Open Streets and Community Process

An Open Street in Brooklyn, New York, May 2020. [Noel Hidalgo © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0]

Occupying asphalt once reserved for cars has become a common experience for pedestrians and cyclists during the COVID-19 pandemic. This spring, as vehicular traffic decreased and parks closed, cities around the world marked out street space for walking, biking, playing, sitting, and dining. The simplicity of such projects has enabled municipalities to organize them rapidly on large scales, with the potential to make this kind of access to open public space more equitable in both the short and long terms.

Yet the development of urban design projects does not always meaningfully involve the people who will live with the new infrastructure and amenities. Planners and designers develop ideas in communication with clients and decision-makers through visualizations — maps, diagrams, renderings — which inevitably structure involvement by the broader public. The public presentations of recent open-streets projects in Milan and New York suggest that equitable participation will only be achieved through visualization and communication techniques that carefully consider the many city’s many publics.

The development of open-street projects does not always meaningfully involve people who will live amidst the new infrastructure and amenities.

It might seem difficult for cities to restructure their planning and design processes under emergency circumstances, but the importance of doing so is increasingly clear. The “quick-build nature” that lends potential to urban interventions like temporary bike lanes and walkways can also, as the planner Destiny Thomas observes, “override the public feedback that is necessary for deep community support.” Such truncated design processes often mean that resulting interventions will be inadequate to address “disparities caused by the legacy of racist planning and disinvestment” — especially in a time of crisis.1Destiny Thomas, “‘Safe Streets’ Are Not Safe for Black Lives,” CityLab (June 8, 2020). Spatial inequalities exposed and intensified by the pandemic will deepen if we do not rethink the procedures that have allowed them to occur and persist in the first place. Critically appraising the development of open-streets projects can — and should — inform efforts to expand public involvement in the future.

The urban interventions of Milan and New York — both centers of design activity and early pandemic spots — have drawn international attention.2Laura Laker, “Milan announces ambitious scheme to reduce car use after lockdown,” The Guardian (April 21, 2020). These cases reveal tensions between the public potential of open-streets projects and the ways in which these projects were visualized and presented. Milan’s plan is integrated with broader, longer-term initiatives and calibrated to existing neighborhood conditions, while New York’s program is distinct from other city projects and generic across the five boroughs. Yet the two plans share the challenges of expressing evolving logics and illustrating multiple timelines in ways that are accessible to a broad cross-section of constituents.

In late April, just before lifting lockdown, Milan announced its Strade Aperte project, which is now being implemented in phases. The long-term plan alters 22 miles of streets, widening sidewalks, adding bike lanes, and creating areas for play and exercise. Strade Aperte has been presented to the public on the website of the Comune di Milano, in a relatively traditional plan document with a variety of visuals, including city plans color-coded to highlight different types and phases of work, aerial views showing specific activities, and street-level before-and-after images.3An English version of the city’s document can be downloaded at Comune di Milano, “Open Streets.” While these techniques convey the intended scope and impact of the project, they leave its logics ambiguous. An aerial view of a “play street” connecting existing green spaces, for example, leads one to ask why this site was highlighted over a site previously lacking open space, and how a denser area would be altered differently. The images imply but do not directly illustrate a kit of parts or set of tools, limiting potential for public involvement.

The city describes the plan as part of the Milan 2020 Adaptation Strategy, developed with public suggestions in response to the pandemic and in relation to the Milan 2030 plan adopted last year. With longer-term climate goals in mind, Milan’s mayor Giuseppe Sala has highlighted the project’s potential to sustain the lockdown-induced decrease in car traffic and air pollution.4Laurie Goering, “As Milan eases lockdown, mayor says ‘people are ready’ for green change,” Reuters (May 4, 2020). Public participation was solicited on the Comune di Milano website. The city has shifted some of its design-related public programs to focus on the near future through live streams and outdoor events. Still, additional techniques like animation and interactive visualization — emphasized in past programs — could further unify and thus strengthen these efforts.5 See for instance Giulia Ricci, “Milan Arch Week 2020 goes digital and becomes Marathon,” Domus (May 8, 2020); and “Triennial Summer,” June 15 – September 20, 2020; and the opening announcement for the Urban Center of the Triennale di Milano, a multifunctional interactive space.

