepared for the — 

MR COHEN:  Oh.  Well, there I think that we – all over the world we haven’t taken these public health issues as seriously as we needed to.  When this pandemic first emerged, it should have been identified, it should have been communicated, it should have been isolated.  The people who had it should have been isolated.  We as a planet now need to take these issues much more seriously than we did before, and the political regimes that might try to hide this kind of thing, we do need to figure out a way to make sure that the human interest – the global interest in protecting ourselves from these diseases – takes precedence over the politics and the other issues that prevented it.  So first you need to have a global system. 

And secondly, every major city is going to need to have active capacity to first monitor people’s health, identify people with communicable diseases, and trace them, trace who they’ve talked to, and isolate the people that have that from everybody else until they get through the disease and keep the level of disease low enough that the country can function.  We’ve now seen what happens when you don’t do it, so I think that the priority for resource allocation in this area is high.  One of the things that’s happened in the United States is we’ve cut our public health departments steadily over the last 20 years and particularly since 2008.  I would say right now if you’re in the public health business, it’s going to be a boom business over the next 10 or 20 years, maybe forever. 

QUESTION:  Thank you. 

MODERATOR:  Great, thank you.  The next question comes from Masako Shimizu from Kyodo News. 

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you.  Yes, I just wonder – U.S. society will be even more divided in the future between well-informed people, like people in San Francisco or New York, and not so informed or – I don’t know – I couldn’t understand what’s going on in Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, those people. 

MR COHEN:  Yeah. 

QUESTION:  What’s your thought? 

MR COHEN:  Well, there’s two things I’d say.  First, you should read David Brooks’s column in the Times today, because I think he has a really important perspective on this.  First, if you look at the polling data, not look at the demonstrations and social media where the extreme – if you have an extreme view and a view that’s outside the mainstream, you gain attention, people see it, they hear it.  Most people in the United States believe that their local and state governments are doing what they’re supposed to be doing at the right pace.  Most people believe that staying isolated until we feel more confident is the right approach.  And I think that’s true all over the country. 

Now, obviously, if you live in a rural area and there hasn’t been much of a problem, you’re wondering why this is even going on, and it’s understandable.  And in – one of the things that’s happening here now – it’s happening in New York State today – we’re looking at regions that have less impact and have met all the criteria for reopening and we’re starting to gradually reopen them, and I think we’re going to see that. 

I think that the average person in America really understands the danger here.  That’s why they have isolated.  It’s interesting, the models that were used to predict the health impact initially said a lot more people were going to get sick and die in New York, and what happened was nobody believed New Yorkers would isolate.  And guess what?  They did and they’re doing it.  They’ve been doing it for two months.  Nobody would have predicted that, and you’re seeing it all over the country.  People are being much more careful.  Even as stores and restaurants and barber shops and beauty parlors are opening up, you’re seeing all sorts of activity to try to protect people with masks and with cleanliness and things like that.  So I think that you shouldn’t underestimate the average person’s understanding of this issue, and I think that while there are a few people who are impatient and aggressively impatient, and they make for good media images carrying their weapons in the state capitol building, that’s not the norm and that’s not the average American. 

QUESTION:  Thank you. 

MODERATOR:  So the next question comes from Sheba.  “Coronavirus certainly changed the existence of the food industry, especially for restaurants and bars.  There are – they are a place for people to gather.  What is the forecast for this industry, and do they need to add an extra security to enter?  What about – what are your comments on food safety? 

MR COHEN:  Well, I think it’ s a business just like Disney World and travel and all of that.  Any place where people are gathering, you’re going to have to be thinking about it.  We’re thinking about it at the university for large lectures.  How do we have social distancing over the short run?  I think the issue is short-term versus long-term.  When we develop an inoculation that prevents people from getting this particular virus and we ramp up our public health capacity, then these businesses can operate the way they did before, and I think they will.  I think over the short run we’re going to see some accommodations that hopefully, over time, we can modulate to some degree.   

You may remember after 9-11, people didn’t want to fly for a while.  They were scared of being in airplanes.  Obviously that changed over time, people’s natural – and I would call it natural behavior, wanting to be social creatures and explore the planet, and see what they can see, will reassert itself.  And I’d say for restaurants, people like to go out and be together, in theatres, restaurants, and now we’re able to do it in parks, at least.  But I think that we’re going to see these industries reassert themselves, but yes, with some safety protocols at first, then we’ll see how that develops over time. 

MODERATOR:  Great.  The next question comes from Karlijn van Houwelingen of the Netherlands.  “To what extent is the current crisis comparable to previous crises that New York City has gone through?”  

MR COHEN:  Well, I mean, to some degree it’s unprecedented, but – because of its duration and its intensity.  We’ve never seen anything like this.  Now, they did – they do say that the 1918 flu was similar.  I think in some ways that it was a different culture.  It’s funny, my grandfather came from Russia to the United States in 1917, and he never spoke about the flu of 1918, and he had been here for a year.  We just figured that he was so used to people dying in his culture, it never occurred to him that it was any big deal.  But now, we’re used to living longer and healthier in New York City over the last decade, people – for people’s – people live longer because of health measures.  So I think there’s an unprecedented nature to this particular crisis, but we’ve been through many crises, and at the time they were also unprecedented.  So – I mean, nobody ever flew airplanes into skyscrapers before, and we came back after that.   

