People are taking to the streets like never before. The national outpouring of protests for racial justice has a second, underlying message: The importance of streets as public spaces where people can and will congregate to express themselves through every channel from civic action to public art. This message is reinforced as restaurants, some cultural venues, and businesses reopen after the COVID-driven shutdown, often expanding into public spaces to allow for distancing and comfort (and enjoyment of the outdoors).
What's really happening?
According to Dr. Tabitha Combs of the UNC Department of City and Regional Planning, between March 5 and the end of May, over 260 cities on six continents had undertaken 335 specific, municipally sanctioned actions to meet the demand of people for public space. These included reallocating roadway space to non-car modes including expanding curb space and curb space reclamation for pop-up bike lanes and widened sidewalks (120 cities); closing streets to all motorized traffic (87 cities); creating shared or calmed streets where cars are discouraged and de-prioritized (62 cities); and converting public space for outdoor dining and retail (39 cities). CityLab describes the range: "Around the world, cities are scrambling for more space to accommodate an indefinite period of face masks and social distancing: Bern and Vilnius are converging downtowns into open-air cafes; Milan is casting the reallocation of street space as a long-term growth strategy; and a host of cities, from Paris to Oakland, are going big on pop-up bike and pedestrian infrastructure in streets and parks."
In late April, the time when some cities began to loosen up stay-at-home restrictions, Combs reports there was an uptick in closed streets and curb expansions for outdoor dining as municipal leaders began thinking about how to support their cities during a long recovery process. And toward the end of May, curb space reclamation and outdoor dining repurposing started to be unveiled and included in new, comprehensive mobility plans in Europe and Canada to sustain higher levels of biking and walking, beyond pandemic response, into the future.
Across the US, too, we find ourselves in a fresh new conversation about the use of public space—a conversation that, for a change, is not dominated by traffic engineers. Half a century ago, the building of the US interstate highway system—along with new zoning laws—was an unprecedented experiment that gave rise to sprawling suburban development. Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, a public space advocacy organization, observes that "the interstate highway experiment was in many ways a dismal failure. Right now, we have a chance to correct those mistakes."
This new experiment is happening nearly everywhere in the world and all at once. For the first time in 50 years, streets and roads (which account for 80 percent to 90 percent of the public space in many cities) are being turned into places for people, not cars. The long struggle to reclaim public space from car dominance seems closer than ever to being won. That is because municipal authorities finally recognize that the real estate value of parking spaces is far more lucrative as places for cabin-fevered, quarantine-weary residents to dine in the sunshine, than as spaces for parking a car. In more and more communities, parking spaces are being redesigned as parklets and outdoor seating areas that support physical distancing and are as attractive as they are utilitarian. They may be outfitted with decorative scrims or screens separating groups of diners, with shade to keep out the sun and rain, permeable surfaces to allow storm water to percolate, and with plantings for privacy and beauty. And there is increased repurposing of parking lots for outdoor displays and the sale of merchandise, exhibitions, and programs usually held indoors.
Communities are beginning to grapple with whether these changes can be made permanent. In some cases, economic relief funding is available to implement them. In this moment, it's vital to consider that how we spend disaster relief money now shapes our communities' futures far beyond the duration of the disaster itself.
A case in point: In 1972, both Elmira and Corning, New York, were devastated by Hurricane Agnes. Elmira spent their FEMA recovery funds on walling themselves off from the Susquehanna River, eliminating any future chance to enjoy their beautiful riverfront. Corning used their funds to rebuild their downtown. Elmira has never fully recovered, and Hurricane Agnes is a topic of conversation today. Corning is still thriving 40 years later.
The value of public space in a democracy is being driven home right now by two related issues: safety for people enjoying outdoor dining and being able to run, bike, and walk in once traffic-clogged streets; and safety for the public expression of widespread support for black and brown lives and the demand for their fair and just treatment. As communities decide whether to adjust their streetscapes for the former, it would be short-sighted not to keep the broader equity issues in mind. And we can, by using these discussions as an opening for more comprehensive planning and policy to make sure that those newly expanded restaurant districts don't bump up property values and force low-income residents out. What this moment calls for is community-driven planning to reclaim our downtowns and neighborhoods for everyone.
Cynthia Nikitin is a senior fellow and sustainable places advisor to Sustainable Hudson Valley.