Illustration from Comune di Milano’s Strade Aperte, showing play street proposed for Via Toce, April 2020. [Comune di Milano © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0]

In contrast to Milan’s plan, which was rolled out only after the lockdown was lifted, Open Streets NYC has been implemented in phases while restrictions remained in place, with 43 miles open by late May and 67 by late June, on the way to a goal of 100 miles. Unlike Strade Aperte, Open Streets NYC has been presented as a temporary intervention, through a live online map showing locations where barriers are set up and removed each day. This summer, the city linked the project to a new Open Restaurants program and the continuing Cool It! NYC program, designating some of the Open Streets as Cool Streets with tree cover and water features like spray hydrants in areas of high heat vulnerability. However, the city did not illustrate these connections on the online Open Streets map, or through street-level renderings.

Projects in Milan and New York reveal tensions between the public potential of open streets and their means of visualization and communication.

New York’s approach has prompted public responses, ranging from calls to action to the production of respondents’ own visual documentation and analyses. In a May 20 open letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, a group of community organizations and businesses called for the project to be expanded into a network that would provide transportation routes and open space in historically underserved, chronically polluted areas where the pandemic’s worst impacts have been felt by communities of color and lower-income people.6TransAlt, “Open Streets Could Save New York: An Open Letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio,” Medium (May 20, 2020). The Trust for Public Land produced its own map in order to highlight areas that most need parks and greenspace; meanwhile multiple posts on Streetsblog NYC have criticized the location and maintenance of open streets, recording stark differences between neighborhoods. These responses recontextualize the city’s plan and call for structural changes that extend to planning processes, showing methods of public involvement that the city itself could host.

By now it should be obvious: equitable urban design requires strong frameworks for public involvement. Improving the visual communication of research and timelines can encourage greater public contribution and ongoing evaluation. Interactive maps with space for discussion and for uploading images; manuals clarifying design parameters through diagrams and comparisons; and animations testing ideas across timescales — all these and more should be used. And of course, better communication should be accompanied by new methods for ensuring accountability. Opening up the processes of urban design facilitates interaction not only within but across communities: Both scales are crucial to addressing global challenges at the local level.

Notes

  1. Destiny Thomas, “‘Safe Streets’ Are Not Safe for Black Lives,” CityLab (June 8, 2020).
  2. Laura Laker, “Milan announces ambitious scheme to reduce car use after lockdown,” The Guardian (April 21, 2020).
  3. An English version of the city’s document can be downloaded at Comune di Milano, “Open Streets.”
  4. Laurie Goering, “As Milan eases lockdown, mayor says ‘people are ready’ for green change,” Reuters (May 4, 2020). Public participation was solicited on the Comune di Milano website.
  5. See for instance Giulia Ricci, “Milan Arch Week 2020 goes digital and becomes Marathon,” Domus (May 8, 2020); and “Triennial Summer,” June 15 – September 20, 2020; and the opening announcement for the Urban Center of the Triennale di Milano, a multifunctional interactive space.
  6. See “Press Releases,” NYC Department of Transportation, Open Streets.
  7. TransAlt, “Open Streets Could Save New York: An Open Letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio,” Medium (May 20, 2020).

About the Author

Anna Renken

Anna Renken holds a B.A. in Architecture and Art from Yale University and an M.Arch with a Media + Modernity certificate from the Princeton University School of Architecture, where she was an editor of the journal Pidgin. She has assisted with a variety of exhibition and publication projects at institutions including the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the Walker Art Center, and the Museum of Modern Art. With attention to methodological and representational questions, she approaches social and environmental issues from a spatial perspective.