By Drew Allen, AIA, project architect at Perkins&Will and Editorial Committee Chair
In these unsettling times of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing is the new normal. In fact, it is currently mandated here in Colorado and people are subject to fines for not complying. However, this puts Denver residents in a tough spot. While we are primarily confined to our homes, there is still the option for limited outdoor activities if those activities do not involve groups and are close to home. This really means that, for most people, neighborhood walks, runs and bike rides are their only options for getting outside. Because of these limited options, the lack of public space for pedestrians in Denver has never been more evident. However, there is an option on the table that Denver and many other cities are beginning to explore: the public street.
Often, the public street is regarded as the domain of the automobile. But as we’ve seen a great number of cars removed from the city streets, people have filled that void on foot, bikes, scooters and skateboards. As people are forced off narrow sidewalks into the available space of the road in order to safely pass one another, the speed of the few cars on those roads has generally decreased. This has created a sort of balance to these streets. Ordinarily, the default of almost every street in Denver is the car, but now, that default has been given to pedestrians and cyclists, making neighborhoods much slower and reintroducing the human scale that is often lost as cars speed by at 40+ MPH.
That being said, there is a tremendous opportunity to reinstate some equilibrium to Denver streets by permanently closing or severely limiting some streets to vehicular traffic. This topic has been tackled by numerous outlets already, from CityLab to Reuters to The Verge , but this strategy would be especially beneficial to Denver. As the city continues to densify and public space becomes scarcer, we must take measures to ensure that Denver remains an amazing place to live. Beyond the benefits of restoring human scale to neighborhoods, taking cars off the road would obviously improve air quality, as we’ve already seen since the stay-at-home mandate took effect. While the streets are empty, Denver should take the opportunity to repurpose them for pedestrians and transit; to reestablish the public aspect to public roads.
There may never be a more opportune moment to prepare Denver for a denser and more humanized future. Just this past weekend, I took a trip to the neighborhood hardware store and took a detour through Cheeseman Park, which has been mostly closed to vehicular traffic. In the place of cars that would cut through the park to avoid traffic lights were children riding bikes and families taking leisurely walks. This even spread out beyond the border of the park for several blocks where people walked their dogs in the middle of 12th Ave., a typically busy neighborhood thoroughfare. Even when cars did approach, they passed at a careful and slow pace because, as has been said, the default speed of the street was that of a pedestrian and not an automobile.
There are plenty of precedents for this sort of street reclamation in cities. In Stockholm, Sweden, the central
neighborhood of Södermalm closes some of their streets at certain portions of the day and allows bars and restaurants to use the extra space for seating and also creates park-like settings in place of on street parking, thus extending the sidewalk across the entire width of the road. In the Copenhagen, Denmark neighborhood of Kartoffelrækkerne, residential streets have been reclaimed to be essentially shared parks by all the homes on the streets. Cars are still allowed in, but the street is so narrow and so heavily utilized for non-automobile activities that they essentially become a large yard that also doubles as a shared driveway. Simple moves like these here in Denver would help remake the city in a way that prioritizes people again.
Denver has a perfect opportunity while most of us are confined to our homes to restore balance to our city streets and better prepare it for a denser, greener, and people focused future. By extending the pedestrian realm beyond the four-foot-wide sidewalks we can add miles of public space to the city that it currently lacks. While we’re at it, creating more substantial public transit infrastructure and using the newly made pedestrian focused streets to connect people to transit stops would go a long way in getting people out of their vehicles and into buses, onto bikes and on foot. Now that people have seen the benefits of slower and more human scale streets, there is momentum behind the movement away from prioritizing the automobile and instead making our city better for people on foot and bike. We have a chance to create a more equitable and livable city through simple moves that are already taking shape. While our current situation regarding this deadly virus is dire, our future urban infrastructure doesn’t have to be.