In Northern Ireland, a multifunctional pop-up park was installed in Belfast’s Cathedral Gardens. (Photo by MARTIN)

In March 2020, Urban Land online published an article addressing the COVID-19 pandemic for the first time. The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming ULI report The Pandemic and the Public Realm: Global Innovations for Health, Social Equity, and Sustainability.

By the end of March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading in U.S. cities, sparking widespread lockdowns and other public health measures. Around the world, cities were confronting the same crisis and learning how to keep their residents safe.

As a growing evidence base showed that outdoor spaces—when combined with social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands—were less risky than indoor spaces, the public realm became an increasingly important part of pandemic life. Parks quickly became crowded, and bicycle sales skyrocketed.

Cities looked to their public spaces to address these new challenges and meet changing needs. Whether creating public art to share COVID-19 safety information in Nairobi, opening streets to pedestrian and cyclist use in Oakland, or drawing social distancing circles at a park in Brooklyn, cities experimented with quick but often significant changes to the public realm as part of their pandemic response.

The Urban Land Institute’s Building Healthy Places Initiative profiled more than 30 of these approaches to the public realm during the pandemic from around the globe, representing a range of cities—small and large, on different continents, implementing pilot projects or accelerating long-term plans. The examples illuminate how cities can innovate with low-cost, immediately responsive, and creative interventions that promote health and social equity. Several of these examples, spanning four different types of public space projects, are highlighted below.

Small Enterprise, Neighborhoods, and “Streateries”

To support local businesses and community life, cities encouraged outdoor dining, safe shopping, and efforts to ensure that residents can meet all their basic needs within their own neighborhoods.

  • Vilnius, Lithuania. Vilnius temporarily transformed its city center into a vast outdoor café from the spring to fall 2020 to support the local restaurant industry and create spaces for people to dine out safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the peak of the program, over 450 restaurants had set up outdoor tables in 18 locations, including four streets closed to car traffic in the Old Town.
  • Melbourne, Australia. DAP, the Melbourne Outdoor Dining Design Assistance Program, was designed to provide pro bono assistance to hospitality venues and business owners. To help businesses navigate Melbourne’s outdoor dining permitting processes in a timely manner, MOD.DAP connects them with urban design professionals who can provide design and documentation assistance.

Slow/Open Streets and Bike Network Expansions

By closing streets to car traffic and expanding bike networks, cities reclaimed streets for pedestrian and cyclist use.

  • Bogotá, Colombia. In March 2020, the city of Bogotá introduced an emergency bike network, totaling 52 miles (84 km) of new bike lanes, to help essential workers move around and to encourage cycling—a low-cost mode of transportation that allows for social distancing. Given the quick implementation, many of these original lanes were makeshift, using plastic monoliths and tape to mark the lanes. However, the city has already made some of these lanes permanent, changing the temporary materials to more permanent ones, demonstrating how quick, temporary projects can be formalized over time and expanded into innovative plans.
  • Montreal, Canada. Montreal implemented temporary “Safe Active Transportation Circuits” linking neighborhoods and four city parks with pedestrian and bicyclist paths. Routes were created by reconfiguring streets and removing parking spaces in several areas.

Creative Placemaking and Public Art

Arts initiatives provided information about COVID-19 safety precautions, attracted people to local business districts, and thanked frontline workers.

  • Nairobi, Kenya. Through the Talking Walls project—an existing youth arts program—the Hope Raisers Initiative worked with eight local artists and two community health workers to create murals with COVID-19 safety messaging. The murals were strategically placed in public spaces in neighborhoods with low access to information about the pandemic, and they depict basic COVID-19 prevention measures like wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing to foster discussion about COVID-19, help people cope with the pandemic, and combat misinformation.
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mural Arts Philadelphia—the nation’s largest public arts program—facilitated the creation and installation of art that promotes safe physical distancing at meal distribution sites, grocery stores, bodegas, pharmacies, sanitation centers, play streets, parks, and libraries throughout Philadelphia. As of December 2020, nearly 11,000 posters and banners and more than 2,000 outdoor space pads—vinyl decals that stick to the ground—had been placed at 255 locations throughout Philadelphia. Mural Arts began the project with a focus on neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and prioritized collaborating with community organizations led by and serving Black and immigrant Philadelphians.

Innovations in Parks

Cities made existing parks safer, such as by drawing social distancing circles, and found creative new spaces to serve as parks, such as by opening golf courses to the public.

  • Belfast, Northern Ireland. Cathedral Gardens Park opened in Belfast’s city center in August 2020 after construction was halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The park transformed a poorly designed, underused open space into a colorful, fun gathering place and provides needed open space following the closure of a well-loved pop-up park nearby. Despite pressure to continue to pause construction as a result of COVID-19, the development of Cathedral Gardens advanced in 2020 and was delivered quickly because the public engagement process had taken place before the start of the pandemic.
  • Atlanta, Georgia. To alleviate crowding on a popular walking path in Chastain Memorial Park, the Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation opened the park’s golf course to the public. Beginning in mid-June 2020, the public could use the course as a park every Tuesday in a 60-day experiment. When the 115-acre (47 ha) golf course reopened in June, the Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation agreed to allow public use once a week.

Although each profiled city is distinctive, the following main themes emerged:

  • Temporary, flexible, low-cost, and iterative projects can respond to rapidly changing needs while building support and collecting data for more permanent projects in the future.
  • The most successful public realm interventions and associated programs have challenged assumptions—and ultimately altered perspectives—on entrenched policies and public realm needs.
  • The majority of these efforts were led by city agencies—often in collaboration with local businesses, building owners, and nonprofit organizations. The public sector can play an essential role in cross-sector coordination while also streamlining necessary permitting processes and project approvals.
  • Cities can maximize the impact of multiple local projects by combining efforts. For example, creative placemaking initiatives can complement a slow-streets program, making both more effective.
  • Equitable, people-centric public space has been essential during the pandemic, and continuing to prioritize equity will remain critical in the recovery and beyond.

Notably, equity was a primary concern for many cities as they developed and implemented their projects, in part because COVID-19 has disproportionately affected some groups, such as frontline workers, people in crowded housing, and those with underlying health conditions.

In the United States, these factors often fall along lines of race and income, given the country’s ongoing structural racism and its enduring legacy. Other countries face disparities specific to their histories and contexts. Because inequities in the availability and quality of public space also exist, cities have been striving to ensure that the people most affected by the pandemic are able to benefit from public space improvements.

In the midst of the many devastating effects of the pandemic, cities can take inspiration from these examples of adaptability and creativity around the world. As city leaders learn from one another during and after this crisis, they can reflect on these public realm innovations—and their own approaches to public space throughout the pandemic—to sustain their work moving forward and to create healthier and more equitable places.

The Pandemic and the Public Realm: Global Innovations for Health, Social Equity, and Sustainability is now available in Knowledge Finder.

MATT NORRIS is a director with the Building Healthy Places Initiative and DIANA SCHODER is a senior associate with the Building Healthy Places Initiative.

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