One of my favorite times of year is the moment that our call for proposals closes for Walk/Bike/Places, or another of our conferences. While I read through countless news sources every day to put together our weekly newsletter at Project for Public Spaces, nothing captures the pulse of the placemaking and active transportation movements better than reading hundreds of proposals about what you practitioners, public officials, and advocates are working on in their own communities.
This year, our conference team and jury read through 220 proposals to select over 40 breakout sessions and 40 short talks at Walk/Bike/Places on June 15-18. And the full program just went live, so you can get a taste of what is on offer.
In response to the conference theme, “The Route to Recovery,” all of the proposals gave us a grand tour of how our field has responded to the pandemic over the past year. Conferences often create program “tracks” that participants can follow from the top down, but this year we took a more bottom-up approach. Our team synthesized the themes that emerged again and again in the submissions into six participant-generated tracks that will run throughout the conference program:
These six trends are emerging from the pandemic as some of the key areas of practice, policy, and debate in the placemaking and active transportation world. Read on to learn more about how they will play out in the program!
In the earliest days of the pandemic when the United States was in full lockdown, many placemaking organizations like parks groups, libraries and arts organizations turned to digital tools to continue reaching their communities. Webinars, virtual tours, downloadable scavenger hunts, and online public meetings exploded in popularity.
But digital technologies are not the only innovations that continued to evolve over the past year. For example, one session at Walk/Bike/Places, led by Janet Attarian (SmithGroup), Ahmed Darrat (CityFi), and Marcel Porras (LADOT) will focus on ensuring equity in new mobility technologies. The session will feature a case study on a mobility hub in Detroit co-designed by eight Latina high school students, as well as another on the role of community feedback in Los Angeles’ experiments in micro mobility. Finally, the session will take a step back to examine how governments can use better technology frameworks and public-private partnerships to put communities in the driver seat.
Amid a pandemic cycling boom, these proactive approaches to micro mobility could help extend that boom’s duration and diversity. But as North American adjusts to post-pandemic life, how will our new patterns of behavior affect micro mobility, digital programming and engagement, and other technological innovations? Will the booms last, will we backslide into old patterns, or will something new change the conversation again?
Another theme that emerged early on in the pandemic was the foundational importance of public space—and particularly green space—to our health. The unequal distribution of parks has perhaps never been more stark as during the summer of 2020, when simply going for a walk somewhere safe became a lifeline for mental wellness and exercise. Multiple generations of government decisions and disinvestment have left many Black and brown communities in the United States without access to these basic public space amenities.
However, some cities are striving to break this pattern. In a session led by Marissa Meyer (City of Milwaukee), Nancy Pullen-Seufert (UNC Highway Safety Research Center), and Lily Reynolds (City of Philadelphia), participants will explore how some cities have persevered through a year of loss to improve the safety and mobility of young people of color.
The session will include an overview of the disproportionate injuries among children of color and a tested systemic analysis approach to identify high-risk locations for young pedestrians. Two presenters will then show how they have put this approach into action, first to modify public engagement efforts to get input on school active transportation infrastructure in communities of color and secondly to integrate youth-focused policies into a Vision Zero Action Plan.
As this session demonstrates, healthy equity is a long game. Unequal access to public space and the efforts to remedy this inequity were not caused by the pandemic, and they will certainly outlast it.
One response to the lack of sufficient and safe public space in many cities during the pandemic was to open up streets to uses other than moving and storing cars. From open streets to street dining to more innovative approaches like Oakland’s “Essential Places” program, these experiments shattered many long-standing assumptions about how street space must be allocated.
One big question over a year later is whether these lighter, quicker, cheaper experiments have any staying power. While they may have shown residents, public officials, and business owners what is possible, when a recent poll asked mayors about the longevity of these changes, a third of respondents said they did not expect them to last after the pandemic. How will placemakers fight to make streets as places the new normal?
One answer comes from our friends at the Dutch mobility firm Mobycon, who will be introducing their “Mobility Doughnut” tool during a breakout session at Walk/Bike/Places. Their tool is inspired by the economist Kate Raworth’s idea of the “Doughnut Economy,” which argues that rather than aiming for maximum economic growth, government policy should strive for an economy that hits a sweet spot between meeting the basic needs of every person and living within our ecological ceiling, avoiding activities that harm the planet. Likewise, the Mobility Doughnut aims to measure mobility in a way that prioritizes offering more ways to move to people who have the fewest options and promoting transportation modes that are environmentally friendly.
Perhaps this different approach to measurement can help make the case for rebalancing our road space for good.
