We’ve had a taste of what streets designed for people, not cars, could look like. Let’s take those lessons with us when we emerge from lockdown, writes Emma McInnes.
Our cities feel profoundly different these days. The whine and roar of traffic has been replaced with the chatter of birds, the squeals of delighted kids, and moments of welcome silence and stillness. For all its sadness, lockdown is allowing us to imagine how our streets could look, sound and even smell like, and it’s forced us to prioritise what’s actually important. Our streets are vital, and they deserve attention well beyond this crisis.
Covid 19 is undeniably causing pain and anxiety for many of us. We can and must acknowledge the cost of the pandemic, while also noting one of the many opportunities this moment has brought us: the chance to focus on our streets and neighbourhoods, and clearly see what needs to change to make them spaces where people can thrive.
We can start by learning to recognise the inequities and lack of ‘resilient design’ – the structures that allow people to safely and easily access essential services, get fresh air, or just pick up milk from the dairy – in many of our neighbourhoods. Covid-19 hasn’t created these conditions, but it has exposed them.
Once we have the virus under control, we’re going to begin the process of recovery. The government has set aside money for infrastructure that benefits communities, Councils are busy nominating shovel-ready projects, and NZTA is now open to new tactical urbanism initiatives – low-cost, temporary interventions in the built environment that improve the safety, accessibility and aesthetics of local neighbourhoods and city streets. Why not start the recovery by addressing the deficits in our neighborhoods that the lockdown has revealed for all of us?
1: Prioritise streets for people over cars
To start, we can give everyone equitable access to streets by slowing traffic speeds and lowering vehicle numbers post-lockdown. Before level four it wasn’t common to see many children in my neighbourhood, but now all the berms and streets are occupied with kids hanging from trees and playing with toys, because parents aren’t concerned about the dangers of cars. Children should be seen as our “indicator” species. The image below shows that children will use streets for play – and parents will let them – when the dangers of traffic are removed. The new rule should be: if children aren’t outside playing in your neighbourhood, then that’s a good indication that car speeds and traffic counts need to be lowered.
It’s not just the movements of children that we can learn from. A lot of people who are out walking now don’t ordinarily walk around their neighbourhoods – because to be frank, a lot of our neighbourhoods aren’t nice to walk in. I’ve never seen a greater diversity of people out using the footpaths than now, including the young and old, parents pushing prams, and those with visible disabilities. How many of you are seeing some of your neighbours for the first time? It’s not just because most of us suddenly have nothing else to do.
It’s because people are discovering that they like their neighbourhoods, and they like environments that support them to safely walk in. Before, we existed in different kinds of bubbles which disconnected us from our own neighbourhoods. In the mornings we walked out our front doors, straight to the car. In the evenings we drove to the gym, because who would want to walk or run on streets busy with traffic, and no one around? (A side note: I’m walking and running much more in the evening because I know there are people around and it makes me feel safer as a woman on her own).
Now, for many of us, it’s really damn nice to move in our neighbourhoods, even when sticking to the social distancing rules. It’s easy for us to confidently zigzag to give others bubble-room, not just because we must, but because we can! People are jogging in on-street parking spaces to avoid others’ bubbles, and they’re able to do this because, well, they know they won’t get honked at, or killed by, a metal box.
While it’s great that we can use on all this extra road space right now, post-lockdown we’re going to need to widen those footpaths. As well as a man jogging in a parking space, the photo above shows two bubbles using the footpath, yet the footpath doesn’t have the capacity to allow them to pass safely.
Luckily, the government seems to get it. It announced last week that it will provide 90% of the cost to councils to implement ‘pop-up’ cycleways and widen footpaths to allow for the physical distancing that will likely be necessary for some time once we’re out of level four. Once the lockdown is over and cars return to our roads, we’re going to need to make sure that our footpaths have the capacity to carry all the people that use them. In Aotearoa, we have so few centimetres of footpath, and yet so much road space going to waste. This inequity needs to be rebalanced.
