Streetscapes in Pandemic Mode: A Shock of Opportunity

Posted · Add Comment

by Bill Millard

The COVID-19 pandemic caught cities by surprise, and the eerie silence that fell over the streets of New York last March scared some people into thinking we might see the end of urban life as we knew it. Before COVID appeared, the early 21st century saw a widespread rediscovery of the joys and advantages of urbanity, reversing the 20th century’s centrifugal migrations toward suburbia and exurbia; the prospect that the disease might imperil the habitability of cities, one of the essential Sustainable Development Goals, threatened to slam the brakes on that centripetal movement. If members of a naturally gregarious species were to shun each other’s company instead, fear of contagion might compel them to bid adieu to the “creative cities” of Richard Florida and say hello to more cityscapes that resemble the most environmentally retrograde parts of, say, central Florida.

Given the premise that well-planned metropolitan density outperforms sprawling, energy-squandering suburbia in sustainability, resource efficiency, and resilience to shocks, a reversion to urbiphobic development patterns – long auto commutes, not the convenient pedestrian neighborhoods of the 15-Minute City – would not only impair the quality of life for city residents but worsen the climate emergency for the whole planet. Yet in a period when any form of good news has been scarce, adaptations by New York and other cities offer hope that Green Urbanism can not only regain momentum but accelerate. The public right-of-way, already the site of progressive transformations before COVID struck, is a pivotal location for designs and uses that benefit people, communities, and the planet.

Last spring, New York City was America’s epicenter of COVID, which hit us early and hard. We learned some things about the disease fairly quickly, particularly its propensity to spread through droplets, and to a lesser extent aerosols, making precautions against close-contact transmission more important than obsessive surface cleaning and fomite avoidance. Once we got past overreactions like scouring every vegetable when returning from a grocery trip, viral control measures struck most of the populace as acceptable, though the business closings, distancing, and masking naturally inspired some epic-scale kvetching. New York State’s case-count curves from May to approximately November showed this approach making impressive headway against the pandemic’s first wave, even as other areas, more resistant to basic public-health adaptations, became the hot spots on epidemiologic maps. Still, a wintertime resurgence in cases – reflecting more time spent indoors during cooler weather, plus holiday-season travel and gatherings, and potentially about to soar if more contagious new variants of the virus take root here – makes it unwise to predict how well this city’s adaptations will fare. Vaccination efforts are just beginning to confront that fearsome second wave.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths
in New York City, February 2020 to January 2021.
(Image credit: NYC Department of Health)

However long it may take to gain control over the virus, control over street space has shifted: arguably the one aspect of the coronafied city that the public has overwhelmingly welcomed. A set of public and private programs (Open Restaurants, Open Streets, Open Storefronts, and DineOut NYC) reassigned some 100 miles of street space from vehicles to restaurants and other small businesses, along with providing design guidelines for constructing safely ventilated, relatively welcoming outdoor infrastructure. The resulting pavilions, tents, bubbles, and microbuildings have not all been up to code, admittedly, and restaurant/bar proprietors, already reeling from the 25% limit on indoor capacity and then a reimposed ban on indoor seating altogether, report varying experiences with enforcement. Yet the rise of the “streetery,” this informal new building typology, has saved businesses and reduced job loss; it is sparing New Yorkers the numbing repetition of subsisting indefinitely on takeout or their own cooking; it may ultimately become a defining feature of local public life. The city made Open Restaurants permanent last September. Similar adaptations can be found in other cities, even wintry Oslo and Chicago.

Under pandemic conditions, when social distancing is imperative, transportation and health officials need to assess which use is more broadly beneficial: opening street space so that people have more room to walk and breathe, or leaving the streets to motor vehicles, which cocoon their occupants (temporarily safely, provided no virus spreaders are inside, or if windows are open) but force pedestrians into unhealthy crowded spaces with multiple pinch points. In a majority-pedestrian city like New York, the choice is obvious. The inefficiency of most outdoor heaters is a legitimate environmental concern in winter months; still, considering the deferral of vehicle miles traveled when streets and parking space are converted, according to carbon-calculation boffin Charles Komanoff (measuring the impacts of an evening’s heating for tables seating 6-12 diners and a 12-mile one-way drive by a pair of SUVs), the tradeoff in energy and greenhouse-gas emissions between heaters and cars is essentially a wash.

