A Necessary Paradigm Shift in How We Use Urban Space

As some cities and communities start to gradually lift their COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders and open up again, we are clearly moving into a transition phase between the emergency response and a future “new normal” until a cure or vaccine is developed for this disease.

The ways people live, work, play, and move around cities and communities have changed substantially since late March, and most of us are wondering: What changes will be interim fixes, and what will stay permanently?

Physical Distancing and Touchlessness

If there is one thing we have all learned during this pandemic, it’s that our cities are not built for physical distancing and shelter in place. (I say “physical” instead of “social” distancing because, in times like these, social connections are more important than ever before.)

Most of the public space we can find in U.S. cities is dedicated to cars, not people. Sidewalks ​are too narrow to keep a six-foot distance, and a lack of neighborhood parks and public spaces in some cities has resulted in crowding and the closure of certain parks during a time when they are needed most.

Additionally, public transit agencies have been focusing their services too much on rush hour times, which makes it hard to avoid crowding even if employers are starting to look into more flexible work schedules. If the commuter train service runs only twice a day to serve those working nine to five, the most flexible work schedule won’t help if I can’t get to work outside of those times.

The lack of infrastructure for alternative transportation — such as walking, biking, or shared micromobility — increases the danger of people going back to driving their cars and generating more air pollution, which puts even more people at risk during a respiratory disease pandemic.

Again, our sidewalks are too narrow to accommodate everyone walking, and the debate about adding more bike lanes has been going on for years now. As for scooters, cities seem more interested in getting rid of them instead of finding ways to safely accommodate them.

The lack of parks and green space in cities should not be news to us. With urban populations growing and daily screen time increasing, people have been disconnecting from nature over the last several decades. This has resulted in negative impacts on our and our kids’ physical and mental health.

Studies have shown that today, U.S. children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. This nature deficit, described by Richard Louv in his 2005 book The Last Kid in the Woods, has resulted in an increase in obesity, attention disorders, and depression. According to Timothy Beatley in his 2011 book, Biophilic Cities, “Nature in our lives is not optional but essential.”

To support a much-needed change in behavior to get people outside, cities need to change the purpose of public space. Currently, the majority of public space in cities is dedicated to parking, not parks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the value of green space and public space​. During shelter-in-place, we have learned how important it is to be out in nature for a workout or just to relax from a stressful day having to deal with work, childcare, and maybe a sick family member at the same time.

The multiple benefits nature has on our well-being and our physical ​and mental health — including stress reduction, attention restoration, and accelerated recovery from illness — have been researched extensively but are still not taken seriously enough by planners and other built environment professionals. (For more on this, watch APA’s recent webinar Nature and the Mind in an Era of Pandemic.)

Turning Streets into Living Rooms

Many cities understand that now is the time to change the ways we think about public space and green space​. The biggest challenge has always been behavior change; however, with the pandemic, the needed cultural shift seems to have taken place automatically, and suddenly people are craving the outdoor spaces in their cities and the connection to nature.

Acknowledging that building a park or green space takes some time, planners and public officials in cities have started closing their streets to cars, opening them for people to ride their bikes, play, or just hang out. Some of these measures will be here to stay.

Oakland, California, decided to permanently convert 10 percent of its streets into space for walking or cycling, while in Seattle the temporary closure of 20 miles of city streets to cars will become permanent.

Vienna, Austria, converted multiple streets into so-called “interaction zones” (Begegnungszonen) where people can walk, bike, play, or just hang out in streets while cars are still allowed to drive through (with adjusted speed limits), and Brussels, Belgium, converted its entire city center into an interaction zone.

Using Public Space for Economic Recovery

As restaurants begin to reopen, a major challenge is the six-feet distance requirement that will reduce the number of allowed customers — in some cases, to a number that wouldn’t make it worth opening up at all. Some cities, such as Tampa, Florida, and Vilnius, Lithuania, are starting to support their restaurant businesses by converting streets and parking spaces into extended seating areas.

With the extension into public space, many restaurants will be able to comply with physical distancing requirements while accommodating the same number of customers they had before COVID-19.

For another example of how public space can help with economic recovery, U.S. cities can look to Singapore: the municipal government announced a $30 million grant to ramp up urban farming and local food production, including the addition of rooftop farms to public housing parking structures, pursuing the goal of producing 30 percent of local egg, leafy vegetable, and fish needs by 2030.

Think Neighborhoods — Not Just Downtown

When planning for public space and parks, many cities have focused on their downtown areas and the places where they want to attract tourists. However, funneling scarce funding resources to green spaces in the city center and the “rich neighborhoods” leaves behind neighborhoods and population groups that need the effects of nature the most.

Rachel Kaplan, professor emerita from the University of Michigan, suggested in 1985 that we should design cities with nature at every doorstep. With shelter in place keeping employees and schoolchildren at home, the need for green space and public space in our neighborhoods becomes even more obvious.

In addition, as companies realize that working remotely doesn’t interrupt their business operations and may save them a lot of money on office space rents, the idea of downtown versus neighborhoods may need to change completely. Increased telecommuting will most likely result in demand for more live-work-play in one place — and that place is the neighborhood.

This will require changes in land-use requirements, not just allowing people to work from their homes permanently, but also allowing for infrastructure and amenities around those homes, such as coffee shops and restaurants, entertainment, and adequate space to take a break.

A Paradigm Shift

Trends we have been observing in the smart city arena are currently being accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The digitalization of work, education, commerce, and entertainment and its impacts on the built environment and related mobility needs has been a challenge that planners have been dealing with for some time now. With COVID-19, the complete digitalization of everything has practically happened overnight.

Many familiar questions remain about the resulting impacts on the built environment and related mobility needs (e.g., changing the need for office and retail space and related space for transportation) and how we can and should resolve these issues.

One thing is for certain: while trying to figure out the right transition to a blurry future, planners need to start thinking differently about how we use space in our cities and how we regulate its use. Certain uses will require more space to comply with six-feet distance requirements, while other uses might become virtual and may need less space in the future.

Some of these changes will be temporary, but we already know that now is the time to think big and plan for permanent change, to acknowledge mistakes from the past and correct them, and to ensure equitable, sustainable, and resilient cities will be the new normal.

Top image: Oakland Slow Streets, photo courtesy City of Oakland.


About the Author
Petra Hurtado, PhD, is APA's research director.

May 27, 2020

By Petra Hurtado, PhD