COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Essential Places: Warren Logan on Open Streets Beyond Brunch and Bike Lanes

Nate Storring
Jun 26, 2020
Jun 29, 2020

Over the past few weeks, as uprising against police violence and white supremacy have spread across the country, urbanists (and un-urbanists) with a focus on equity have taken to task the initial response to COVID-19 from the transportation professionals and advocates, which focused primarily on opening street space up for recreational walking and biking, and reopening restaurants. These responses often ignored the many ways that Black and brown people experience violence and exclusion in public space, the urgent needs of communities hit hardest by the pandemic, and the historic failure of municipalities to engage with communities of color in planning for larger, longer-term investments.

Warren Logan, Policy Director of Mobility and Interagency Relations at the City of Oakland Mayor’s Office.

In this context, we wanted to catch up with Warren Logan, the Policy Director of Mobility and Interagency Relations for Oakland, California, to learn how his team is continuing to adapt the City's ambitious Slow Streets program to better serve the city's diverse communities.

While early headlines about Slow Streets focused on the product—74 miles of open streets!—we have been inspired by the way that Logan and his team have been focused on the process from the very beginning. By centering ongoing community engagement in their work, treating tactical urbanism as a means to an end, and starting a unique new program focused on access to essential resources, Oakland is striving toward equity in the messy world of placemaking practice.

Nate Storring: How would you describe Oakland's Essential Places initiative to someone who is not familiar?

Warren Logan: The story behind Essential Places is born primarily out of a lot of rich feedback from our East Oakland residents and advocacy groups that shared with us how our initial stab at Slow Streets was missing the mark. 

We launched the Slow Streets initiative over two months ago to encourage people to have physically distanced activity in their neighborhoods, and primarily to keep people safe when they were walking or bicycling in these neighborhoods across Oakland. One major area of feedback that we heard was that Black and brown communities were not necessarily going outside to recreate, partly because a lot of low-income people of color are essential workers. So there was a disconnect: “We don’t have time to go outside and play! We gotta go to work.” This is the story of slow streets programs across the country.

But they asked us, if we are able to do these types of quick initiatives, why not support us in getting to our essential resources throughout the neighborhood? That’s essentially where Essential Places comes from.

An Essential Places intervention creates a safe crossing across Bancroft Ave in Oakland, CA, near a local supermarket. Photo courtesy of the City of Oakland.

We’re still working on it, but community members identified a number of critical areas and resources throughout East Oakland that they wanted to be able to walk and bicycle to, including health clinics, testing facilities, and a community market. Those are the types of “essential places” we’re talking about. 

The interventions are primarily around arterial crossings between residential neighborhoods and central locations. It uses the same palette as the Slow Streets program. It’s cones, it’s bollards, it’s a-frame barricades, and signage. We’ve been putting in no-turn signs, emergency pedestrian crossings, and cones to alert people who are driving to keep a watchful eye as people are crossing the street. It’s a basic thing, but I think it’s really important.

Essential Places signage on Bancroft Avenue in Oakland, CA. Photo courtesy of the City of Oakland.

Storring: I know you collect a lot of feedback. Do you have a sense of how the Essential Places program is going so far?

Logan: We have a lot of survey feedback on the Slow Streets program, but we don’t yet have much Essential Places feedback yet. I know from our meetings with advocacy groups that they have been really excited about the program, in part because it represents a lot of capital improvements we already had on the books that we have now been able to move forward, at least in a tactical urbanist way. But advocates are also looking for us to continue identifying additional Essential Places and to keep iterating. 

It’s not so much a matter of doing a community survey at the end and finding out how people felt about it. We’re having a regular conversation with people on an ongoing basis to understand how we can continuously iterate on the program.

I think that’s the special sauce, if you will, of the program. We receive feedback almost in real time. We have a weekly call with our advocacy groups to check in and ask, how are we doing? Where can we improve? It’s not so much a matter of doing a community survey at the end and finding out how people felt about it. We’re having a regular conversation with people on an ongoing basis to understand how we can continuously iterate on the program. And so far so good.

