Urbanism Next
University of OregonUniversity of Oregon

Urban Design

Photo by Sean O. on Unsplash

What We’re Seeing Now:

Street space reallocated for safe walking, recreation, restaurants, and retail. The increase of walking, biking, and jogging during social distancing is resulting in temporary reallocation of street space and shifts in street management. Some cities, like Seattle, have already committed to permanent street closures in residential neighborhoods. As states have started reopening, cities like Tampa, Cincinnati, and Denver are piloting programs that allow restaurants to expand into the public right-of-way to increase their capacity while still meeting social distancing guidelines. These are taking the form of full street closures, lane closures, or streamlined permitting for sidewalk or parklet cafes. These open street pilots have received a mixed response due to their rapid deployment and lack of meaningful engagement with communities most impacted by COVID-19, such as BIPOC communities and essential workers who still need to drive or take transit to work. For example, Oakland was one of the first US cities to deploy an extensive open streets pilot, but East Oakland community members were not well represented during the initial public engagement. Since then, OakDOT has worked with community members to create Essential Places, which addresses more urgent community needs with temporary safety improvements at grocery stores and COVID-19 testing facilities.

An increased demand for open space is shifting how parks are managed and drawing attention to longstanding inequities. After an initial overloading of large-scale open spaces at the beginning of stay-at-home orders, cities are experimenting with management techniques, communication campaigns and quick design interventions to minimize risks of outdoor recreation. Temporary design interventions include: one way signs on trails, barriers in recreation fields, or painted guides for 6’ distance. Some cities have opted to close parking lots to discourage crowding, which unfairly burdens those without access to a walkable park in their neighborhood and those who need to drive due to physical limitations or safety concerns. There are also growing reports that police are enforcing social distancing in the public realm more often and more harshly against people of color, and a racial bias in which parks remain open vs. closed in cities.

People are activating the semi-private space of the frontage zone. In urban residential areas, there is newfound use and appreciation of semi-private spaces like balconies, porches, stoops, and driveways. These formerly underused spaces are now critical for physically distanced socializing, expression, exercise and access to fresh air. While this movement is applauded for building a sense of community, not everyone lives in neighborhoods with these spaces or is safe and comfortable outside their homes. This draws attention to the need for high quality affordable housing with outdoor space and the environmental justice issues of neighborhoods burdened with the most air pollution, urban heat islands, and noise pollution.

Potential Long-Term Issues and Questions:

How can we leverage the rediscovery of streets as public space in the short and long-term post pandemic period? The wide variety of uses currently being tested (playstreets, streateries, retail, markets, protesting, art) is showcasing the possibilities of reallocating car space to serve other community needs. How can we engage with BIPOC and other underserved communities to understand what street interventions will meet the needs of their neighborhoods in different phases of reopening? What lessons can be learned from the rapid deployment of pilot open streets and the public engagement processes that did or did not happen?

How can we design for social cohesion but physical distance in a variety of public spaces? As we move through phases of reopening and stay-at-home orders until a vaccine is found, we will require more semi-permanent design interventions that foster the safe use of the public realm. What can be done in the public realm to help people feel comfortable using transit, shopping, socializing, exercising? How can we ensure social distancing guidelines are enforced fairly in the public realm and are not weaponized against BIPOC communities?

How will COVID impact our perception of density and our decisions of where to live? The density of cities received some early blame for COVID outbreaks, and have since been passionately defended and debated. The length of re-opening and magnitude of economic impact will be critical factors that will impact long-term shifts in attitude and behavior.

If remote work persists into a long reopening period, how will centers of employment (business districts, corporate campuses, office parks) adjust? Will there be a national migration away from expensive coastal cities to smaller, more affordable cities? Will there be a regional migration from inner suburbs / cities to outer suburbs / exurbs? How can we support the neighborhoods and commutes of those workers without the privilege to work remotely (retail, manufacturing, service industrial)?

How will local retail and service businesses adjust to new working habits, modal shifts, and shopping behaviors? Small businesses have been hit hard by stay-at-home orders and capacity restrictions. Will local efforts to reallocate the right-of-ways for businesses be enough to keep Main Streets profitable and customers safe?

How can we leverage this renewed appreciation for parks to address long standing systemic issues of inequitable park distribution and inadequate funding?