(Here is my column in this week’s Monitor. Space constraints in print meant I didn’t include the biggest-context part of the conversation: Toderian pointed out that climate change is making pandemics more likely, so changing cities to limit future climate change is part of how we limit future disease. Also, I later found this database about coronavirus-related changes made by cities around the world to limit cars.)
The COVID-19 pandemic is a tragedy for people but there’s a chance – not a big one, but a real one – that it might be a benefit for cities.
In particular, it might finally change a century of thinking that says the goal of urban spaces is to make life easier for people in cars and trucks regardless of the effect on everybody else.
“I think there is transformation happening around the world during the pandemic. The more interesting conversation is what should stay when the pandemic is over,” said Brent Toderian.
Toderian is an urban planner from Vancouver, Canada, who has become an international expert much sought after by media folks like me looking for context. You may have seen here in 2018 when he gave some talks in New Hampshire. His much-followed Twitter account praised Concord’s downtown signage as a good example of “wayfinding” for pedestrians.
For years, Toderian’s basic urban argument has been summed in a statement he often makes: “When you design a city for cars it fails everyone, including drivers.”
Lots and lots of parking spaces, wide lanes allowing drivers to zoom without thinking much, few interruptions like stoplights or, heaven forbid, pedestrian crosswalks – those have long been the central design element of urban areas. They create traffic jams and pollution and noise, and give us ugly car-holding boxes instead of places you want to see or visit, the Storrs Street Garage being a classic example.
Things have changed tentatively over the past decade or so, as the slightly-less-car-centric redo of Concord’s Main Street showed, but suddenly that trickle of change has become a deluge.
Big cities from Paris to Sydney have closed streets to cars or hugely expanded bicycling and walking areas to let people maintain social distance while getting outdoors, although it inconveniences drivers. Even Edmonton, which is Canada’s version of Dallas, is getting in on the act with a “green streets” project that boots out vehicles.
“Cities are making more safe space for walking, biking, eating and enjoying outdoor seating to help restaurants recover. These are the users that were fighting for the leftover space after we surrendered most of the space between buildings to cars,” said Toderian. “We know there wasn’t much space left over … and it’s been a challenge even before we had to stay six feet apart. With physcial distancing, that has been more obvious.”
Closer to home, there’s a petition to close Manchester’s Elm Street to cars, which would be brilliant in many ways although inconvenient in many others. As for Concord, it’s tiptoeing around this concept by letting restaurants set up outside tables on their own parking lots to draw more customers in the social-distancing era.
The fact that this last idea is startling says a lot about our priorities. It took a global pandemic for us to let human beings use 180 square feet of pavement (an average parking space) instead of reserving it exclusively for short-term auto storage.
The city hasn’t taken the obvious next step of allowing restaurants to take over adjacent street parking spots for tables, but that might happen if downtown business collapses.
And that’s the point. All this change is fueled not by sudden spasms of tree-hugging but by fear of downtown streets lined with boarded-up windows.
“Cities that are reluctant to give up space for pedestrians and bicyclists seem less reluctant to give up space for business,” said Toderian. Happily for his point of view, right now helping business means helping pedestrians, bicyclists, walkers, strollers and people playing Pokemon Go, instead of those same people when they’re behind the wheel.
The question is whether it’s going to stick. I’m afraid I’m dubious.
I fear COVID-19 will only lead to more car driving and more sprawl development because they’re isolated, will speed up Amazon’s destruction of local stores, will strangle movie theaters and clubs and other gathering spots that make life interesting and leave us nothing but Netflix and social-media rants.
Toderian, who has been wrestling with these trends for decades, is more hopeful.
“Things that we considered a few months ago unlikely or impossible are already happening – and a very good chance they will be permanent because we need them and they will prove to be possible,” he said. “If people cry for them to be permanent, insist they be permanent, they will be.”