One of the main areas of feedback that the City of Oakland has received from East Oakland residents for years now is that we’re not moving fast enough on what they understandably deem an emergency: people getting hit by cars. So we’re trying to balance that with the materials we have on hand, in our stockroom, so that we can help promote safety and do it quickly.

A family outing on foot and bike on the West Street, a Slow Streets area in Oakland, CA. Photo courtesy of the City of Oakland.

What’s exciting about this program is that we’re able to not only iterate and figure out what the community wants, but we’re able to step up the improvements as we get feedback. We’re asking, if this works what does a more permanent—or at least less temporary—solution look like? It might not be immediately pouring concrete, but at least we can start moving toward the kinds of streets that we want to have without waiting three years for a budget redo or a grant application.

Storring: Are you shutting down streets in proximity to these essential places, or is it more focused on creating safe crossings?

Logan: It’s definitely about safe crossings. We are not shutting down streets, in part because that was one of the areas of feedback we heard from people. For many, they rely on their cars to get to their essential places, but for some, especially in East Oakland, who don’t have cars, we needed a balance of those two modalities. (I hate using that word.)

We also heard from a lot of East Oakland residents that the idea of closing streets was really historically triggering. I think that comes from a challenging history of governments closing neighborhoods during martial law or when there's a riot. Even though our Slow Streets program is actually not closing streets, it’s closing to through-traffic, that nuance is missed on a lot of people. It’s kind of like a joke—if you have to explain it, it’s not funny. By extension, if you have to explain a program over and over again, it might be time to iterate and find a different palette of initiatives to make sure you’re still serving the community.

It’s kind of like a joke—if you have to explain it, it’s not funny. By extension, if you have to explain a program over and over again, it might be time to iterate.

Similarly, some people shared that the a-frame barricades made them feel like they were in a construction zone. The same neighborhood has had construction going on for many years for our bus rapid transit system and a number of other capital improvements, so residents were like, “Hey, you’re kind of triggering us with the same tools that hurt us on an ongoing basis.” Now we’re trying to pivot to turn the barricades into opportunities for local artists to showcase community through a grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts.

City of Oakland workers block 42nd Street to through traffic with A-frame barricades and traffic cones at the corner of Telegraph Avenue. Photo courtesy of the City of Oakland.

Storring: Oakland made headlines early in the COVID-19 pandemic for rolling out such an extensive network of Slow Streets so quickly. How were you able to make that happen? Were there any negative consequences of acting that fast?

Warren: I want to say that this program was put together in 36 hours, but that’s not entirely true. It’s more like 36 hours, plus one year’s worth of community engagement for our bicycle master plan, Let’s Bike Oakland. We had just spent all this time with community members trying to understand what it was they were looking for. 

I want to say that this program was put together in 36 hours, but that’s not entirely true. It’s more like 36 hours, plus one year’s worth of community engagement.

One of the areas of feedback that we received during that planning process was that community members, especially in East Oakland, were less enthusiastic about sexy megaprojects for bicycle and pedestrian activity—you know, protected bikeways, sidewalk widening, etc. In lieu of that, they asked us to consider neighborhood routes, what a lot of planners would call “bicycle boulevards.” 

That’s essentially what the Slow Streets network amounts to: bicycle boulevards through neighborhoods that are naturally safer by engineering standards than other parts of the city. If you look at a map, all of the Slow Streets are on narrow streets, they’re all on residential corridors, and they are protected by the inefficiency of Oakland’s patchwork street grid. I kind of think we cheated a little bit by asking people not to drive on streets that they already don’t really want to drive on. But I’ll take it! 

A family bike ride on 42nd Street. Photo courtesy of the City of Oakland.

But there were obviously hiccups, too. A lot of people were really upset about Slow Streets, in part because I think there’s so much understandable distrust of the government and anything we do. 

