Streets are public space; streets are political spaces
Aimee Gauthier, Chief Knowledge Officer, ITDP
During March and April, New York City was the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. I live in the epicentre of that epicentre, in Queens. In fact, I live a 10 minute walk from Elmhurst Hospital, one of the hardest hit hospitals, where for a while, for weeks on end, it was endless sirens filling up the empty streets all day and all through the sleepless nights. Our streets became chasms of worry, fear, and heartbreak. A few weeks later, when the siren wails decreased, the streets took on another role resulting from the pandemic with the opening of 34th Avenue in my neighbourhood. This street, closed to through traffic and stretching 1.3 miles, became a restorative place of community. Between 8 am and 8 pm everyday, this ‘open’ street is full of families, cyclists, runners, people watchers, chalk artists, hop-scotch players – a medley of physically-distanced civic life, domestic repose, and carefree and car-free play. It is both a gentle current of activity and movement, as well as a much needed place of sanctuary and stillness.
Over 250 cities in almost 30 countries have moved forward with some version of open streets, according to StreetPlans’ Open Streets Database. The need for people to have more open space in all cities is readily apparent, now more than ever, and is being met by reclaiming space formerly devoted to cars. Cities are transforming parking spaces and opening up streets into space for people by restricting cars altogether, creating slow streets, or pop-up bike lanes. This has been transformational – people are seeing what streets could be like without cars and motorcycles running roughshod over them. In Europe, a survey published in Politico shows that the clear majority of people in cities in Germany, France, Spain, and the Brussels metro area are in favor of permanently reallocating space from cars to walking, cycling, and public transit. This movement, however, seems to be located mainly in North America and Europe, with less than 6% of the cities doing these types of interventions found in Latin America, Africa, or Asia, although more are opening every day.
The movement to reclaim space from cars for people has momentum. Sustainable transport advocates have longed for the day when people could see what a street that prioritises people over cars and motorcycles could look like, where political will would be open to change, and where we could begin to dismantle the tyranny of car-centric planning. But we risk continuing systems of oppression and inequity in this moment if we uncritically support this expansion. And we risk missing the mark if this does not address the needs of the most marginalised, the ones who are feeling the impact of COVID the most.
COVID-19 is a global phenomenon felt in every country in the world. In this sense, it has been a unifier, but it is not an equaliser. It is, instead, highlighting the inequities in our societies. The most marginalised worldwide are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. The hardest hit are always the poor. Women tend to be poorer than men. In the U.S. context, where I live, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are disproportionately harder hit. This is not because something endemic to the virus; it is because of endemic and systemic injustices and the choices we made as a society about what we value. As Tamika Butler writes, ‘[s]tart by realizing that so much of what makes this pandemic so tough was already in existence. Then ask why?’
While the idea of streets for people is a beautiful concept, when it is rooted in inequitable and unjust societies, streets can become places of oppression and danger. Who is allowed? Who is policed on those open streets? Who feels safe in these spaces? As Dr. Destiny Thomas writes for CityLab, BIPOC and trans people are routinely criminalised, harassed, policed, and killed for being in public space. Women, fearful of harassment or gender violence, often do not travel or stay in public spaces. Kalpana Viswanath of Safetipin has called this ‘forced immobility.’ And there are many more examples of how people are restricted, not allowed, or not safe in public space based on ability, religion, or ethnicity, to name a few. Our streets are not, in fact, safe for all people. Ariel Ward writes: ‘As cities nationwide move towards limiting vehicle traffic to facilitate socially-distant recreation or travel on “open” streets, I’ve been overwhelmed with a lingering anxiety of just being in public space.’
Now is the moment when we need to come to terms with transportation as political. Transportation has long been perceived as the realm of designers, engineers, experts all. It is conceived as asphalt and concrete, modality and capacity. We as a sector have had a harder time coming to terms with transportation as values, as power dynamics writ large through our cities, as manifestations and perpetuators of historical and current inequities, including colonialism, racism, xenophobia, etc. As Jay Pitter writes in a Call to Courage: An Open Letter to Canadian Urbanists, ‘…urban design is not neutral; it either perpetuates or reduces social inequities,’ and this includes transportation planning.
Streets are public spaces, which also means streets are political spaces. Carolina Tohá, former mayor of Santiago de Chile, said, ‘Our streets mirror our society. The move to sustainable transportation is not cosmetic, but a considerable political transformation.’ And this political transformation in this moment needs to point to a better future, while addressing how and why our streets reflect and reinforce inequities. The call for open streets is timely and necessary, but it should be grounded in equity.
