COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

The Recovery Will Happen in Public Space

Phil Myrick
May 16, 2020
May 22, 2020

Last week, 25 million Americans returned to public life. As more and more governors relax their stay-at-home orders and restrictions on businesses, that number will only grow, even as COVID-19 cases around the country remain higher than public health experts consider safe. We are at a precarious moment as a country, where we must balance recovery and caution.

Across the spectrum, in large cities and small towns, outdoor public spaces must be a central part of the path forward. People need a way to go back to work, and the world wants to get out of the house. Constituents are desperate to hear new messages from political leaders, not just about whether or not to return to public life, but about how.

A street market in Kalaw, Myanmar, has adapted brilliantly to the need for physical distancing. Photo by Chan Myae Aung.

Parks have been an early beacon of hope during the pandemic; their generous paths and calming greenery have provided people with a psychological safety valve in a time of anxiety. However, as many public health officials have said, we should encourage people to use public spaces close to home, and not everyone has access to a park in their neighborhood. What’s more, not everyone has the time to take a stroll in the park. Essential workers and parents, among others, need public spaces that are useful as well as restful.

The sidewalks, streets, plazas and parking lots in every neighborhood are an asset that is waiting to be put to work. Many cities including San Francisco, Oakland, New York, and Seattle are closing streets to traffic to increase the usable pedestrian space for residents. But no city has yet fulfilled the promise of what these spaces can do beyond walking, biking, and perhaps dining outdoors. 

To avoid a resurgence in infection and to recover equitably, cities must think more expansively about how all kinds of outdoor, everyday spaces can fulfill people’s daily needs, and work directly with the communities most affected by the virus and its economic fallout.

Thinking Bigger About the Public Realm

In the New York Times recently, Dr. Marty Makary at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health made the case that for the foreseeable future, many activities will be safer outdoors than indoors. “These findings have implications for restaurants and other businesses and activities that are able to use outdoor areas,” says Makary. “Yoga and other fitness activities should resume outside when possible. Similarly, instead of having someone to your home for a meal, consider having a meal in your yard or at a park, six feet apart.”

North American cities have long resisted allowing a rich mixture of uses in public space, with regulations blocking activities that would be acceptable in many other parts of the world. Now is the time to rethink those regulations—and fast. Public spaces should become the setting for every reasonable type of use to allow communities to reopen. They should be closely controlled for adherence to CDC guidelines and the latest research, but local regulations prohibiting uses outside should be lifted.

Simple solutions like The Better Block’s DIY market stands are already helping restaurants sell their extra stock outdoors in Dallas, Texas. Photos courtesy of The Better Block

Businesses can open up on streets, sidewalks and plazas, where they can achieve some of their operations more safely than indoors. Beyond restaurants, cities could explore fresh food and markets, vending and outdoor retailing, and even some services like laundry pick-up and drop-off, pet grooming, and perhaps soon, haircuts and manicures.

What about free activities that might help parents in their current childcare marathon, or help the elderly reconnect with family and friends, even at a distance? Free programming that can rebuild health and a sense of community could roll out of community centers and libraries and into neighborhood streets and parking lots. Imagine physically distanced exercise programs, walking groups, story time, and even outdoor theater and small concerts. Raised-bed planters of community-tended vegetables and flowers could sprout up in our underused streets and parking lots. Municipal services can also be brought into neighborhoods that lack the basics: meal distribution, temporary health clinics, temporary housing, and other social services.

A DIY physically distanced exercise class in Little Mountain, Wales. Photo by Craig Colville.

Every community also has an abundance of its own talents and passions that could make our streets more beautiful and lively, even at a distance. Traditional downtown and neighborhood organizations can help deliver and manage safe programming in places where public space managers never delivered it before. Local artists and musicians can bring joy and entertainment, and volunteers can help with building, maintaining, educating visitors about physical distancing, and distributing masks.

These ideas are not that radical. Many cities have now opened roadways to pedestrians and cyclists as a means to provide additional space for social distancing throughout the city. The best examples have created networks that help people get where they need to go without crowding into public transit. A growing number of cities, like Tampa, Florida, and Cincinnati, Ohio, have opened road space to struggling restaurants, as they reopen at a much reduced capacity. Rockland, Maine, plans to reopen its entire Main Street outdoors. Montreal, Quebec, has become the first North American city to announce that it would implement “superblocks” in their streets, modeled after Barcelona’s well-known initiative

Restaurants in Tampa, Florida, recently reopened in the streets to allow for physical distancing. Photo by Ryan Smith.

Open-air farmers markets provide a leading model for how public spaces can serve everyday needs while taking “lighter, quicker, cheaper” steps to adapt to physical distancing. Over a dozen states declared these public spaces essential services, even during the height of the lockdown, and market managers and vendors rose to the occasion in record time. They applied new strategies, both digital and physical, high tech and low tech—from online to roadside pickup, cashless payment to rearranging pop-up tents, increased communications to one-way lanes. Many continued to provide access to nutritional assistance programs, providing affordable access to healthy food. And every week on market day, they adapt, learn, and iterate.

As part of our Market Cities Initiative, Project for Public Spaces worked with Arup to develop guidelines for the reopening of Bloomfield Saturday Market in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photos courtesy of the Bloomfield Saturday Market.