The first two weeks of feedback we received, especially from our East Oakland neighbors, was, “Hey! What is this? Why is this a priority? Is this a trick?” I had people calling my office asking if I was trying to get Black people sick by encouraging them to go outdoors. I’m saying this not in a dismissive way; I’m saying it quite seriously. Hearing that really hurts because, A) I’m Black, and B) I also help run the coronavirus testing program for our city. It hurts to hear the disconnect between something that we thought would be really positive and something that really scares people.

We have to do better at engaging the community, not only when there’s a project, but in an ongoing conversation as friends or family where we can disagree but at least align on the principal goals.

I think this reaction is partly about Slow Streets, and I don’t want to dismiss that, but I think a lot of it is about this deeper distrust in government. We have to do better at engaging the community, not only when there’s a project, but in an ongoing conversation as friends or family where we can disagree but at least align on the principal goals, in this case safety and sustainability.

One of the areas that I want to put a pin in is that I’ve heard a lot of people on social media suggest that tactical urbanism and Slow Streets programs have missed the mark. I think in part that comes from the idea that white urbanism has really pushed this program as a “mission accomplished,” end-all-be-all, and that is not the way that we see Slow Streets in Oakland. 

Some people don’t like tactical urbanism because it becomes the end of the conversation, and you shouldn’t treat it as that.

This is really a bandaid on a bad situation that we are trying to address in an emergency. In no way are we trying to replace the multi-billion dollar capital investments that our Black and brown communities in East Oakland need and deserve. But I think we’ve started to demonstrate that we are already prioritizing millions of dollars for their community. Some people don’t like tactical urbanism because it becomes the end of the conversation, and you shouldn’t treat it as that.

A do-it-yourself Slow Streets barricade at the intersection of Brookdale and Best Avenues in Oakland, CA. Photo courtesy of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland.

A lot of people called us about Slow Streets, and said, “I didn’t like Slow Streets, so I just picked up the barricade and moved it.” And I’m like, “Great! That’s kind of how this works.” I mean, I don’t want you to move it, but that is a form of feedback that tactical urbanism allows for. That’s how I see tactical urbanism: giving people the tools to effect the change they’re looking for, and having an iterative conversation toward a long-term solution.

I want people to tell us when we’re not doing something correctly. I want you to yell at us, but to do it constructively. Of course, when I say that, there is some privilege in that. The seat of power in architecture and planning is primarily a white community. I understand that there’s a lot of privilege and supremacy in those types of environments. But one of the reasons I got into city planning and one of the reasons I’m really happy that I’m the Policy Director for Transportation in Oakland, is that I want people to know that we can argue about this and still come back for more.

Storring: How do you think about the relationship between community engagement, tactical responses to COVID-19, and some of the long-term changes that need to happen, both technical transportation ones, as well as issues like police violence and street harassment?

Logan: Let me start by saying that there are even smarter people than me who are talking about this. So don’t take my word for it. But for me, in my professional experience, I think that we’re asking a lot out of the wrong tools in the toolbox. 

Let’s start backwards and talk about policing. I think it’s inappropriate and dangerous that we rely on the police to respond to things that they’re not geared to respond to. I don’t feel that police should be responsible for traffic safety. I don’t think they should be responsible for traffic engineering. I don’t think they should be responsible for showing up when there’s a collision. A badge and a gun is not the response we’re looking for when someone gets hit by a car. If there’s a safety improvement that needs to be done, I want my engineers and safety team out there, to A) be compassionate, and B) start looking at the types of solutions that we can implement with the community.

Oakland Department of Transportation's rapid response team builds new lighter, quicker, cheaper traffic calming measures at an intersection where a child was struck by a car. Photo courtesy of the City of Oakland.

To answer your first question about tactical urbanism and engagement, the way that I look at tactical urbanism is as a means to an end. Planning has a history of only talking to certain people about what they want to hear, creating multi-million dollar plans for multi-billion dollar capital improvements, and leaving Black and brown communities out of that conversation. 