A “streetery” or outdoor dining pavilion in New York City’s East Village.
(Photo credit: Bill Millard)

This adaptation of street space extends a tradition that has been more familiar to specialists than to the general public. COVID imparts both urgency and visibility to design efforts that have been under way for decades, converting streets from primarily automotive thoroughfares to multipurpose, human-scaled spaces. The philosophy known variously as Living Streets or Complete Streets links the woonerf experiments of traffic engineer Hans Monderman, the theoretical and practical efforts of Copenhagen-based architect Jan Gehl, the PARK(ing) Day activism of art studio Rebar (which merged with Gehl’s firm in 2014), the transformative planning of architect/mayor Jaime Lerner in Curitiba and economist/mayor Enrique Peñalosa in Bogotá, and the pedestrianized plazas and bike lanes of Janette Sadik-Khan and colleagues (first during her term as New York transportation commissioner, later as a Bloomberg Associates consultant and as chair of the National Association of City Transportation Officials). 

Another defining feature of urban infrastructure, public transit, came in for some scathing accusations in the early days of the pandemic when MIT economist Jeffrey Harris published a study linking viral spread to subway stations, based on resemblances between case maps and MTA maps at a zip-code level. However, analysts quickly slammed the non-peer-reviewed paper for sloppy methodology on multiple fronts: spurious equation of correlation with causation, statistical sleight-of-hand, inattention to confounding factors, and flagrant misinterpretation of its own data, particularly in car-dependent, COVID-wracked Staten Island. Although these flaws did not keep the paper from becoming a cudgel in COVID-related culture wars, later and more rigorous scholarship pointed to an opposite conclusion: that the subway (where masking is mandatory, ventilation is vigorous, and train cleaning quickly became extensive enough to suspend 24-hour service) is the wrong scapegoat for the spread of the virus. Urban settings were once undisputed caldrons of infectious disease, in the era before modern sanitation and antibiotics – but the urbiphobia that lingers from past centuries, when high density implied smallpox, cholera, and yellow fever, is flagrantly at odds with today’s standards and practices in protecting public health.

Architect, planner, and former city sustainability official Laurie Kerr, FAIA, LEED AP, has suggested that as the built environment continually raises the bar for energy performance, COVID and potential future outbreaks may call for “designing buildings with two modes: pandemic mode and normal mode.” Air-handling systems, for example, might be expandable during pandemics but operated at lower levels under normal epidemiologic conditions to save energy. The streetscape adaptations that New York and other cities are making to counteract COVID can be seen as civic-scale implementations of Kerr’s suggestion of bimodal design. She cites a historical comparison, noting that a friend born around 1912, who attended the Ethical Culture School during the 1918 influenza pandemic, recalled being taken to the roof for classes, even under winter conditions, to combat the flu with fresh air. Although today’s children are unlikely to undergo rooftop refrigeration to avoid recirculating droplets and aerosols, Kerr notes, the concept of making better use of exterior space is applicable any time an airborne infection appears.

Parks, Kerr suggests, are an obvious resource for activities previously found indoors. Farmers’ markets, workouts, weddings, political demonstrations, and pop-up performances already occur in parks and plazas, she points out; why not also use open urban space for teaching, libraries under tents, or other cultural endeavors (particularly valuable in a city full of arts workers sidelined by venue closings)? Broadway’s pedestrianized intersections could naturally host appropriately scaled theatrical productions, with audiences distanced as in sporting events, where low-four-figure crowds currently spread out in 60,000-capacity stadiums. In converting a city to pandemic mode, she says, “the point is to be nimble, and to use what you have better.” With appropriate scale and precautions, cities can turn public gatherings from a hazard to a revitalizing, humanizing resource. The longer the citizenry endures pandemic conditions, the clearer it is that humanity does not live by Zoom alone.

A Manhattan street scene in June 2020, as the peak of the COVID pandemic and the public demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd converged, emptying the streets of pedestrians. (Photo credit: Bill Millard)

COVID exposed the fragility of our infrastructure, economy, and expectations. It also gave cities an unexpected chance to show how resilience emerges from collective creativity. Dining, socializing, commerce, and self-powered mobility are just some of the imaginable ways to repurpose valuable square footage seized back from the dominion of King Car, whose 20th-century reign was never a natural or healthy principle for organizing a city. The process of reawakening a way of life that the virus drove into hibernation – just beginning at this writing, as vaccine distribution gathers momentum and certain political obstructions fade – is full of contingencies, hazards, and uncertainties. In terms borrowed from complexity theory, we are seeing a system in a state of criticality, where small-scale changes can catalyze powerful reorganizing effects. Rethinking the forms of a city’s circulation system, beginning with its streets, can make the difference between its ossification and its nimble return to animate life.

Bill Millard is a freelance journalist covering architecture, health, and interdisciplinary ideas, whose work has appeared in Oculus, the Architect’s Newspaper, Icon, Architect, Metals in Construction, Architectural Record, the Annals of Emergency Medicine, OMA’s Content, and elsewhere. In between magazine articles he is working with glacial speed on a book manuscript, The Vertical and Horizontal Americas, launched with a Graham Foundation research grant. He is based in NYC’s East Village.