Technical resources abound for designing open streets, including NACTO’s Streets for Pandemic Response and Recovery and the city of Berlin’s guide for pop-up bike lanes to name a few. Many cities have done amazing things with tactical urbanism that we can learn from, including Fortaleza, Brazil, New York CIty, USA, and Pune, India. Mexico City, Mexico, and Jakarta, Indonesia, have recently opened ‘emerging’ bike lanes and are moving towards opening up streeteries, open space dining in the streets. The issue isn’t technical, though; it is political: who has the power and who has the voice in deciding what happens and how. The process is as important in this moment or we are doomed to repeat and reinforce systemic injustices.
Luckily our field is full of thoughtful people who have been working on this issue for a long while. Multiple people have come out with some next steps for our sector:
Jay Pitter’s Call to Courage has eight recommendations for planners and designers in the field that have merit for those practicing outside of North America, including examining implicit bias in your work, informing how we see, or even don’t see, an individual, group, or neighbourhood.
Dr. Destiny Thomas gives seven steps on how to move forward in her piece, ‘Safe Streets’ Are Not Safe for Black Lives including ‘[d]esigning low-stress street networks that specifically center the safety of and joy-filled travel by Black people’ using a participatory process.
Marcela Guerrero Casas in Opening Up Streets During a Pandemic calls us to think of open streets as a practice and get our priorities straight within the contexts of the localities and equity. For example, Europe already had a culture of streets for all, but elsewhere, such as Africa and Latin America, it will be harder despite people relying on walking, cycling and public transit more.
Angie Palacios elaborates five considerations for rebuilding with inclusion in mind in Women’s Mobility, Economic Reactivation, and the Role of Transport in Latin America. She urges us to consider a gender perspective, specifically to think beyond formal work connections to include informal work and destinations other than work, such for caregiving and unpaid work done for social reproduction.
COVID-19 has exposed the fault lines in our societies. It is our duty and responsibility to find a better way forward where our cities and our streets are grounded in dignity and equity and where every human knows their worth and feels safe on our streets. We can begin this work with tactical urbanism and open streets, but one that is rooted in equity that seeks to rectify how transportation has supported and exacerbated injustices in our societies. Rehana Moosajee, former councilor for the city of Johannesburg, said ‘Transportation has been integral in shaping movements for rights and human dignity, from when Mahatma Gandhi came to South Africa and got kicked out of the first class compartment because he had the wrong skin color to Rosa Parks who sat down to stand up, giving birth to the civil rights movement that has transformed the United States.’ Now is the moment to continue this tradition and do the work internally and externally to make sure our streets truly are for all.
Why Open Streets
As much as sustainability advocates like me are excited by open streets and tactical urbanist interventions, we need to be clear what we are trying to accomplish with them and make sure they serve the needs of communities. From what we are seeing, there seems to be four main purposes:
Through slow streets, repurposing parking and kerb space for recreation and outdoor activities, including play space and streeteries.
Through slow streets, open streets, open suburbs that are hopefully a network that connects the community.
That links communities to jobs and essential services while also relieving pressure on public transit through repurposing kerb space or a mixed traffic lane for a cycle lane, hopefully as a network that connects the community to other destinations.
Repurposing kerb space or a mixed traffic lane for dedicated bus lanes, hopefully as a network that connects the community to other destinations
And while the technical guides can help you figure out what to do and there is political will to respond quickly, the process is still important. We at ITDP after years of working on tactical urbanism, have compared a couple of key case studies to find some common criteria for success:
Understand what you are trying to achieve aligned with what the community needs; open space for walking may not be the most critical issue for a community that is a food or health care desert. A community may already feel unsafe in public space or cycling; does this intervention get to that? If the issue is connection to jobs, bus or cycle lanes may need to be the intervention.
The best way to do that is to involve the community in the process. Even with opportunity and a pandemic, these interventions must be rooted in the community needs and participation. This will ensure that the intervention is the right one and is sustainable. Naomi Doerner and Yanisa Techagumthorn from NelsonNygaard developed a resource to help out on this: Principles for Equitable Public Outreach and Engagement During COVID-19 and Beyond.
Use this moment to also help build community and excitement for these investments. This can be through involving the community in co-design and co-implementation; this can be done through using this to hold local events that now in the age of COVID may need to be through social media or virtually.
In this moment, especially with less car and motorcycle traffic, there may be less resistance from those drivers, but as things open up, resistance and pressure will rise. Be prepared for this with supportive data.
One way to prepare for this is to have data about impact on drivers and throughput using data from before the pandemic and then monitoring impact as things open up again. But also collect data on how the interventions are being used, by whom, and what are the benefits accrued to the community from these interventions; this data should be disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, etc. where possible.