Reclaiming Public Space

The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world irrevocably. The way we move around and experience our towns and cities has changed, and even post lock-downs and calls for social distancing it seems clear that there will be some long-lasting changes to our society.

Around the world governments have implemented various policies and initiatives to curb the spread of the virus. While these measures differ greatly, many have adopted strict social distancing policies, lockdowns, and other restrictions on business activities and general mobility.

We’re a few months into the pandemic now and around the world countries and cities are moving on from purely focussing on the virus to also considering the social impacts of these measures and what actions can be taken to improve the quality of life for citizens in a safe way.

Thankfully, many cities have shied away from using the phrase “get things back to normal” and instead looking at what can be improved upon. Normal was not perfect, so focussing on getting things back to the way they were is not only counter-productive, but undesirable. Major world cities and small towns alike have been embarking on new measures to reopen neighbourhoods, public spaces, shops etc. in innovative ways that seek to increase personal freedoms and allow businesses to reopen in a way that is safe and sustainable.

Many of these measures have focussed on increasing personal freedom while still preserving the most important COVID-19 prevention measures. Namely social distancing, and a strict focus on hygiene. Some of the more notable strategies employed include:

  • Widening of pavements / pedestrian walkways to allow for increased social distancing for pedestrians.
  • Narrowing roadways / reducing the number of lanes and turning over space to cyclists and pedestrians.
  • Closing off streets strategically to create plazas and open streets to allow restaurants to reopen with increased public seating and allowing residents more space to exercise and socialise while maintaining social distancing.
  • Promoting cycling and walking over motor traffic
  • Mandatory wearing of masks
  • Investing in expanded public transit with increased hygiene protocols.
  • And the introduction of strict operating guidelines for businesses.

Opening Streets

One of the more interesting initiatives is taking place in The Netherlands called Vakantiestraat (Holiday Street) The European summer is fast approaching, and this would usually mean a lot of people taking time off to go on vacations, or just spending more time outside in public parks, beaches, restaurants etc. In a COVID-19 world, this poses a major problem for social distancing. The Dutch solution is to close streets strategically to create recreational streets for people to play, relax, and socialise. These mini-parks will be filled with new seating, playground equipment, street-food vendors, green space and more.

Streets without any changesSource:

Streets with some basic changes Source:

Street fully opened for leisure and socialisingSource:

The approach used in each city around the world is different and unique to their own individual contexts. We might not face the exact same challenges as the Netherlands, or the USA, or the UK, but there are many lessons to be learned about how we can redistribute space to maximise public benefit.

This echoes some of the other great work done around the world as part of the growing Open Streets movement, where streets are partially or permanently closed to vehicle traffic and opened to everyone else. From New York City to Windhoek, open streets are rapidly gaining popularity and finding massive support from their local communities.

This pandemic is proving to be immensely costly, both in terms of the loss of life and the impact on the economy and the social fabric. But these difficult times can also be the spark required for us to re-examine how our cities are designed, how space is allocated, and what changes we can make to ensure our cities function better not only during this time of crisis, but after this virus has passed into memory.

 Growth in Urban Cycling

One interesting development over the past few months has been the rapid growth of urban cycling. From countries with strong cycling cultures such as the Netherlands to those where cycling is not that common, such as in the United States of America, bike shops are struggling to keep up with the demand for bikes. This is due to numerous factors linked to COVID-19. People are avoiding public transport in favour of cycling to ensure adequate social distancing. Families stuck at home are seeking ways to get their kids out the house, and cycling is more fun than walking and allows kids and parents to better explore their neighbourhoods. Another reason is that since people are being encouraged in many instances to remain within their neighbourhoods a bicycle is a good alternative to the car to make short trips to the shops.

With the upsurge in cycling, many large cities have taken swift action to create new cycleways. This has been done in many cases by handing one lane of a roadway over to cyclists or reducing the width of an existing roadway with traffic cones, paint, or other objects to create a safe space for cyclists.

 Surely Cars are the Safest Way to Move Around?

No. It might seem a bit counterintuitive, but personal motor vehicles do not necessarily improve safety. There might be a small gain to the individual, but the motorist will still have to park and get out of their car. And then they will be on the same crowded walkway or standing in the same crowded plaza as everyone else. Cycling or walking with a mask on presents no greater risk of infection than riding in a car. What matters is the amount of space provided at the start and end of every trip.

Increasing the amount of space people have available implement social distancing is the key. For the number of people that cars transport they take up a lot of space. Redistributing space, taking it away from motor vehicles and handing it over to other road users is simply the smartest alternative.

This doesn’t mean we should ban cars or close every roadway, but look for opportunities to create as many open streets as possible, closing down non essential roadways to through traffic and providing people with safe spaces to cycle, walk, and relax.

Open Spaces Key for Business

Another trend emerging is the reprioritisation of urban space specifically to allow businesses to reopen, especially restaurants. Restaurants may not be the most essential business category on the face of it (we can all get food without going to an eatery), but restaurants, fast food outlets, and street vendors are significant sources of employment. Furthermore, they are part of our social fabric providing not only a place to get food but also provide spaces for recreation, relaxation, and socialising.

Cities around the world are finding a cheap and simple solution to the problem of reopening restaurants while also promoting social distancing through repurposing public spaces and closing streets to cars in strategic locations. In many places you can now find streets full of tables adequately spaced apart for people to enjoy meals and socialise without comprising their own or others safety.

As South Africa gradually emerges from lockdown, we will need to look at solutions like this to get our restaurants back up and running.

What about Nelson Mandela Bay?

With lockdown still in effect, this is the perfect time for us to reallocate space to provide people with more safe spaces to move around in. This is an especially good time to consider closing selected streets to traffic and redistributing road space to provide more room for cyclists and pedestrians. Traffic levels are still suppressed due to many businesses still being under lockdown. Making changes now will allow citizens to gradually adjust while traffic levels are suppressed

Improving public transport and cycling / pedestrian infrastructure so people to provide people with improved options when they return to work.

A good example of what a closed street could look like is the Stanley Street area in Richmond Hill. This area boasts the highest density of restaurants and eateries in Nelson Mandela Bay, but most of these venues are relatively small with densely packed seating. This poses a significant challenge once restaurants begin to reopen as social distancing rules will still likely remain for quite some time.

The best way forward could be to close Stanley Street and or Bain Street to motor vehicles to allow diners to spill out into the roadway. This might create some disruption at first, but diners will soon get used to walking an extra block to get to their destination. Residents would still be allowed to enter and exit, only at reduced speeds and perhaps using a one-way system to provide as much space as possible to pedestrians and diners.

The best thing about these and the other solutions mentioned is how incredibly fast, and affordably they can be put in place. A bit of paint, some traffic cones, a few flower boxes, and a good plan can reshape an entire street in one afternoon.

The coming months will continue to be challenging. Even once the strictest phases of lockdown are over, we are still likely to face numerous restrictions and social distancing policies. We can either look at these as insurmountable problems, or we can act now to craft practical solutions that can maintain public safety while dramatically improving the quality and quantity of our public spaces.