The Future of the Space Between Buildings
As we move into week 7 of the Shelter-in-Place / Stay at Home Order, our need for outdoor activity, a connection with nature, and breathing in fresh air is at an all time high.
Whether that means going to a park for a walk, a hike in the woods, or a walk down the street, the value of and need for open space, that can be enjoyed safely, is being felt by all people.
Cities such as New York; Philadelphia, PA; Oakland, CA; Minneapolis, MN; Denver, CO; Boston, MA – and I’m sure that I’m missing some here – have all successfully shut down vehicular traffic on some streets to provide additional space for people to get out and walk, play, or jog safely and with plenty of social distancing.
I have heard and read many opinions in favor of keeping these streets open for pedestrian use (and closed to cars) once the social distancing requirements are able to be safely lifted. In theory, this sounds fantastic: Reduce car usage and the associated pollution, provide more public open space, etc. I am all for this.
However, there is a reality that I think we need to take into account, in addition to the publics need for open space: how long is it going to take for people to feel comfortable and safe taking public transit again?
There are around 1.6 million people who commute into Manhattan, 59% of whom take public transit – train, bus, or subway, and this does not include people who already live in Manhattan and also take the subway.
Are you going to feel safe to hop on the bus, train, or subway with thousands of strangers? Are you going to look for another option – drive, bike, moped, scooter, etc? Or are you lucky enough to be able to continue working from home until public transit finds a way to quell your fears? What about the people who don’t have a viable alternative to public transit? What will public transit of the future look like?
The urban transportation networks were already reaching capacity with the car centric culture that we live in – if you then add on a fear for one’s health taking public transit, our traffic is going to start looking more like Manila, Bogota, or Mumbai.
This ‘pause’ in travel, gives us a great opportunity to re-think our streets, for which I include the entirety of space from face of building to face of building in the urban environment. We can reimagine how the urban street can perform better, increase capacity with alternate modes of transportation, and provide a better quality of life for the people who live and work in these great cities.
So how do we increase the capacity of our streets in a way that also improves the health and resilience of people? How do we re-think the urban streets to allow for more and safer use of biking, scooters, mopeds, walking, and small personal vehicles. How do we prioritize some of these modes, which would admittedly reduce the capacity for large cars, but would increase the overall capacity of our streets and urban fabric? How can we make the urban fabric safer through these changes? How do we layer the urban fabric and allow for more of a three-dimensional approach to living in the urban environment? How can we tackle both an increase in green open space and an increase in capacity for the movement of people through the urban environment in a healthier way?
We need to approach the urban fabric as a complex network with different strands that all knit together to form a woven structure that supports urban life as we understand it now, and as it transforms in the future. These strands need to extend out beyond the city, creating both a regional and citywide network.
We need to embrace smaller forms of transportation and modes that allow for the protection of personal space and the health of the people. I am not arguing against the use of public transportation – it is a necessity – but I do believe that public transportation as we know it will need to be reimagined to become a widely supported again.
There will continue to be innovation and adoption of bike share programs and scooter share programs, likely including some sort of sterilization process, but we need to find a way to provide a safer infrastructure to continue people’s adoption of these alternate modes of transit.
For the spaces between buildings, there are a number of strategies that we could use to innovate the streets of the future. As a basis of design and guiding principle, we need to design for all modes of transportation in a safe and equitable way. Our current streets are focused on a car centric model, rather than a multi-modal model where modes of similar needs are aggregated together.
If we are going to also tackle the issue of congestion, we will need to focus on increasing the capacity of alternative, smaller methods of mobility. We should optimize the movements of each mode of transit in order to provide an efficient system, rather than efficient for one mode and not efficient for another.
We could create a network of some streets that are focused on Pedestrians, Skateboards, Bikes, Scooters, and other small personal electric vehicles, while other streets are focused on cars, and faster moving vehicles like motorcycles and mopeds, and maybe another network that is focused on for hire vehicles and buses.
There would likely also be other benefits of increases in property value for buildings that face onto a ‘Pedestrian/Bike’ street, as these would be slower moving, without the sounds of horns, and additional planting and landscape area, which would create a green movement corridor through the city.
A shift in the way that the urban fabric is organized and utilized is hard. It will require a change in people’s behavior as well as a massive overhaul of the system. However, a piecemeal approach will be very difficult to implement, as the network needs to be connected in order to function. It will be a change, and as we know, change is hard. But, if it’s a change that improves people’s quality of life and provides access to alternative modes of transportation that are both healthier for people (emotionally and physically) as well as the environment, it seems like a hill worth climbing.