Cities Rethink Their Use of Public Space - Commercial Observer

From bike lanes to car-free cores, cities are preparing for recovery and a post-COVID future.

The skies were blue in Los Angeles. Bluer than they had been in a while, maybe even a century. And cleaner than the air in any major city in the world.

It was April 6, 2020.

Three weeks earlier, the world had stopped.

A global pandemic had emptied the streets of cars, the cities of people, and the skies of pollutants. As a result, carbon emissions had dropped by about 17 percent worldwide, 32 percent in Southern California, 30 percent in the Northeast, and 70 percent in India.

“We could see the mountains,” said Andy Cohen, the co-CEO of architecture firm Gensler. “We could see for miles and miles and miles.”

The deadly virus jolted cities out of complacency, by dispelling the illusion that the status quo is immutable, and by forcing them to prioritize in almost brutal terms, what is and isn’t essential.

In response, residents and governments in cities around the world began to rethink the use of their public spaces and public infrastructure, including most significantly, their streets.

The city of Pasadena implemented 100 miles of slow streets with nothing more than signs designating them as such; in Berlin, 14 miles of bike lanes appeared overnight; Barcelona transformed 13 miles of parking spaces into bike lanes; Vilnius opened 18 streets for outdoor dining; Athens, Paris, London and Seattle established car-free zones in their city centers; Bogota, Milan and Manchester put up miles of pop-up bike lanes.

Oakland was the first city in the United States to announce a program of 74 miles of slow streets, which would be open only to local traffic. “Our streets and sidewalks represent about 25 to 30 percent of our land,” said Alexandra McBride, Oakland’s chief resilience officer during a virtual town hall in April. “We decided to take advantage of that resource.”

Many of the changes were implemented quickly, in almost guerilla fashion, and at little cost, because the world was in a state of crisis.

“Normally when we try to change anything, we get pushback,” said Jarrett Walker, a transit consultant, in a Buro Happold-hosted webinar on June 4 on adapting cities post-COVID. “Now everything’s changed, everyone’s habits are disrupted, nobody has that deep animal sense of entitlement to everything being the same as yesterday, because it isn’t.”

The changes that cities have implemented run the gamut, but are generally focused on mobility, economic recovery, and recreation, and the three often overlap. The specifics include adding temporary bike lanes, extending sidewalks, closing streets to through traffic, requisitioning public space for outdoor dining and designating zones for curbside pickup.

“We need to reimagine how we use public space—parks, streets, public plazas—to set up tables and chairs, so restaurants can generate much needed revenue outdoors, because they’ll likely have reduced occupancy indoors,” said Andrew Rigie, the Executive Director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, which has backed the New York City Council in their efforts to find outdoor space for that purpose.

In addition to pedestrianizing streets for outdoor dining, cities are expanding sidewalks to assist with space for queuing outside stores, designating zones for curbside pickup and delivery, and making it easier for restaurants to use private space for outdoor dining.

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