The pandemic magnified many of the inequities of American cities, from access to high-quality green space to traffic violence to unemployment to housing precarity, while other injustices like police violence continued almost unabated. Meanwhile, the “solutions” that cities implemented in response to the pandemic often followed these same lines of inequity as well.
At the height of nationwide protests for racial justice last summer, this led some prominent Black placemakers, activists, and equity practitioners to challenge urbanists to question why they did not consider anti-Black racism as part of their professional turf, and whether quick-build urbanism can ever be equitable in the absence of long-term investment and relationship-building in marginalized communities, among other critiques.
During one breakout session, Charles T. Brown, MPA (Voorhees Transportation Center) and Melicent R. Miller, MSPH (Virginia Department of Health), will explore how their work with the Virginia Walkable Action Institute (VWAI) has connected justice to policy over the past year of the pandemic. The Institute is an experiential learning collaborative that brings together national and international experts with regional teams to tackle issues of transportation justice and health equity in public space. From web conferences to drones to socially distant site visits, Brown and Miller were able to adapt the VWAI model to a year of global pandemic and civic unrest.
Before the pandemic, such efforts to build capacity around equitable policymaking were a necessity, and on the route to recovery, they have become more important than ever.
As lockdowns have loosened, many placemaking organizations have found new ways to lead events and community engagement efforts safely.
For example, public libraries have adapted remarkably during the pandemic to continue providing access to books, media, programming, and services. In a session led by Ari Baker (Blount County Public Library), Donna Dixon (Jeff Roth Cycling Foundation), Kate Kraft (AmericaWalks), and Noah Lenstra (UNC Greensboro), this interdisciplinary team explores how partnerships have acted as the backbone of this adaptation. In particular, librarians can be some of the best partners for placemakers and active transportation advocates, whether it’s about developing and cross-promoting programming, working together to transform the built environment, or advocating for more walkable, bikeable, and healthy communities.
Of course, we still have lots to learn from creative approaches that long predate the pandemic, too. Case in point: Bobbie Hill and Melissa Lee (Concordia, LLC) will be leading a session on their approach to community engagement and co-design, which has been developed over 30 years of experience. In this classroom-style workshop, participants will discuss dismantling discriminatory planning practices, Concordia’s ethics of resident-centered engagement, and equitable engagement in practice.
One of the many lasting impacts of the pandemic is the recession it has unleashed. Not only did unemployment hit over 14% at the height of the pandemic, but more specific challenges, such as declining women’s workforce participation and changes to commercial real estate may have long-lived repercussions on the way our economy works.
In this context, placemaking has an important role to play. If downtowns have to adapt to fewer in-person offices, and neighborhoods become where people spend most of their day, municipalities and communities will have to adapt both places to a changing set of needs and pressures.
In a short talk session focused on economic opportunity, three exciting recent projects showcase a range of ways that placemakers pitching in. Daniel Woodroffe (dwg.) will offer an assessment of the state of “pocket patios” along commercial corridors in Austin, Texas. Ed Janoff (Union Square Partnership) will discuss their recently announced vision for Union Square in New York City, which would expand public open space by 33% and radically improve pedestrian safety on adjacent streets. Finally, Sally Baker (Philmont Beautification, Inc.) will discuss the conversions of two brownfield sites, an auto repair shop and a gas station, into a restaurant and food system collaborative—all using placemaking and active transportation principles.
Creative interventions like these that help small businesses adapt and become more than the sum of their parts through placemaking will only become more important as we grapple with an ongoing recession and an evolving economy.
One of the things I find most fascinating about these sessions at Walk/Bike/Places is that they were proposed at a very different time. Our call for proposals closed on December 9, 2020, five days before the first vaccine dose was delivered in the United States. Today, more than 40% of the U.S. population has received its first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and public health guidelines are changing rapidly.
I can’t wait to reconnect with these designers, planners, researchers, advocates, and place managers to learn how their projects have evolved since they first shared their session ideas with us. As our conference keynote Dr. Mindy Fullilove said in a recent interview, “This should be a very exploratory year, with the commitment that at the end of it we’ll be back on our feet.” I hope their exploration has continued and that they and their communities are indeed on the route to recovery.
Are we making progress toward a more fair, safe, and healthy public realm? Will temporary responses to the pandemic transform into more permanent changes? Are placemakers feeling more hopeful with the shadow COVID-19 slowly receding, or are they concerned that the political momentum for change might be receding with it?
Let’s find out together at Walk/Bike/Places this June.
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