Has the pandemic changed urban landscapes for the better? | Michigan Radio
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Has the pandemic changed urban landscapes for the better?

Mar 23, 2021

During the summer of 2020, some cities, like Ann Arbor, authorized street closures downtown to create more room for pedestrians to walk and shop amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Robert Boyle, an urban planning professor emeritus at Wayne State University, says cities might find it beneficial to keep main streets pedestrian-friendly even after the threat of the virus recedes.
Credit Katie Raymond / Michigan Radio

A lot has changed in how we relate to the public spaces around us this year. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, some main streets have closed to cars and opened to pedestrians, to give passersby more room. Restaurants — those that survived — got creative with outdoor seating. And people stuck at home suddenly found themselves seeking local outdoor spaces — where they're available — for recreation and physically distanced socializing. All these shifts in how we use our spaces got us thinking: What does a “return to normal” look like for cities?

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Robert Boyle, a professor emeritus of urban planning at Wayne State University, says the pandemic has given people the chance to consider alternative forms of infrastructure.

“There could be, quote, a ‘return to normal,’ but there is an opportunity for more of a change,” Boyle said. “There is a chance that instead of just reverting to what we've been used to doing, there could be an opportunity to see things differently.”

Olga Stella, the executive director of Design Core Detroit at the College for Creative Studies, says she hopes urban planners, designers, governments, and businesses will consider some of the lessons of the pandemic and prioritize a human-centered approach to creating public spaces.

“Are we just asking people to come back to the office because it's what we've always done, or are we thinking about ways of working, ways of living, ways of playing that are even more beneficial to individuals?” Stella said. “It's really time for us to tackle some of the challenges that have resulted from a one-size-fits-all approach to public policy, to development, to work.”

A new take on “healthy living”

Stella says that public health and safety will likely be on people’s minds even after the threat of contracting COVID-19 diminishes.

“People are going to be considering, you know, density and wanting more of that public space and wanting to be outside, and thinking about the transmission of germs,” she said.

Boyle says the concept of “healthy living” has a long history within the field of urban planning, but it hasn’t always been a priority in recent years. He said one lesson from the pandemic is that cities need to improve their infrastructure in order to help people live healthier lives.

“One hundred and twenty years ago, the whole project of building better places — urban planning, if you want to use that term — was grounded on a number of very important precepts that we got away from. Air quality, access to daylight and sunlight, and also the provision of open space,” he said. “If you look back to the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, there was a lot of conversation about how we need to have good open space where we can all recreate, we can go outside, we can have, quote, ‘healthy living.’”

Expanding access to public spaces

Boyle says that walkability in local outdoor spaces has proved particularly important during the pandemic, a time when many have been stuck inside, unable to get their usual forms of exercise. But not everyone has access to safe, walkable spaces. For example, Boyle said, some communities don’t have enough sidewalks.

“Walkability, the idea that we need to be outside, that we're exercising, that we're able to appreciate the outdoors, means that we have equitable provision of open space and equitable access,” he said. “Shouldn't everybody be able to walk out of their house and find a reasonably safe sidewalk to be able to go for a walk?”

Stella says it’s important to consider access from a socioeconomic perspective, as well as a physical one, so that neighborhoods throughout Michigan have public places with safe parks, playground equipment, and spaces to push wheelchairs or strollers.

“Are we making these investments, are we building our cities, in equitable ways?” she said.

A new Main Street?

During the pandemic, some cities and businesses made changes to main streets or downtown areas so pedestrians could have enough room to walk or shop despite the public health crisis. Boyle says that keeping some of these changes after the pandemic may decrease noise pollution and traffic and increase safety downtown.

“If we can retain some of that, bringing the street back to the people who want to walk and do things, whether it's for commerce or recreation or both, let's go in that direction, and consider how the streets that we have, particularly in these clusters, in these more dense areas, can be more friendly to the pedestrian, rather than giving over so much space to the car,” Boyle said.

Several restaurants, faced with restrictions on dine-in capacity, also reimagined outdoor seating options and found new uses for public space near their establishments.

“For [small business owners] that have the means to do so and even just the space to think about how to make some of these changes more permanent — you know, being able to keep that parking space in front of their business or the sidewalk in front of their business as an extension of their business — they're seeing what those benefits are today and, I think, starting to consider what those benefits could be in the future,” Stella said.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.