Cities Rethink Their Use of Public Space

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.

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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.

Many streetscape changes have been done in a temporary, adaptive fashion, either through design—reorganizing a street with a sign, orange cones, or a stenciled message on pavement—or through bureaucratic methods, such as eliminating fees, simplifying licensing or pausing long standing rules, such as New York’s move to allow restaurants to sell alcohol for off-premises consumption.

The list goes on, but the common denominator is that cities have seized the opportunity to repurpose public space to meet the real needs of their residents, and have done so in a nimble, adaptive fashion.

“Painting a different color, putting some cones, some markings to separate and define a different use of space at very low cost,” said Francesco Cerroni, an urban planner at Buro Happold. “This so-called tactical urbanism starts as a temporary solution, or to test some possible solutions, a closure of a traffic lane or a different type of circulation, and then become more permanent when they prove to be effective.”

Many of these changes are a form of rapid response to a crisis, and are specific to the moment, when due to public health concerns, city dwellers are avoiding public transportation, restaurants and offices and playgrounds are closed, social distancing is required, and parents and kids are cooped up in crowded apartments for 24 hours a day.

But they are also part of a broader moment of reflection over the way public space is and was used prior to the pandemic, and which factors are given priority when design decisions are made. “We never do a health study, a climate study, an equity study,” said Jeff Speck, an urban designer, during the Buro Happold talk, “only a traffic study.”

“This is a moment to think about the right-of-way very differently,” said Adam Lubinsky, principal at architecture firm WXY. “Some of that might be widening sidewalks, certainly adding space for bikes.”

The shutdown has given urban planners, and local governments, and anyone who cares about the city they live in, an opportunity to imagine a different future.

But first, it made them break with the past.

Ian Lane used to commute by bike from his home on the Upper West Side to his office in the Financial District. He’s an avid cyclist and loved the daily rides via Citi Bike along the East River path. “When you bike around New York, you really get to see the city in a way that few people do,” Lane said.

When the pandemic hit, his biggest concern was how to check in with his mother-in-law, who was isolated near Coney Island. He was avoiding public transportation, as well as ride shares, and there’s no Citi Bike available that deep into Brooklyn.

Like Lane, most New Yorkers have had to change their transportation habits. Some have signed up for Citi Bike, tried a moped for the first time, bought panniers to hitch onto their bikes for storage, limited their travel radius to where they can walk, or made the leap to purchase a car.

And it’s shown just how much space cities have ceded to cars.

Even before the pandemic, Gensler’s Cohen had been thinking about how forward-thinking cities were preparing for a future with fewer cars, and the role of electronic and automated vehicles in that transition. The shutdown only served to prove that it’s possible. “We have to future proof [our cities] anyway because of climate change,” he said. 

Real estate developers are especially in tune with that because the development timeline is so long, that they need to be thinking about what the world will look like in five, ten years. “We’re designing the future now,” Cohen said.

Parking is a great target to start with, because it will soon be obsolete, and it takes up so much space. “The first step is parking spaces,” he said. “Take those parking spaces and instead of using them for cars that are stagnant, use it for amenity space, restaurant space.”

For Buro Happold’s Cerroni, the shutdown also revealed an opportunity.“I was surprised to see how an entire economy was able to change and embrace working from home,” he said. “That’s a great use for transportation planners, because that proves that it’s possible to limit the demands of trips.”

If, say, every commuter worked from home one day a week even post-pandemic, it could have a real impact on congestion and the climate, Cerroni said. “If done in a smart way, that could radically change congestion in a city like New York, and reduce emissions,” he said. “Transportation demand management is such an important aspect of this work, but usually that part, that has to do with changing people’s behavior, seems to be the hardest part,” he said.

And while decreasing car use is one piece of the puzzle, increasing the convenience and access to alternative forms of transportation, such as bikes, e-bikes, scooters and even walking, is another piece. “It’s making space for a type of mobility that’s not only more clean in terms of pollution, but it’s proved that biking and walking make us stronger,” said Cerroni. “We’re healthier and can react better to these types of viruses.”

