Getting Creative With Space to Reopen our Local Economies

As we start thinking about slowly reopening our local economies, thinking differently about how we allocate space will be essential to our success and safety.

Jonathan Berk
Published in
7 min readApr 16, 2020


We’re all antsy at home right now. Hoping and praying for the safety of all of our friends, relatives, neighbors, essential workers and first responders. We’re trying to maintain some semblance of our daily routines, or create new ones, reminiscing about the times spent with friends and family, visiting restaurants and bars and our favorite local establishments. Those times will come soon, but, at least for a little while anyways, those times will look a bit different regulated by physical distancing requirements.

Whats the Problem?

SPACE… SPACE… SPACE… and the way we currently utilize it in our cities and towns. Most sidewalks are far too narrow to be practicing safe social distancing if you need to pass someone. Streets in many cases have been designed to be far too wide than is necessary for the amount of traffic they handle. In fact, in most cities, nearly half of all land area is devoted to cars, an item that may move us from point a to point b but spends nearly 95% of it’s time unused, taking up valuable urban space in a parking lot or on the street. This space could be utilized to safely move more people, while also creating more space for commerce in busy urban areas.

Mobility will also be impacted by social distancing measures. Cars may become perceived as “safer” modes of transport following this pandemic (of course not factoring in that 38,000 Americans die every year in car accidents and 4.4 MILLION injured) but we’ve seen what adding more cars does to our roads and city streets. Gridlock on highways and city streets had become a way of life in many metropolitan areas. Plus, even when a car reaches it’s final destination, that driver will, in the end, need to become a pedestrian, requiring that large amount of space for safe social distancing.

Subways, busses and trains are the most efficient but difficult to practice safe social distancing on when they become crowded at peak times. Alternative modes of transportation like bikes, scooters and walking will become more widely used modes of transportation (we’ve already seen this among first responders in other cities) but safe infrastructure in many cities prevents new riders from taking up urban cycling.

Space for commercial activity will also be at a premium. Assuming many bars and restaurants and other local retailers will be limited in their capacities to encourage safe social distancing, how do we provide them more space to not just come back from a lengthy shutdown but THRIVE in a post COVID world.

People in an age of physical distancing will now require the same amount of space to move around a city safely as the car does. In order to give them that space as we reopen our downtowns and main streets, rethinking the layouts illustrated above is going to be of paramount importance.

How Are Cities Around the Globe Preparing to Reopen?

Federal Street in Auckland, NZ (Photo- Ministry of Transport)

New Zealand is taking a Tactical Urbanism approach to adapting it’s Central Business Districts (CBD)to allow for their eventual reopening while still practicing safe social distancing. They’ve funded a nationwide program asking each of their individual CBDs to come up with quickly implementable, tactical interventions that can allow for more space for pedestrians and bikers in their districts to prepare for safely reopening these districts. Allowing visitors to not only be safe but also feel safe getting back into these CBD’s is essential. The ability to safely spread out once in the CBD will encourage safe return to support for small business once again.

Oakland has opened 70+ miles of “Slow Streets” across the city allowing numerous neighborhood streets to become spaces for residents to walk, bike, rollerblade and more around their neighborhoods as well as to get to and from their essential work locations and essential errands like grocery shopping and pharmacies.

Milan, Italy was one of the hardest hit areas of the Globe by the initial wave of COVID-19. Today, as they look to move past the peak, continue to flatten the curve and eventually plan for a reopen of their local economy, they’re planning an ambitious plan to keep people safe. They plan to create a network of 22-miles of bike lanes and expanded sidewalk space to encourage safe mobility city-wide.

“I think in the next month in Milan, in Italy, in Europe, we will decide part of our future for the next decade. Before, we were planning for 2030; now the new phase, we are calling it 2020. Instead of thinking about the future, we have to think about the present.” -Deputy Mayor of Milan, Pierfrancesco Maran

Vienna, Austria has implemented a number of initiatives and slowly started reopening their local economy this week. They’ve implemented citywide speed limits of 12mph on numerous neighborhood streets through a robust “slow streets” campaign encouraging walkers, bikers and vehicles to share many of the cities quieter side streets.

Workers lay temporary bike lane in Berlin. (The Guardian)

Berlin, Germany is adding temporary bike lanes across the city that are replacing existing vehicle lanes to encourage safe biking as an alternative to crowded public transit options and creating an interconnected network across the City.

Brookline, Massachusetts has created new pedestrian lanes along some of their major roadways in town allowing area residents to more safely move about the narrow city sidewalks to essential errands. This type of sidewalk widening doesn’t have to be expensive, or elaborate but can be iterated overtime to uncover what works and what doesn’t in your neighborhood. This is the essence of “tactical urbanism.” It allows and encourages you to try things cheap, fail, iterate and succeed again.

We’re all learning as we move through this crisis, no one has been through anything like it before so creative solutions like these are not only encouraged.. they’re required!

Thinking Creatively for Crisis Recovery

This crisis is going to require us all to think creatively. There’s not a “one-size fits all” approach that will work for every city and every town but knowing that this will be a gradual reopening process once we do get there. No one has the “silver bullet” solution to doing this properly and safely but we’re all going to have to be ready to learn and iterate the reopening of our main streets and downtowns.

Slow Streets, Open Streets, protected bike lanes, sidewalk “bump outs” and neighborhood “ad-hoc” interventions are all being experimented with across the world. While some variation of each intervention may work best depending on local dynamics, the one thing these all have in common is a wholistic change about how we view the sidewalk/ street divide as less of a wall separating the two and more of a flexible barrier that must now be moved to accommodate the reopening of our local economies.

“Al Fresco Dining” As restaurants and bars deal with what may be a prolonged period of physical distancing requirements regulating their capacities when they open, open streets can provide opportunities for these small businesses already decimated by a lengthy shutdown to recoup some of the lost revenue from lost seating capacity. Tables could be set up in “parklets” on now empty street space previously allocated to parked cars allowing more space for diners to spread out, potentially covering for lost service opportunities indoors.

“Al Fresco” dining on the streets of Rome, Italy.

Safe Social Space- Streets will present the best opportunity to create space for safe social distancing as they account for such a large percentage of strategically located “open space” in our urban areas. In fact, many of these “new” ideas being deployed in cities across the world aren’t really new concepts at all. Most world cities were built before the automobile. In many of those cities, including New York, streets were shared spaces allowing pedestrians to freely walk in the open road, presenting 3.4 million New Yorkers with the opportunity to spread out and avoid overcrowded sidewalks, spilling over into the streets.

Fourth Avenue in NYC looking south towards 23rd Street from 1908 — Detroit Publishing Co..

Let’s Unlock the Next Generation of Big Urban Ideas NOW!

Cities were built to safely, and efficiently handle large amounts of people on foot, historically giving them enough space to safely move about with room to spare. The choices we’ve made through our urban design patterns since that time have reallocated that space over the years and allocated it to moving automobiles through our cities. These decisions are what we need to rethink today as we look at get our local economies back up and running again in this new age where physical distancing is the name of the game. Clawing back valuable urban space in a matter of weeks that we’ve spent the better part of a century allocated exclusively to cars isn’t need to be as difficult a task as it sounds, but imperative in the efforts to reopen our cities and towns local economies.

What creative new strategy would you implement to reopen your main street or downtown?



Jonathan Berk

Working at intersection of real estate, community and tech to realize a city's full potential.