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How Reimagining Public Space Can Protect People And Businesses

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Customers wait in line outside The Home Depot in Ross Township, Pa., where the store restricts occupancy to 75 people and requires everyone to where a mask. Outside the front entrance small red tape "x's" on the concrete mark where customers should stand.

With much of the United States shut down in response to coronavirus, it’s hard to shake the feeling of living in a post-apocalyptic movie set: empty streets, empty buses, empty playgrounds wrapped with caution tape. Now, weeks into the effects of the pandemic, states have begun to lift restrictions to allow non-essential businesses to open.

“[It’s] super important that we make it very easy for people to keep their purchases local,” said Karina Ricks, Pittsburgh’s director of the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.

Small businesses are essential to cities and towns across the country. They create jobs, they create a sense of place — think of New York City without bodegas, Portland, Ore. without bike shops, or your town without its dance studio or hardware store — but they also create sales, income, and property tax revenues. Local governments rely on that money to cover their essential functions, to pay staff to pave the streets and maintain the parks, to pay police and fire companies.

Cities like Pittsburgh must make it possible to return to the streets and shop without losing the safety of physical distancing, said Ricks. If only so many people are allowed into a store at one time, how can others line up outside? If restaurants operate at 25 percent capacity, where will expectant diners wait?

“It’s going to require us to reimagine our streets,” she said. “How much of our streets can we turn over?”

Many cities have already removed cars from streets to allow more people to walk and bike. They’ll need even more space if people are allowed to go to shops and restaurants again, said Brent Toderian, the former chief planner for Vancouver, Canada who now leads his own company, Toderian UrbanWorks.

“All of it requires more space between buildings, more life between buildings,” he said. “If we try to do all that without inconveniencing the cars, we will fail.”

In Tampa, Fla., officials will allow restaurants to add tables to streets in front of their establishments. In an Atlanta, Ga. suburb parking lots are the new dining room. Ricks wonders if one-way sidewalks could limit people’s exposures to one another the way one-way aisles do in grocery stores. She said some Pittsburgh streets may open to cars only at certain times of the day, or speeds could be dramatically reduced. That way, street parking could be dedicated for walking, biking, or cafe tables while an adjacent travel lane for cars remains.

“I don’t have the answers right now, but it’s something that we’re actively looking at,” she said, citing a new city task force that will investigate the issue.

Public space always influences health outcomes and can produce health risks, said Keshia Pollack Porter, a professor at John Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Whatever “normal” cities think they’re returning to, this is a chance to evaluate how the public realm worked before, she said.

“We know that there are significant inequities,” she said, pointing to pedestrian and cyclist fatalities that continue to rise, and communities that have lacked access to safe streets for decades.

In a post-pandemic world, with even fewer dollars for infrastructure and transportation, officials must be more careful than ever, said Toderian.

“Where we put our money based on our assumed narratives around what people will want to do — drive more, take public transit less — will create self-fulfilling prophecies,” he said, and could exacerbate that other existential threat, climate change.