2: Design cities to give everyone access to a local park
As well as enhancing our streets, we need to ensure equitable access to our parks. I have never seen parks more openly valued and beloved than now. Why? Because in a park you can still get fresh air while remaining physically distant from those in your neighbourhood.
My Instagram is full of people who live in the inner isthmus of Auckland taking walks around their local park or reserve. But many others, in Auckland and beyond, are not so lucky. Post Covid-19, we need to re-examine access to parks by thinking differently about how to live well closer together.
As a rule, every home should be no more than a five to 10 minute walk away from a park. Of course, this is dependent on the housing density in your local area. It is important to design beautiful, functional and compact housing, so that more of us can have greater access to our green spaces, and to each other. Detached single-family homes, like in the image below, are often low density housing, a spatial layout which leads to less frequent bus services, longer distances to commute, longer distance to other people, and longer distances to local infrastructure like dairies, pharmacies or parks, thus leading to increased car use.
We should be learning from the housing design of places like Italy and Spain where, despite suffering some of the worst outbreaks, residents have been spreading physically-distant connectedness that is enabled by compact yet very well designed apartments.
In those countries, apartment residents have balconies that face one another. They live far enough apart to enjoy some privacy, but still close enough to form an effective choir. Imagine trying to do this in New Zealand from detached single-family housing, with gigantic back yards and towering fences! Of course, both Spain and Italy currently have more severe lockdowns, but just look at the satellite view of Barcelona below – note the number of parks in residential areas where the apartments are up to eight stories high. That’s a lot of people who are able to access their local parks, via tree-lined streets, while remaining within walking distance of amenities such as green grocers and pharmacies.
For comparison, here’s a similar sized area in Botany, Auckland. Yes, there are backyards, but it’s far harder to walk or cycle to your local park and to essential services. Local parks in areas like Botany are also often small, and lack shelter and play facilities.
3: Recognise the potential of the bike in times of crisis, and beyond
Another way that many of us are getting our daily state-sanctioned exercise is on the humble bicycle. Our streets are so quiet that it’s easy to maintain physical distance, particularly on wide arterial roads. Pre-lockdown, I tried to avoid cycling in traffic because my hearing impairment means I can’t hear cars behind me. Now I’m feeling much more relaxed cycling on larger roads without the traffic. It means I can get to the supermarket and back home to isolation much faster and more safely than usual.
We need to respond to the mass of people currently pumping up bike tyres that have been flat for years by getting emergency bike lanes in the ground now. People are discovering that they do actually enjoy riding their bikes – it’s just they don’t like doing it with all the traffic around, and with good reason. Despite the number of people cycling in Aotearoa during lockdown, injuries have dropped substantially. Protected bike lanes, and slowing speeds to create quieter streets, will help to ensure our communities are resilient in times of disaster, as well as in times when the worst we have to deal with is traffic congestion.
It will also help to alleviate future constraints on our public transport systems. In both normal times and times of crisis, it’s the people at the lower end of the socioeconomic totem pole (and mostly women) who are the biggest users of public transport. Many of the essential workers we’re currently relying on cannot afford a car, but continue to leave the house in order to support those who can work from home. As the great urbanist Richard Florida puts it:
“The virus has exposed a deep density divide: rich people density, where the advantaged can do remote work and order in delivery from their expensive homes, versus poor people density where the less advantaged are crammed together in multigenerational households who must head out on transit to work in crowded, exposed conditions. This density divide weakens all of us because vulnerable communities open all of us to the spread of the virus. A city cannot be safe if it is not equitable.”
Whether people are social distancing, or simply on a tight budget, it’s critical that people be offered easy access to safer and more cost-effective transport alternatives such as walking and cycling.
We don’t have to go back to business as usual when lockdown ends. We don’t have to accept the traffic noises that have become the soundtrack of our city lives. We can build more resilient communities, where everyone has equitable access to public spaces, and people can move around our cities – in times of crisis and of normality – without it literally costing the earth.
Emma McInnes is a founder of Women in Urbanism.