We have since shifted to a slightly more robust discussion, which is like, let’s go talk to Black and brown communities and ask them how they feel about a very long-winded plan. But what ends up happening in my opinion—and statistics bear this out—is that we spend a lot of time talking and not a lot of time doing. To be blunt, I’ve gone to enough funerals where people are yelling at me, telling me to do something right now. I feel compelled to answer these literal cries with action.

To be blunt, I’ve gone to enough funerals where people are yelling at me, telling me to do something right now. I feel compelled to answer these literal cries with action.

Storring: If you could choose one thing for other cities to learn from Oakland's experience during COVID-19, what would it be?

Logan: There are so many tools for public engagement and civic engagement that we have deployed during this process, and we can’t go back on it now. 

The mayor has done a town hall every week for however long we’ve been doing this, and she has thousands of people participating. We don’t usually have thousands of people showing up to community meetings. The fact that we are gathering an order of magnitude more people, to not only listen to us but for us to hear from, is so powerful. 

Early in the Slow Streets program, the Oakland Department of Transportation launched an online map survey (now closed) to allow residents to propose new Slow Streets, and provide feedback on completed and proposed interventions.

Similarly, we did what we called The Great Oakland Check-in, where we just called people in East Oakland and said, “How are you doing? Tell us about how your day is going, and let’s see if we can connect you to resources.” These were very much open-ended conversations. Again, we can’t go back on that, we have to keep doing that from now on.

In addition to the Slow Streets program, I’m also managing the Flex Streets program, which is our business resilience parklet-and-street-closure thing, and one of the areas of feedback that we heard from Slow Streets was that we were primarily collecting feedback online, and people don’t necessarily have access to the internet or a computer. So for Flex Streets, we implemented a text message survey. If you walk around Oakland anytime in the next couple of weeks, you will see a sign that says, “Text ‘flex’ to this 510 number," and it will distribute the survey to you one text message at a time and collect your feedback. You can write answers like “high,” “medium,” and “low,” or short answers. We’re trying to iterate on all of the different amazing ways to engage communities literally where they are.

A poster asking for feedback on the new Flex Street program via a text message survey in Oakland, CA. Photo courtesy of the City of Oakland.

That to me is the lesson learned out of all of this work—not just, "Oh, I guess we should put some barricades up in communities.” The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to community engagement.

The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to community engagement. … It’s not appropriate anymore to rely on this byzantine way of doing businesses where you expect people to travel to one central spot downtown in the middle of the evening and stay until 1:00AM to share their two minutes of an opinion. That’s ridiculous, and people who work in government know it is.

From now on, people should expect to have everything to be available online. People should expect to have signage everywhere telling them about what’s going on. It’s not appropriate anymore to rely on this byzantine way of doing business where you expect people to travel to one central spot downtown in the middle of the evening and stay until 1:00AM to share their two minutes of an opinion. That’s ridiculous, and people who work in government know it. It’s time for us to move on.

Storring: I couldn’t agree more, but during COVID-19, I’ve seen a lot of sentiment out there like, “Well, community engagement can’t happen now. It’s too difficult.”

Logan: I call bullshit! We have never been better engaged than now. The Mayor’s Office has a Public Engagement Officer, a Social Media Officer, and a Community Engagement Director. All of us have been saying how proud we are that we feel like we are actually hearing from community members way more than we ever have. We have a working document on all our lessons learned, and the whole thing is about community engagement.

Storring: Alright, last question. What's next for Slow Streets, Essential Places, and Flex Streets in the short term?

Logan: It’s going to depend a lot on where COVID goes next. I just sent a message, in fact, to the group of people who manage our testing program, the county liaison, and the Flex Streets group to say, “I’m seeing surges, and I want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.” But whatever is next, I hope that along the way we are proving to the residents and employees of this city that they deserve action and accountability. I hope we can build trust in our work ethic. 

We’re going to continue delivering on the promises that we’ve made to residents. And if we get it wrong, we’re going to own it and we’re going to fix it.

So I guess that’s what’s next: We’re going to continue delivering on the promises that we’ve made to residents. And if we get it wrong, we’re going to own it and we’re going to fix it.

Please note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Nate Storring
Nate Storring
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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space