By Lennert Verhulst
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on our lives, but it also changed our cities. Over the last year, our cities’ streets have seen many eye-catching transformations. During the first months of the pandemic we have seen deserted streets. But when lockdowns were gradually lifted and more people started to go out on the street, cities began to reshape their streets in order to control virus spread. Sidewalks in crowded streets have been extended at the cost of driving lanes, everywhere around the city temporary cycling lanes popped-up, and wooden parklets started replacing parking spaces as provisional terraces for bars and restaurants. The pandemic has stressed the need to re-design our cities: To re-think how we want to live and, maybe even more prominentely, to re-think how the cities our lives, and, maybe even more prominently, to re-think how the cities where we live in should be adapted to this new life in a future where physical distancing will be the norm for at least a while. However, it is not only the recent need for physical distancing that urged us to change course. Social and ecological questions in cities worldwide have been prevailing over the last decades. The ongoing crisis has highlighted – and in some cases even reinforced –, rather than generated, some key problems challenging our society, environment, and current way of living, putting a qualitative future life at risk for all. Many of those challenges that now became more tactile are related to mobility and public space, and more concretely to car traffic and city streets.
All these factors together really make it worth starting to imagine our streets differently! And somehow the “time is right” to act fast and with reversible measures.
The pandemic has shown us, amongst others, that qualitative open or green spaces are indispensable, yet not available or accessible for everyone. It has also made clear that moving around the city safely is not a given when not having a car and no proper cycling infrastructure is provided. On top of that, public transportation has been perceived by many as unsafe. But on the other hand, the pandemic also gave us a glimpse of how it could be differently. Empty boulevards in major cities such as Barcelona, Paris, and Milan triggered the imagination of citizens who envisioned how streets could look differently. And as streets take an important share of open spaces in cities, also they should be qualitative, safe, and nurture our well-being.
So how is the pandemic highlighting this change in viewpoint from ‘streets for cars’ and ‘streets for traffic’ to ‘streets for people’? Some remarkable shifts can be observed over the last year:
There has been an increasing shift in demand for walking and cycling, mainly because of less confidence in public transportation;
The need for physical activity in cities or just being outside, increased even more due to obligated confinements or lockdowns;
The re-opening of the catering industry asked for inventive solutions that safeguarded physical distancing on streets and public spaces (e.g. the extension of outdoor terraces on streets and parking spaces)