The Covid-19 pandemic has brought public health to the forefront of many conversations about urban land use, as it becomes increasingly clear that where people live affects their health outcomes. Simultaneous to this health crisis, we are also in the midst of a mental health crisis, with many people feeling isolated, scared, and trapped at home. While urban planners have long grappled with how to allocate scarce land in urban centers, the pandemic has further highlighted the need for adequate space for things such as housing, recreation, socializing, exercise, and relaxing. As this need becomes more acute, a reexamination of how cities use their public space is warranted.
New York City-based non-profit Transportation Alternatives (TA) advocates to “take the city back from cars and give New York’s public space back to the people who walk and bike here” through such campaigns as adding bike lanes and redesigning streets for safety. TA recently released its nyc 25x25 report, which calls on New York City leaders to convert 25 percent of space taken up and used by cars into space for people by 2025. While this may seem an ambitious goal, TA is hardly alone in its calls for such changes. Just several months prior to the release of this report, news broke that Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo planned to make good on her campaign promise to remove around 50 percent of Paris’s car parking spaces by the time of the next election.
There are many mental health benefits associated with the redesign of urban space previously used for cars. This land could be used for provision of additional green space, encouraging social and physical activity. New trees and plants could boost mental health through biophilia: humanity’s love of nature has time and again been associated with positive mental health outcomes. Cities could also reclaim more space for amenities that contribute to a lively and pro-social city, such as benches, public restrooms, play spaces, and places for street vendors, which can create a sense of place and community.
With dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit and additional bike lanes, commute times could decrease. Longer commutes are associated with poor mental health. Peoples’ physical health could improve, which would also help reduce stress: asthma could decline due to reduced particulate matter in the air, and the heat island effect could decline. Physical safety could also be improved, as traffic calming measures could decrease injuries and deaths caused by vehicles, and allow for less stressful travel on foot and bike, particularly for populations including those with disabilities, and younger and older people. Last but not least, urbanites could look forward to better sleep from less noise pollution due to traffic.
As advocates continue to push for redistribution of space away from cars, it can be instructive to learn from the successes and failures of other such attempts. Following are eight lessons gathered from cities around the world.
Invest in a positive vision, not just a “negative" one
When people depend on cars, any change that impedes their ability to drive or park can seem like a punishment. When the city of Oslo started pedestrianizing streets in the 1970s, they also invested heavily in public transit and cycling infrastructure. Make sure that people have alternatives so that they are not dependent on the parking spaces and infrastructure being removed.
Intervene during natural inflection points
When a major highway in Seoul was found to be unsafe, instead of demolishing and rebuilding the road as originally planned, officials decided to turn the highway into a planted pedestrian path. As infrastructure around the world continues to age, this introduces natural points in time to consider what should come next. For example, in New York City, the proposed reconstruction of the aging Brooklyn-Queens Expressway offers an opportunity to think creatively about whether it should be replaced in-kind, or whether there are better options. Additionally, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many cities have experimented with ways to increase access to open space, such as implementing open streets programs.
Engage your stakeholders early and often
Stakeholder engagement needs to be more than just a cursory checked box. In Nairobi, as part of the redevelopment of Luthuli Avenue into a more pedestrian-friendly street, project partners met people where they were. Throughout the planning process, there were artistic projects, including a photography installation, an on-site charrette including participatory mapping and a physical model of the area, and online surveys leveraging social media. Three urban dialogue sessions were held, as was a design competition. While successful public engagement is a major undertaking, it is vital to connect with communities who will be affected by the proposals.
Look at data, not just perceptions
Various assumptions tend to accompany pedestrianization projects, such as business owners’ fears that reduced parking will translate into reduced sales. It’s important to understand the truth on the ground before, during, and after implementation of a new project. For example, in a study of Henry Street in Dublin, shop owners estimated that 19 percent of their customers drove, while in reality only nine percent did. The city of Auckland has taken data-gathering seriously: before implementing a new pedestrianization project, a study of Auckland’s High Street found that for every car that goes down the street, 14 pedestrians do, and by making it more pedestrian-friendly, this could encourage even more foot traffic. After another street was redesigned as a shared street, a study found a 54% increase in pedestrian volumes, and a 47% increase in consumer spending. This focus on monitoring and evaluation can help shape a project, and is vital in communicating the impacts of these projects.
Test the waters first
Infrastructure is meant to last for a long time, so it can be helpful to test out new ideas before implementing them. In Chennai, Sir Thyagaraya Nagar pedestrian plaza was built using additional road space to incorporate pedestrian amenities and to create a new social space for citizens. Two trial runs of this pedestrianization project were done before the project was made permanent, one in 2016, and one in 2017. In Oslo, city officials began with pilot pedestrianization projects and made change in increments. Cities can learn from pilots before rolling out larger projects, and residents can be introduced to change gradually.
Consider temporary changes
Many cities have experimented with shutting down roads to vehicles during certain times of the day or days of the week. While this may seem like tepid public policy, this method can help shift societal norms of what is seen as “acceptable.” For example, Bogota’s famous Ciclovia, which allows bikers, walkers, and joggers to take over certain city streets, closes those streets only during certain hours on Sundays. In Singapore, certain streets are open to cars during the day, but become pedestrianized at night, allowing people and food stalls. And in Mexico City, transit planners began blocking off streets one day a week before increasing to more time and permanency. Even temporary changes can lead the public to think critically about their long-held assumptions about public space, and who and what it is for.
Remember all of the populations that you serve
Cars aren’t only single-occupancy vehicles used for commutes to the office and running errands on the weekends. Freight, deliveries, and emergency services are vital to cities. In Oslo, while many parking spaces were removed from parts of the city, some remaining spaces were converted into parking for disabled drivers. Some streets that were closed to pedestrians remained open to delivery trucks, and emergency vehicles retained access to these streets. Keep in mind the wide variety of situations that should be anticipated when redesigning public space.
Take concerns about gentrification and displacement seriously
While not necessarily the cause of it, certain public realm projects have been associated with rising property costs and/or gentrification. For example, a study found that the pedestrianization of the Kadikoy historic district in Istanbul preceded the replacement of many smaller businesses with larger international chains as a result of increased rents. The study report notes that awareness of the potential for rising rents should prompt planners to take preventative measures to help preserve the diversity of small businesses. Investments in infrastructure and public realm improvements should be coupled with an understanding of what protections may be needed for nearby residents and businesses, and planners should make sure that the local communities feel welcomed and served by new projects.
As we continue to understand the impact of urban planning and design on mental health, conversations around repurposing land will only continue to become more important. We’ve seen that bold projects can have big impacts. The lessons taken from the diverse cities above can help guide these conversations.
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