There – these kinds of crises that happen, people are creative, they’re ingenious, they’re – and resilient.  People are tougher sometimes than you think.  I finished reading a book about Winston Churchill and the Blitz that was in the bestseller list, and imagine every day your city being bombed by another country, and yet the prime minister walks through the rubble and tries to keep everybody cheered up, and you go on and you live another day, at least most people do.  So I think our ability to weather these kinds of storms is greater than people sometimes think. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  The next question comes from Jan Kaliba of Czech Radio.  “In your introduction, you described the changes of the identity of New York City during past decades.  Do you expect this crisis will be some kind of starting point for another structural change of the nature, identity, or face of New York City?” 

MR COHEN:  Well, I think that what you’ve been – one of the constants in New York City is the level of diversity of the city.  John Kennedy wrote a book when he became president called the “Nation of Immigrants,” and New York City is a city of immigrants, and it takes its character from that.  So I don’t see that changing.  It’s an international magnet; I don’t see that as changing.  I think that we’re going to go through a period of time where travel will be harder, and some of the things that we built the city on will be a little tougher to operate, but I think over time they’ll resume.  I mean, I see this as a deep crisis but I see it as one that we can resolve. 

I mean – I wrote about this in my blog a few – last week.  I live on Morningside Drive in New York City.  When I moved into my apartment building, I would hear gunshots from the park on a weekly, sometimes daily basis.  It was a big drug den.  By the time my daughters were in high school in the – in 2005 and ‘06, they could walk to the park to go to the subway.  Who would have thought you can go from 2200 homicides a year in the 90s to less than 300 over the last several years.  So I really believe that with using our brain power, using technology, and with our will and energy, we can overcome these problems.  And I think this will be one of those problems we’ll overcome. 

MODERATOR:  I’d like to give an opportunity to those who called in via the phone to ask a question, and then we’ll come back to those who have questions in the chatroom if we have time.  So we have a caller who has a question to go ahead.  Please un-mute yourself by pressing * 6.  If there’s a caller who has a question, please go ahead by pressing * 6.  Well, I’ll give them an opportunity —  

QUESTION:  Hello?  Can you hear me?   

MODERATOR:  Yes.   

QUESTION:  Hello, can you hear me?  Oh, sorry.  This is pretty new to me, to use the Zoom.  My name is Yu Jin.  I’m from Sina News, China.  I have a question maybe not related to New York but more on the global scale.  So before this pandemic, the biggest challenge towards mankind is climate change.  And during this pandemic, we can see everywhere from China to America where the sky is getting bluer and there are less pollutants released into the air.  And while, Professor, you mentioned that you believe the economy will rebound and the city is resilient, do you see this pandemic could – might be the last chance for the world to solve the problem of climate change by collaborating with each other to create a new or adapt to a new form of economy, so before the window closes? 

MR COHEN:  I have a strong belief that predates the pandemic and continues that we are going to decarbonize our energy system and we’re going to do it in part because renewable energy will demonstrate its attractiveness, again, as the technology develops.  So the story I sometimes tell about this, in New York City the biggest environmental problem we had in 1906 was horse manure – we were knee-deep in it – because the only way we could get around was the horse and buggy.  Then we developed the subway, then we developed the internal combustion engine, and those newer technologies drove the horse-drawn buggy out of the marketplace.  So the electric car is poised to do that, and I think renewable energy will eventually displace fossil fuels.  I’d like it to happen faster than it’s happening, but it is gradually happening.   

And the reason for it is very simple, and I’ll speak almost theoretically here.  So fossil fuels were created once in human history.  That’s why they’re fossils.  They are finite even though we’re not running out of them anytime soon, but they’re finite.  It cost you money and it damages the environment to get it out of the ground and to move it and to burn it.  All of those things cost time and money and pollution.  Renewable energy is based on a free source of energy – the sun, and whether it’s the wind or geothermal or solar, it still originates with the sun.  And over time, the technology of receiving that energy and storing it is getting better and cheaper, and we’ve already seen in the last decade that solar in particular has shown itself to be a tremendously advantageous technology. 

And so what will happen, and I think we’re already beginning to see it, is renewable energy and electric cars and electric vehicles will displace the fossil fuel-based internal combustion engine.  If you ever drive an electric car, you will realize, first of all, it’s much smoother, the pickup is better, and the service stations don’t like it so much because it has fewer moving parts and has less cost to repair.  But that superior technology will drive the less superior technology out of the marketplace.   

So it’s going to take a while, and one of the dangers is that in the developing world some of the old technologies will get dumped on people as, in some ways, a cheaper form of developing, and it would be good to have global cooperation to prevent that.  But I think the force of the market and technology is going to solve the climate change problem.  I think we need government and global action to have it happen fast enough so that we don’t have all this accumulated greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.   

