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A Tactical Urbanist Response to COVID-19

Communities are acting quickly to adapt our cities for our new reality

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Photo by @sara_stace

As we have watched cities, states, and countries scramble to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, citizens worldwide have stepped up to respond in creative ways. This collective initiative has shown itself in hand-sewn face masks and DIY hand sanitizer, and is increasingly being directed at our cramped sidewalks and empty city streets through the use of tactical urbanism.

Tactical urbanism is an approach to city building that uses temporary, affordable, and easily-implemented solutions, often starting small and piloting more permanent change. Whether sanctioned or guerrilla, it is a lighter, quicker, cheaper way to test solutions and solicit feedback. Most importantly, local residents are often the ones leading the change, granting communities a sense of ownership over a space.

COVID-19 has emptied our public spaces and canceled our normal social interactions. In its wake, some communities have turned to tactical urbanism to adapt our infrastructure, accommodate safe physical distancing, and support a new kind of public life. Here’s how:

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Photo by @jlocantore

Temporary Open Streets Provide More Room to Breathe

The new demands of physical distancing require an immediate rethinking of our streets. Use patterns have changed: narrow sidewalks, which force pedestrians to weave between trash piles, signage, mailboxes, and scaffolding, rarely provide six feet of separation, while car traffic is at an all-time low. But streets are made of concrete, and are hard to redesign quickly. Enter the temporary open street: Cities such as Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Denver have opened up roads to pedestrians and cyclists for much-needed space to walk and bike to essential errands, or just get a little exercise.

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Photo by @bblytherss

DIY Street Redesigns

Where government has been slower to act, rogue urbanists have taken charge. While New York City infamously rolled back its short-lived ‘Open Streets’ pilot, some fed-up residents took matters into their own hands by blocking their residential street with easy-to-move traffic cones. Where one DC sidewalk narrows, well-labeled traffic cones block out a parking space to allow pedestrians to move into the street. In Bristol, UK, a lane was adapted to provide a ‘runner’s lane’, allowing joggers to safely use the road and give pedestrians space on the sidewalk. These guerrilla tactics are not meant to be long-term, but can help disbelievers imagine other possibilities and raise awareness of the debate.

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Photo by Sam Balto

Reclaiming Space for Play

In Portland, OR, a physical education teacher found that with the playground down the block taped off, parks crowded, and sidewalks too narrow, claiming the street was the only way to give his children room to play safely. The teacher, Sam Balto, marked out boxes in front of each house on his street with chalk, and now leads a daily PE class for the street’s kids. “Street closed for social distancing” signs turn away cars at either end of the street, and Balto has made the signs’ graphic available for download in the hopes of encouraging others to claim their own space.

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Photo by @mtmurphy18

Social Streets, Even Now

As neighbors have had to dodge each other on sidewalks and friendly smiles are covered by face masks, our collective social life has suffered. Where friends and family can video chat, neighbors have taken to leaving messages in physical space. Signs reading “We are all in this together” and painted rainbows are taped in windows, and chalk messages of gratitude and hope pepper sidewalks. Friendly teddy bears have popped up, hidden around neighborhoods for children to count on their walks. Encouragement comes in the form of painted “Stay home” and “Wash your hands” signs. With social life largely relegated to the digital world, casual encounters with hand-written notes are a welcome reminder of the broader community below the surface.

COVID-19 has forced our communities to think quickly and adapt, and tactical urbanism is built for speed and responsiveness. From rapidly shifting our streets to respond to new use patterns, to finding new ways to communicate our solidarity with neighbors, these interventions are locally led and meet true community needs. In uncertain times, government should encourage this local leadership and initiative, and even formalize it with fast-tracked applications, guidance, and funding (New Zealand has done precisely this). Now is the time to adapt our cities for this new reality, and let our communities show their true resilience.

Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for bicycling, walking and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.

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