The lockdown has transformed streets, squares and parking lots: green urbanism starts from here

Tables instead of cars, bike lanes, streets that become playgrounds, asphalt coloured like a mural: during the pandemic, the neighbourhoods of many cities around the world have been transformed. For experts, a permanent transformation can be triggered. Here's how.

by Andrea Minoglio

Two years ago, when the street was deserted by all, except for ambulances, some people took some reinforced tape and transformed the one-way sign on the street below their house into an improvised basketball hoop to play basketball with their son. Without knowing it, they did a very small experiment using what experts call ‘tactical urbanism.’ This is a relatively new way of understanding urban planning, in which very quick, inexpensive, and reversible interventions are made to transform streets, squares and other public spaces.

Parklets, ciclovias and coloured asphalt

"During the lockdown," says Enrica Papa, Associate Professor in Transport Planning at the University of Westminster in London, "the need arose to recover spaces that were no longer used for cars, from parking lots to areas in front of restaurants, to give them back to sociality. These are all interventions that were also done before but that, in this period, have increased dramatically. In London, for example, thanks to a provision that allowed the occupation of public land, in the space of a month new school streets began to spring up like mushrooms, that is, streets in front of schools where, for a few hours, cars can no longer circulate". And that's just one in a myriad of examples. The website Pedbikeinfo, which has created an archive of all the interventions carried out during the period of Covid, has counted 925 around the world. For example, there are those who, as was demonstrated in Portland in 1997, have coloured the asphalt of the streets, transforming them into common spaces to stop and socialize, perhaps with benches, planters, and ping pong tables. In Milan, many areas have been requalified in this way thanks to the pioneering Piazze Aperte project, some of them during the pandemic. Similar transformations have happened in Silvassa, India, as part of the Streets for People Challenge project. At other times, however, the idea, born in San Francisco in 2005, of parklets, i.e., equipped areas obtained from the space freed up by parking lots, has been taken up again. It has been done in Milan, in the Porta Venezia area, but also in Denver, near Larimer Square, to help stores and restaurants subjected to the restrictions imposed by governments during the pandemic.

"Piazze Aperte", before and after the tactical urban planning intervention in Nolo © Commune di Milano

The result? The streets were invaded by tables, umbrellas, and chairs everywhere. Not to mention the so-called ‘ciclovias’ (‘opens streets’ in English), which are entire streets of the city, even many kilometres long, which are closed to traffic for a certain period. The first ones were conceived in Bogota back in 1974 and in Canada in 1970, but the idea has been taken up everywhere: between 2014 and 2015 alone, there were experiments in 496 cities in 27 countries around the world.

"Carnival" risk

The list could go on, but can all these experiments really serve to redesign our cities or are they instead impromptu interventions, impossible to export on a large scale? This is exactly what Luca Bertolini, professor of Urban Planning at the University of Amsterdam, is trying to understand through the EX-TRA project, of which he is coordinator. "Tactical urbanism interventions are similar to what we call 'street experiments'. We, however, study those that, potentially, can lead to a radical change in the idea of the city as a whole and not just at the site of the intervention. What do you have to change all around the street for the experiment to be really effective? What other services and infrastructure need to be designed? The idea is that the things that are important to people's daily lives need to be closer together, as in what they call in Paris 'the city of 15 minutes'. The risk, otherwise, is the 'carnival effect', where you party one day to not question the way you do things the rest of the year."

From this point of view, it is especially important to be able to find a balance between bottom-up initiatives and top-down interventions conceived by municipal administrations. In Ghent (Belgium), for example, in neighbourhoods that are also peripheral and with a mixed social fabric, for a decade they have started an experiment in which, for a limited period, all cars are moved from certain streets, and in their place a carpet of synthetic grass is laid, to experiment with different uses of the street. The public administration is involved but, at the same time, it only goes ahead if the majority of the inhabitants agree. "Although it is less famous than other projects such as the 'pavement to plazas' in New York," Bertolini continues, "this experiment has a stronger and more lasting impact on the people who live there. In New York, in fact, there has never been the objective of drastically reducing the volume of traffic and the availability of parking spaces. In Ghent, on the other hand, there is a more radical transformation ambition, involving a real reduction in car use."

Learning by doing

Fewer accidents, more independence for children, less pollution... There are many positive effects that researchers have found from studying these types of experiments, and they don't just relate to mobility in the narrow sense. If you use your body to move around, in fact, public health also gains; and then there are the social aspects: in the cases that have been studied, it has been seen that, if children start playing outside and parents start interacting with each other, the sense of social cohesion increases. This is an important aspect, especially in peripheral districts, where this type of intervention is more difficult, given that access to public transport is much more limited than in central districts. "Experiments don't always work or are sometimes poorly received, otherwise they wouldn't even be experiments!" continues Papa. "But they are still important because they allow people to get used to change, without big funding and without big risks. After all, there is no alternative: we must learn quickly to live our cities differently. So, we might as well start 'occupying' the streets and learning by doing. Sometimes, in fact, a chain reaction is triggered in which what happens in a certain neighbourhood is copied in the adjacent neighbourhood. In London, every school now wants to have a street school. But the explosion of bike lanes in Paris is also incredible. We're talking 650 km: something unthinkable until recently."

"If we're doing it here, why can't we do it elsewhere?" "And, if we do it today, why don't we do it forever?": these are the questions that, many have started to ask themselves during the pandemic. Questions that, in the long run, could help spark change. Or at least this is what researchers like Bertolini hope: "The idea is that complex transformations can be accelerated by a series of micro-interventions and that, perhaps, this is the only way to provoke them, a bit like what happened in the history of biological evolution. A series of small revolutions that, a little at a time, change the whole system." Thus, making come true the dream that many have seen realized during the pandemic, but without the tragedy that accompanied it: that of a city partly or entirely without cars. This article was originally published in Italian by Repubblica - Green and Blue. The author is Andrea Minoglio. The original article can be found here.