MODERATOR:  The next question comes – is from Bukola once again from Global Media Production.  She is asking:  “What do you think of telecommuting?  Will it be a part of the workforce model moving forward, and what impact will it have on the economy?” 

MR COHEN:  Well, it already is, and I think we’ll see more of it certainly in the short run, and we’ll see more of it in the long run.  I think people like the flexibility.  But people also like to get together.  They like to go to – they like to travel into a central business district and park because from a management perspective you need people to be able to get together – maybe not as much as they do now.  And so I think we’re going to see more telecommuting; it will have an impact on – in the short term on real estate markets, restaurants, and things like that.   

But I think, again, in the long term, if you think about the population pressure on real estate values in big cities, whether it’s Hong Kong or Paris or New York, this will help ease it a little bit, but I don’t see it going away.  But I think people are already doing it.  There’s been telecommuting.  It’s been a growing trend – certainly not to the degree you’re seeing it now, but I think people are now getting a little bit more comfortable with it.   

I think what you’ll see more of is people who do come to work perhaps having more meetings held through these technologies like Zoom than before, but again, there are limits to this kind of technology.  We need – we see each other and communicate with each other in three dimensions – eye contact and body movement and body language.  These are real things and they contribute to organizational effectiveness.  So there’ll be more telecommuting, but there’ll still be lots of people working together in person.   

MODERATOR:  There is – Niki from Indo-Asian News has another question:  “Since your expertise is in environmental issues, could you comment on how materials will be used, it might change or transform in the future?” 

MR COHEN:  Well, I mean, I think that we’re going to see two things happen.  We’re starting to see it.  One is the development of a circular economy where, instead of producing a good which you throw out, you produce a good and you design it in such a way that you can reuse most of it.  So these days when you get a cell phone, some companies will buy it back from you.  And part of what they do when they buy it back is they mine it for some of the things, the rare metals and things of that sort.   

One of the most interesting things about the economy right now globally is the degree to which software is replacing hardware in all forms as the high-valuated part of the economy.  In the United States, 80 percent of our GDP is in the service economy.  And you’re beginning to see it even in companies like Apple, which made their name building computers and phones, now are increasingly in the entertainment business, in the software business, in the application business.  There’s a lot more profit in those kinds of businesses than in making the phones, which are essentially commodities.  Used to be you would switch your technology every 18 months.  Now people are holding onto these technologies for longer.   

So I think we’re going to see more and more of an emphasis on products that are made of imagination rather than of physical entities, and the way – the example I sometimes use is Blockbuster Video.  You used to go to a store and pick up a video, and then a DVD, and then eventually Netflix would mail you the DVD.  And now nobody uses a DVD, there’s no packaging, there’s no metal.  It’s just streaming electrons that come into your internet.  So that tells you something about how more and more the GDP is in those kinds of things, and I think we’re going to see more of that in the future.  I do think we’re going to see more use of biodegradable substances than plastics and things of that sort that continue forever because of the ecological impact.  

MODERATOR:  I think we have time for about one more question, and that comes from Maho Kawachi from Nikkei.  And it’s similar to one you’ve answered, but perhaps you can elaborate on what you’ve commented already.  “We are experiencing Zoom fatigue, and even many of us who – even for many of us who work from home.  What is your thought about the future of working in the education environment?”  

MR COHEN:  Well there’s very little question that we have to continue to learn throughout our lives.  Lifelong learning is not just a trite expression, it’s a matter of economic survival.  So one of the things I’ve discovered about things like Zoom is younger people seem to be a lot better at operating these things than people of my age, so inevitably I’ve got to get on the phone with somebody in their 20s to explain to me how do I use these features and this technology.  But you have to continue to learn.  The original spreadsheets, the original statistical packages I used in graduate school are all gone, being replace by better and more advanced technologies.  The world’s changing so we have to continue to learn.  So I think learning will be – the idea that you go to school and then you never go back to school is over, but you’ll have a period of more formal education, and then the rest of your life less formal education, and we’re – and I think that’s the way the future is.   

What’s interesting to me is how people use search engines to explain things to themselves.  How do I – how do I operate – how do I wear a mask so it doesn’t steam up my glasses?  Probably one of the most searched questions in the world right now, because if you live in a colder climate and you wear a mask, inevitably your eyeglasses, like the ones I’m wearing, steam up.  So learning is now part of life, and endless learning is part of life, and I think that’s the way the world will be in the future.  

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Dr. Cohen.  If we have one or two more minutes, I just wanted to give the opportunity to those calling in to ask one more question.  To do that, if you have a question, press * 6.  Are there any callers who have a question?  Well if there are no more callers who have a question, that concludes today’s briefing.  I want to thank everyone for joining us today.  A special thanks to Dr. Cohen for taking time out of your busy schedule.  I will share today’s transcript as soon as it’s available, likely on Monday, but I will send the video link later today.  And again, today’s briefing was on the record, and I want to thank you very much, and bye-bye.   

MR COHEN:  Thank you.   

MODERATOR:  Thanks, Dr. Cohen.   

 

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future