Laura Fox, the general manager of Citi Bike at Lyft, said the shutdown really opened a path to speaking about the need for thinking about mobility, and the idea of streets for people.

“Streets for people is about a balance of transportation modes,” she said. “Where, for example, trips that are less than three miles, we see more people walking, biking, using more buses; and trips over three miles became much more about shared rides, buses, transit, or other options.” Ideally, in a city that makes all of those modes convenient and accessible, people will gravitate to the modes best suited to their trip, and the physical form of the streets will reflect those needs, she said.

Practically, that means thinking about ways to accommodate more bikes and pedestrians, how to move more people from further away, either through expanded e-bike infrastructure, or bicycle highways, and how to create more reliability for bikeshare users.

A lot has changed in the last three months since the shutdown began, and the conversation has evolved, from immediate interventions needed during the shutdown, to the urgent question of how to manage congestion during a reopened but restricted economy, as well as to longer term initiatives that can help cities transition to a more sustainable post-pandemic future.

As New Yorkers begin returning to work, but continue to avoid public transportation, they’re going to need to accommodate new mobility habits. A New York City without public transportation is likely to mean a lot more cars on the roads. The New York Stock Exchange forbade its employees from arriving by public transportation, and Nelson Mills, the CEO of Columbia Property Trust said they would consider paying for rideshares for their employees coming from outside Manhattan. But even a slight increase in car traffic could cause enormous amounts of gridlock, experts say.

“In New York City, a minority of households have cars,” said Joe Cutrufo of Transportation Alternatives. “But what about the commuter and rail rider? How many more of them will it take to grind the city to a halt?”

One way to deal with it is to continue to encourage cycling and walking through better infrastructure, said Cutrufo. “We see this not just as an opportunity, but an urgent need,” he said. “We need space for bikes and buses to move people at an order of magnitude much higher than previously.”

There’s a tremendous increase in demand for bikes and space for riding; stores are sold out of cheaper bikes everywhere, and Citi Bike ridership is expanding.

“The fact that [demand] is up even though people aren’t commuting right now, imagine what it looks like when people start going back to their offices,” Cutrufo said.

Mobility is not the only piece of urban planning that’s getting another look.

As the economy reopens, cities will need to support local retailers, restaurants and storefronts in order to ensure an economic recovery.

Melba’s is a soul food restaurant in Harlem, a local establishment since 2005, known for its Southern fried chicken wings, and eggnog waffles. It’s one of the 26,000 food and beverages in the city that has been closed since March, and one of many that have had to pivot to delivery or pickup.

Its owner, Harlem native Melba Wilson, is the president of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, and has been advocating for more outdoor space where restaurants like hers can serve customers while complying with social distancing rules.

“Outdoor seating will allow us restaurants, who have been economically crushed by the pandemic, [to] recover faster and allows us to ensure the health and safety of our customers and staff,” Wilson said.

Dozens of cities around the world, and around the United States, are already doing something along those lines, repurposing parking lots, parks and plaza for open-air dining. Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was one of the first to announce its plans to open 18 streets for dining al fresco; Tel Aviv, Chicago and Barcelona are pedestrianizing streets for the same reason, and many cities are suspending or limiting licensing restrictions on outdoor dining. The New York City Council introduced a bill that would force the Department of Transportation to dedicate space for that purpose, but no such program has yet been implemented.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, at the Herbert Von King park in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, every available space on the patched lawns, the bleachers overlooking the closed baseball diamond, and the benches lining the pathways were filled with people whiling away the afternoon. And every single trash can was overflowing, creating little hills of empty latte cups, brown-boxed leftovers, and plastic containers from nearby restaurants.

The park was not equipped to be the dining room for thousands of cooped up, resilient, and impatient Brooklynites, but that’s what it had become.

It’s a simple equation. The world has changed. The people have changed. And cities will need to adapt, not only because the pandemic has given us a tremendous opportunity to envision other possibilities, but because there will be consequences if they don’t.