The COVID-19 pandemic urged cities to quickly find and implement solutions to meet short term needs. Tactical urban interventions or street experiments are characterised by their quick, cheap, and yet well thought out implementation. So street experiments could be a way of responding to the challenges that became more tactile during the pandemic. In this way they could help make cities more resilient in the future and to be able to better respond to possible future crises. But how does that precisely work?
Overall, street experiments have been implemented throughout the pandemic with the primary objectives of improving and smoothening movement of people whilst assuring physical distancing. In this way, by reducing the risk of contamination on the streets, they have had a direct positive impact on public health. But there is more to it. The impacts of street experiments also indirectly benefit public health, and they even reach beyond this.
Worldwide, street experiments have shown to diminish car presence, give more space for active travel modes such as walking and cycling, and reclaim space for residents for other types of activities. These progresses result in less pollution, less car related accidents, more physical activity, and more options to go outside and to socialise, thus fostering healthier and safer cities. Street experiments also show to be positively related to economic recovery. Plentiful examples demonstrate how the extension of sidewalks and the implementation of parklets on streets and parking spaces enable bars and restaurants to safely open again after months of closure. Entrepreneurs and the catering industry generally show enthusiasm and they tend to be valuable partners in street transformations. In Munich, over 900 businesses have welcomed a policy that allowed parklets on the streets, enabling businesses to extend their outdoor spaces. More than 1100 parking spaces were removed, but still the demand for dining and drinking occasions was more prominent.
AS A VEHICLE
IN THE LONG RUN
The strength of street experiments lies in their ability to quickly respond to short-term needs, but, and maybe even more importantly, they have an enormous potential of enabling systemic change in the long run. For example, the decrease in traffic and congestion rates made it possible to experiment and effectively intervene on the streets before they returned to full capacity. But this is not always taken for granted and it remains a difficult task to do so. Especially so with experiments implemented during the pandemic. In general terms, they have been realised very quickly and sometimes without much consultation, let alone participation, of the local community.
On the other hand, where people tend to have difficulties imagining how things could be different, the pandemic made it also easier for people to be open to change, specifically when it concerns the streetscape and public space. So this might be an opportunity to open the conversation with the community and other stakeholders involved about what the function of a street ought to be. The COVID-19 pandemic could be an opportunity rather than a burden to open our eyes and explore new alternatives. So the question remains how city street experiments can have an impact that reaches beyond the experiment itself. How can street experiments induce change
change in the long run and what role is the pandemic taking in this process? This is one of the questions that is central to the CLEAR2021 project and the SET project, and on which we will be focusing intensively in the coming months.
Some street experiments already show to have a more permanent character and succeed to continue even after COVID times. For example, recently the city of Munich announced that the parklets could stay! This shows us that experiments allow us to experience with our own eyes how change might look like and that we might as well be more ready to accept it. It reflects the question of what a city, or a specific population of that city, is needing the most. It also reveals some aspects of how we start looking differently at our cities, our streets and our public spaces. Another example are the holiday streets in Amsterdam which let people experience what it is like to let your children play in the streets, to watch a movie in front of your house or to picnic with neighbours you have never met before. Street experiments during the pandemic allow people to redress their own balances of what they appreciate about living in a city and of what they think to be valuable in their lives.
To better guarantee long term change and to eschew regressions toward (previous) unsustainable practices, street experiments could be accompanied by a set of processes and approaches. For example, wider acceptance amongst citizens for experimenting should be garnered, the conversation should be opened with the community, and bureaucratic or application procedures could be facilitated.
If you want to know more about this, go check out our SET Guidelines Kit! We already outlined some suggestions and recommendations to help you further on the road!
Want to read more about street experiments during the pandemic? Check out our resources collection!