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We can build better communities through landscape-led cities that focus on people not cars

February 18, 2021

By Gary Sorge

Lessons learned from COVID-19 emergency response design advance well-being in the public realm

Of the many community planning lessons we’re learning as part of the emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most striking to me is that our public realm and our policies are far too constrained by the dominance of vehicles. Communities need the flexibility and the space to allow people, businesses, and the local natural environment to thrive.

Pre-COVID-19, urban living revolved around vehicle congested-corridors, marginalized pedestrians, and excessive urban heat exacerbated by wide expanses of unmitigated pavement. Though these corridors lead us to the public spaces that we cherish—some more accessible and reachable than others—traversing them is part of a daily routine that we have learned to tolerate. We can do better. As we learn to cope with COVID-19, we have an opportunity to rethink our communities for the better.

A conceptual rendering for Neighborhoods Now of an improved public realm in Plaza de las Americas, Washington Heights, New York City. 

Working with Neighborhoods Now

A prime example of the opportunity that lies in this approach comes from our recent work in New York City where we helped small businesses like locally owned shops and restaurants create outdoor spaces that support their livelihoods while reinvigorating neighborhoods. For Neighborhoods Now, our team collaborated with the Van Alen Institute, the Urban Design Forum, and other New York City design firms to help communities respond to the impacts of the ongoing pandemic.

The goal was to envision short- and long-term strategies for converting public space (e.g., parking, underutilized plazas) into flexible space for outdoor seating, dining, retail, and safe social gathering. We also looked at ways to expand pedestrian thoroughfares so residents could traverse their neighborhoods safely and without fear of exposure and/or close contact with others. 

Available open space provides the most essential recreation and social amenity to residents—a place to go within a five-minute walk from their front door.

The Washington Heights Experience

In Washington Heights, the Community League of the Heights (CLOTH), a participating organization with Neighborhoods Now, is a good representation of the challenge at hand. With more than 150 people per acre, Washington Heights is a particularly dense area of New York where daily needs require residents and visitors to be in close contact with each other. Available public spaces are disproportionately small compared to the community’s population, requiring greater exposure on narrow streets and across major roads.

The experience of Washington Heights—insufficient public space with an abundance of real estate dedicated to cars—is mirrored in neighborhoods across the country. This is unacceptable in our current reality, where the impact of the ongoing pandemic has pushed us outdoors to exercise, socialize, and find normalcy in our lives. While we’ve taken back some of our public space from cars out of necessity, there is the danger that it will be temporary, as if we are waiting to return to pre-COVID norms. Is that really where we want to go?

McKenna Square in Washington Heights with projected new uses focusing on pedestrians, small scale mobility, and public space.

Choosing a landscape-led future

I would argue that our future approach to public space design—particularly streets and sidewalks—should be a landscape-based solution that creates an interconnected public realm of amenity-rich pedestrian corridors with integrated and naturalized landscapes. The evolution of micromobility and autonomous vehicles will decrease the need for linear and excessive traffic lanes, thus providing the opportunity to convert our streets and avenues to green corridors.

The movement of people will be enhanced through interconnected and enhanced public space. The use of vehicle traffic lanes will be prioritized for the transport of goods, public transportation, and emergency services. In New York City and other US cities, we can build on comprehensive planning underway in Barcelona where advocates aim to reclaim more than half the streets now devoted to cars for mixed-use public spaces. We don’t need token gestures but quality park-like settings that cool, connect, inspire, and greatly enhance livability in our cities.

Cities are successful because of people, not cars, and there are urban elements that cater to people that contribute to that success. Available open space provides the most essential recreation and social amenity to residents—a place to go within a five-minute walk from their front door. Green corridors result in cooler surface temperatures and mitigate the impact of urban heat. Expanded soil regimes improve stormwater quality, lessen the burden on our infrastructure, and improve our natural water resources. Expanded public space and urban green corridors enhance year-round neighborhood programming opportunities—an especially important component for the way we experience our northern cities in the winter months. And fewer vehicles mean less congestion, emissions, and pedestrian/vehicle conflicts. 

Stantec’s vision of a more permanent transformation of Plaza de las Americas at Wadsworth Avenue, where people take priority over cars.

First steps to cities with better public spaces

First and foremost, people must have a safer, better, faster, and cheaper means to traverse our cities—public transit enhancements are a must. Second, bold policy, tailored strategies, and design visualization that convey the pros and cons to the public. We need to transform the general public’s perception of what a less car-centric city means.

Third, we need to develop a picture of the economic argument, including projected outcomes of the do-nothing option and a range of interventions and prototypes. This past year provided a glimpse of what is at stake if we do not provide adequate public space for people.

Fourth, we need to establish how to fund the work. In New York, congestion pricing will be a solid start. Finally, we can’t do this without aligning the myriad stakeholders, including utility providers and city agencies, who operate and maintain vital infrastructure in our roadway corridors.

Our emergency solutions should be the foundation of permanent and long-term remedies to our longstanding urban challenges. Interconnected quality open space and public realm are critical infrastructure and essential to the livability of our cities. They are as vital as the utility networks that run below and above our streets. The automobile is a flawed necessity in our cities with an uncertain future. They had their chance. Let’s focus on a landscape-led solution.

While this transformation will not happen overnight, our COVID experience has and will accelerate our need to get there.

  • Gary Sorge

    A landscape architecture discipline lead, Gary seeks nature-based solutions with a multidisciplinary approach, collaborative design, and attention to detail—advocating for healthier, more equitable, and sustainable places designed within communities.

    Contact Gary
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