Optimism in America is in short supply. Could it be otherwise? A fearsome pandemic has taken an intolerable number of lives, with many more people succumbing daily. Livelihoods are at stake as millions remain out of work, and the economy is suffering. The particularly shocking murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of white police officers—and shootings since—have awakened wide-ranging cognizance of persistent racism, a much longer national crisis than the pandemic. And some political leaders are still shamelessly stoking divisiveness rather than speaking out for tolerance and unity.
In truth, national unease was present prior to the arrival of COVID-19. Among a gathering of worries was climate change inaction, growing environmental harm, housing unaffordability, health care insecurities, and accelerating economic and social inequalities. Unlike prior generations—who trusted in a better future for their kids—today’s parents believe that the prospects for their children’s lives seem not as promising as were their own.
Throughout American history, a reconfiguring of society following a crisis often catapulted the nation forward. Shouldn’t today’s interrelated crises do so as well?
On optimism in the face of the current crisis
Along with optimism, expressions of ideals are in remission. Yet even amidst individual anxieties and the anger of the multitudes, one can sense a desire to reassert certain ideals. Let’s look again to the ones embodied in the opening sentence of the Constitution, “to form a more perfect Union,” and in our oldest motto, e pluribus unum. Would not the desire for equality, well-being, respect and acceptance of others, shared prosperity, valuing those who serve, caring for the environment, and access to health care be embodied in such aspirations? Add happiness, too, as in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Ah, but you are thinking that such hallowed statements—voiced by the privileged—were not actually intended for all, despite the phrase “All men are created equal.” No, we have never fully met the challenge of America’s lofty aspirations. But should we not continue to try, especially now? That oft-repeated phrase—We are all in this together—heard both in relationship to fighting the pandemic and among the marchers for justice, is not unrelated to an intention to form a more perfect union.
Can we all together transition from marching in protest to overcoming racism and other inequalities? And while we’re at it, can we all insist that fresher air remains over our cities once the pandemic is conquered? Can we collectively distribute less carbon into the atmosphere? Continue to enjoy congestion-free, pedestrian-friendly streets throughout urban America? Keep a healthier balance of work and life? Prolong that respite from incessant travel demands? Continue spending more time with family? Maintain daily walks with a loved one when social distancing mandates abate? Why not commit to keeping those Himalayan peaks visible from broader regions of India? Such shifts have been, pardon the expression, breaths of fresh air, illuminated by a crisis.
Throughout American history, a reconfiguring of society following a crisis often catapulted the nation forward. Shouldn’t today’s interrelated crises do so as well? For inspiration, recall the earliest colonists, finding not the Eden they imagined while sailing to a new world, but confronting a harsh wilderness instead. They persisted to fashion a version of Eden in which to prosper. Against odds, their descendants defeated a mighty empire standing in the way of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now remember the establishment of a Homestead Act in 1863, enabling any citizen to acquire a quarter-section of America—160 acres—at minimal cost, simply by occupying it and providing minimal improvements. Talk about affordable housing! Or, recall the Morrill Act, also passed in the midst of the Civil War. It required states to establish a public university with the proceeds from the sale of land granted by the federal government. Sixty-nine such land-grant institutions were founded, greatly expanding access to education and the “useful” skills necessary for a modernizing society. Among these were Texas A&M, the University of California, Cornell University, and MIT.
Now consider the determination to overcome distance: Construction of a transcontinental rail system was completed within a couple of decades during the second half of the 19th century. Concurrently, thousands of acres of parks and greenswards were “planted” in rapidly industrializing and increasingly harsh cities, in order to make them more humane for all those arriving from subsistence farms and across oceans. Remarkable environments such as New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace were the result.
And we haven’t yet gotten to the 20th century, during which America prevailed in two world wars; invented a social security system and Medicare for the elderly; reconnected the country with roads, telephones, and the internet; increased the percentage of families attaining their measure of the American dream; and finally established civil rights in law (if not always in reality). We even landed a person on the moon, and even more remarkably returned him safely to Earth—a catalyst for major public commitment to scientific research in multiple fields.
To summon either aspirations or accomplishments of American culture is not to ignore, much less excuse, the many dystopic aspects of American history: the near total destruction of Indigenous cultures; the horrors of slavery and systemic racism; the conceits of Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism; the continued corporate and political restraints on economic parity; the despoiling of the environment in the name of progress. Mere voicing of ideals have not led to their attainment. But to live and flourish in company with others—in more perfect union—requires shared ideals.
Summoning ideals during a period of crisis is hardly naive. Re-read John Lewis’s letter written right before his passing, imploring us to pursue “the next chapter of the great American story.” A lifetime of struggle against racism and for civil rights did not lead Lewis to abandon America’s ideals. And back in 1859, at an event in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, scene of revolutionary foment a century earlier, Carl Schurz—senator from Missouri, 13th secretary of the interior, and an immigrant appreciative of his adopted country—spoke to the value of following national ideals. “Ideals are like stars,” he said, “you will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but… you choose them as guides, and following them will enable you to reach your destiny.” Sound advice.
The pandemic will be conquered. The economy will rebound. City streets will return to some life even as citizens better balance spaces for work and life. But instead of returning to a prior normal, let’s commit, all together, to a destiny that enjoys the necessities of clean air, justice, and equality for all.
Alex Krieger, Principal, NBBJ, a global architecture and planning practice. Research Professor of Urban Design, Harvard University. Author of City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America From the Puritans to the Present.