The missing link is for advocates, government agencies, and the civic sector to break out of their usual silos of discipline and sector and to apply these strategies in tandem with other public health, social service, and economic stimulus efforts. If we accomplish this, public space can be the frontline of our recovery, places to safely access food, health resources, employment, social infrastructure, and much more.

Public Spaces by and for All

Initially, some high profile voices in the mainstream media latched onto density as a simple explanation for the spread of the coronavirus, but it has become abundantly clear that the geography of inequality is more to the point.

Here in New York, rates in densest Manhattan remain low, as many wealthier New Yorkers have jobs that allow them to work from home and have goods delivered, and places elsewhere to flee the city altogether. Meanwhile, moderately dense Queens and the Bronx have been hit the hardest. One analysis by Buzzfeed pointed out that the factors most strongly correlated with infection were, in fact, household size and the presence of a frontline worker in the home. These are often Black and brown communities that were already under stress from insecure and overcrowded housing, preexisting health conditions, poor air quality, poor access to health food, aggressive policing, and a limited and badly maintained public realm. The pattern is similar in other cities: a “donut,” with the downtown and gentrified inner neighborhoods largely spared, and a crisis unfolding in distressed outer neighborhoods. In a sense, complaints about density are the complaints of the privileged few who have the means to contemplate an alternative.

The City of Seattle recently announced that its open streets network, pictured above, would become permanent (though advocates still think they could do more). Photo courtesy of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

Open streets and public markets, parks and cultural institutions are all merely means of recovery—not ends in themselves. Public space advocates of all stripes should be careful not to mistake their personal cause for the needs of others. Instead, as we have long argued, effective public space improvements require building a genuine working relationship with the current and future users of the space

For example, on a recent Brookings Institution webinar I had the pleasure to take part in,  Warren Logan, Policy Director of Mobility and Inter Agency Relations with the City of Oakland, spoke candidly about the uneven local response to their lauded Slow Streets initiative, which has become a flagship for American transportation advocates. The initiative made headlines by opening up 74 miles of roadway to pedestrians and cyclists across the city. It’s worth noting that this apparently rapid response did not arise out of thin air. It fast-tracked an existing bicycle plan for the city, which included an equity framework and robust community engagement to ensure that the network reached a diversity of communities and met their needs.

Even with this foundation, however, different communities still had different responses to Slow Streets. In West Oakland, the response has been enthusiastic, with some calling for the changes to become permanent. In East Oakland, on the other hand, the response has been mixed. Some questioned why the City would focus on pedestrianization when there aren’t enough masks, testing, or jobs in their community. Others worried about policing. As one resident asked Logan, “Am I going to be arrested for going outside when you told me not to?” Since rolling out Slow Streets, Logan has spent much of his time listening, reassuring, measuring, and adapting.

These kinds of objections, often from communities of color, must be taken seriously by transportation advocates and placemakers. Professionals and advocates from the worlds of economic development, public health, criminal justice reform, and public space design and management must come together to effectively address the needs of neighborhoods where people’s lives and livelihoods are under threat. 

Visual notes from “Reimagining and Repurposing Engagement during COVID-19,” a webinar organized by Project for Public Spaces and Connect the Dots. Illustration by Angelia Yingge Xu.

Furthermore, the people most affected by this pandemic must be directly involved in the response. Community engagement may be challenging during this pandemic, but as we discussed in a recent webinar, we can adapt through creative combinations of digital tools and safe outdoor strategies. While the need is urgent, a purely technocratic response will miss important parts of people’s lived experience, and leave their own ideas and contributions on the table. 

The Path Forward

Now is not the time to cut funds to the agencies and organizations that steward our public realm. On the contrary, now is the time to finally undo what Jane Jacobs once called the “great unbalance” in the way we fund public space: to respond nimbly and adapt continuously, we must invest in the ongoing management, programming, and refinement of public space, rather than expensive capital improvements alone. 

In municipal budgets, cities should treat public spaces as what they are: fundamental building blocks of our health, social resilience, and democracy. Parks and other public spaces have long been a last priority across the board compared to other types of infrastructure. New York City parks, for example, account for less than 1% of the city’s budget, and staffing is 35% lower than it was in 1976. Likewise, year after year public markets struggle for the attention of city leaders. Where they flourish, it is usually despite the fact that there is no public funding or city-wide strategy for them to expand. Other investments in public space management, such as through business improvement districts, are based on assessing surrounding property owners, leaving behind neighborhoods that cannot pay to play. 

Place managers can provide the logistical muscle we need to bring more and more of our daily lives outdoors. They can serve as the great connectors, breaking down the silos between placemaking, transportation, public health, economic stimulus, food systems, social justice, and social services. They can take on the task of inviting community members into the process of recovery—and in neighborhoods that lack such managers, cities strengthen local leadership, by investing in existing neighborhood groups and by building inclusive new coalitions through training and funding.

By working together, municipalities and place managers can help lay the groundwork for fairer and more resilient cities and towns. But this all depends on whether or not cities have the political courage to embrace one simple fact: The recovery will happen in public space.

Phil Myrick
Phil Myrick
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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space