In March 2010, when urbanist bloggers were few and twitter was in its infancy, I wandered my then-neighborhood in Seattle and wrote about some easy fixes that would help bring the city out of the recession. Ten years later, amid post-pandemic prophecies about how cities might address public safety, transportation, and recovering local economies, I have altered just a few words—and present the modified ideas below.
Once again, new and old seek to balance against a backdrop of trying economic times.
At the doctrinal level, old battles continue as we emerge from the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world. The American “new urbanism” style of city remaking—now matured and seasoned with its inherent and neighborhood-based preference for compact development—is no longer overly nostalgic and prescriptive. Rather, automobile avoidance seems prophetic as a way to insert physical-distancing overlays of walking and biking over existing urban fabrics. These fixes will also help address climate change, encouraging non-polluting modes of travel at a time that public transport capacity is limited by the need for protected personal spaces.
As cities evolve, retooled and accelerated ideas offer “quick wins” for a renewed, urban-scale, mask-based lifestyle, with noticeable economic scars on the rise, including temporarily (or permanently), shuttered non-essential businesses. In 2010, I noted an article in the Seattle Times that portrayed art in empty storefronts along Seattle’s Aurora Avenue, not unlike the then well-publicized “fake shop front” effort in the English borough of North Tyneside. We see such art today brighten high (main) streets and we will see more over the next months as creative, spirit-lifting outlets for artists and passers-by.
Addressing empty storefronts is not the only potential “quick win”. The past ten years of placemaking and other community-based, co-creative movements have brought a laudable focus on the achievable, aimed at the success that is not dependent on massive public expenditures or the conclusion of lifestyle debates.
A list of quick adaptations could be expansive and include a renewed economic public/private focus on safe, physical-distancing-oriented bus-stop appeal, enhanced street trees, tasteful street banners, and encouragement of increased food-cart licensing with appropriate queuing patterns.
Walks through neighborhood and boroughs further show the predicament and challenge of adapting existing public and private buildings to the old and new, as well as suggest even more “quick wins.” From such walks, here are six starter principles for ongoing consideration, followed by illustrations.
1. We should not forget the school (as well as community center buildings and surroundings), even in times of physical distancing practices. Councils and schools may have limited funds but could coalesce around parent-driven non-profit organizations to keep the focus on community. Smaller gatherings will be required at first, with appropriate safeguards, but ZOOM calls can be supplemented by small meet-ups during a time when coffee shops and pubs will not be available.
2. Improvised outdoor commerce can appear makeshift and monochromatic. But shops and cafes that bring street life should be encouraged, both through mindful safety guidance, flexibility, and private encouragement to add color and appeal over and above government-mandated COVID-proofing.
3. Scooters—both traditional and smaller motorized rental models—are likely to expand with walking and biking. In every city, we need to know the rules for parking, and enforcement needs to allow for “overburdening” striped or customary automobile spaces to avoid already existing difficulties achieving physical distancing on footpaths.
4. Some streets in many cities have been closed, or cars severely limited. But even with emergency expenditures in, e.g. Greater London, interim bike striping is often the only affordable temporary means to encourage the use of bicycles, and the simultaneous use of footpaths by walkers and streets by cars. Custom and improvised behavior are not enough to assure safety in these situations. At a minimum, we need advocates to monitor repainting needs and visibility and work with preexisting businesses to integrate with safe, necessary, and historic ingress and egress.
5. The concepts discussed here, including reuse, integration, mode splits, diversity of paving, walkable paths, and mixed housing types, are already a part of European cities, far predating the widespread application of American zoning in the 1920s. Regardless of the venue, we should learn from, adapt and integrate what is already there.
6. Finally, however mundane, the pandemic has shown how people walking their pets sometimes complicate distancing attempts. We should remember to implement public and private approaches to safe tie-up stations, facilitating the necessary six-foot distances that will be required by pet owners in such settings.