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One lesson from the pandemic: reforming streets requires community participation

When the pandemic stopped cars around the world, there was a lot of buzz about cities repurposing their empty streets. From California to Florida to France, you could see streets transformed into car-free parks or dining areas. It seemed like a silver lining to a terrible year. But the rest of the story wasn’t so simple.

Bloomberg CityLab has an article by Laura Bliss which describes how these swift projects actually disrupted some of the communities they aimed to help. She uses an example from Oakland:

A few weeks into the project, a survey revealed that, while affluent, white and non-disabled residents were overwhelmingly proponents of the program, people of color, people with lower incomes, and people with disabilities reported much lower levels of awareness, use and support. Local nonprofits criticized the city for its lack of community outreach and for not focusing instead on more urgent pandemic-related issues. Some felt that the street closures themselves sent a mixed message.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an uncommon pattern. In 2019, Detroit received pushback against its free tree planting program for similar reasons, as Bloomberg also reported. The problem then wasn’t the trees themselves, it was the fact that the city wasn’t communicating with residents, and residents didn’t implicitly trust the city.

Detroiters were refusing city-sponsored “free trees.” A researcher found out the problem: She was the first person to ask them if they wanted them.

The story on street closures is a bit more complex than free trees, though. Bliss explains in her article that many cities’ poorer residents were more car-dependent during the pandemic than before, so closing streets to cars was counter-intuitive. Another issue is that street “safety” in the context of the George Floyd protests means much more than simply getting rid of cars.

I’ve written before about the importance of local leadership in reforming transportation. This episode shows that even city-level leadership isn’t always connected with the individual communities within their cities. There is no one-size-fits-all plan for every neighborhood.

Another article from 2020, Towards a More Inclusive Urbanism, has some criticism on the broader issue:

The most widely read and disseminated urbanist thinking around urban design and public policy has little or nothing to say about heavily disinvested places. It is written mostly by, and for, people who live in economically successful places.


These topics, by and large, are further up the pyramid on Maslow’s hierarchy of urban development needs. Many urban places struggle with issues that are much closer to the base of the pyramid.

But I don’t want to sound discouraged about these projects or their proponents. The idea of reforming streets is great, even if the execution was sometimes misguided. In the case of Oakland, Bliss notes that the city officials did learn from their missteps and soon reworked their program with feedback from the residents. Hopefully, this experience helps guide future projects.

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