John Surico is a freelance journalist and researcher who covers transit and open space for a number of outlets, including The New York Times and VICE. He’s currently a MSc candidate in Transport and City Planning at University College London.
With parks filled and social distancing in effect, cities need to find more room for residents to get outside during lockdowns. Here’s where it’s hiding.
Late last week, London’s walking and cycling commissioner, Will Norman, teased out impending initiatives to prepare the British capital for “phase two” of the Covid-19 pandemic. City Hall and Transport for London (TfL), he said, expect a ten-fold increase in cycling and a five-fold increase in walking over the next few months, as travel patterns remain resolutely local. That means the shape of the city will need to change.
“We need to come out of this crisis in a radically different way,” Norman said.
Around the world, cities are scrambling for more space to accommodate an indefinite period of face masks and social distancing: Bern and Vilnius are converging downtowns into open-air cafe; Milan is casting the reallocation of street space as a long-term growth strategy; and a host of cities, from Paris to Oakland, are going big on pop-up bike and pedestrian infrastructure in streets and parks.
But where else can cities find open space relatively fast and cheap to help keep residents a few feet apart? There are a few other options at hand.
Liberate the golf courses
Calls to reclaim golf courses for other uses long predate Covid-19, thanks to the land-hungry sport’s falling participation. Cities in desperate need of housing have a lot of developable real estate locked up in greens and fairways.
During the coronavirus lockdowns, new demands to liberate this space for a more worthy public use have focused on urban golf courses, many of which have temporarily closed. Golf courses sit idle in parks that are filled to the brim with people. City officials in San Francisco took notice, opening up nine public golf courses to the taxpayers who pay for their upkeep. In other cities, clandestine back-nine jaunts have taken place on their own.
Cities have a ton of these lying around. Jonn Elledge, of CityMetric, wrote recently that one acre for every 30 in London is given over to golfers, much of which is controlled by local councils. (A petition to open them nationwide has gathered nearly 7,000 signatures.) Perhaps nowhere is this golf gap felt more acutely than in the Bronx, which has the highest per-capita Covid-19 cases of the five boroughs. The 120-acre golf course in Van Cortlandt Park, the second-largest park there, is temporarily closed, like the rest of the city public greens.
A grave new world
When I asked the Twitter hive about out-of-the-box ideas for finding urban space, Kendra Hurley, an urban affairs writer (and frequent CityLab contributor), replied that she was suiting up for a family trip to Green-Wood Cemetery, a historic 478-acre graveyard in Brooklyn. The cemetery has seen a rise in visitors in recent weeks, so much so that the park had to issue a warning against potential rule-breakers. (That message seems that have gotten through, as Gothamist recently reported.) But it follows a national trend.
DO NOT RUIN THIS FOR THE REST OF US, JERKS pic.twitter.com/nMSBDLBqs5— Jillian Steinhauer (@jilnotjill) May 1, 2020
“Cemeteries — our original urban parks — are getting more use,” Catherine Nagel, the executive director of the City Parks Alliance, told me over email, “and their walking trails and green spaces provide recreational opportunities as well as a place of solace.”
In a sense, this is a reprise of the role cemeteries once played in America’s cities: 19th-century picnickers flocked to the cities of the dead. Sheldon K. Goodman, the mind behind The Cemetery Club, a London-based tour group, said “social distancing happens by default” on these grounds, where features are designed to be dispersed widely for burials. Some cities, such as New Orleans and Cincinnati, have shut cemeteries to visitors during the pandemic. (In New Orleans, where above-ground vaults are densely packed, crowding may be a legitimate concern.)
In places like the U.K. and Italy, public cemeteries are being told to reopen, but only after new restrictions for grieving families are put in place — a balance that mindfully respects the intent of these historic public health measures.
Stay up later
Giulio Ferrini, the head of built environment at SusTrans, a walking and cycling charity in the UK, told me that Covid-19 starkly reminds us of transport poverty, or the disparate means by which we access transportation for our livelihoods. “There’s definitely a social distancing issue here,” he said. “So how do we enable blue-collar workers returning to work to move safely?”
One solution we discussed: keeping parks open at night. Most cities in the U.S. and elsewhere shut parks at dusk, which, as CityLab’s Linda Poon points out, detracts from the potential safety and environmental benefits that nighttime activity offers. In the pandemic, that takes on new meaning, as the pandemic has scrambled the temporal dimensions of urban life, to some degree. With traditional rush hours and workdays on hold, more people will need to move and recreate at all hours, particularly frontline workers en route to hospitals, markets, or other “essential” services.
So why not light up fields, walking and cycling routes in parks long into the night? Extended park hours is a solution that’s usually advanced during summertime, as in the late-night parks in Spain and India. Similarly, Paris’ heat wave plan kept numerous green spaces and public squares open 24/7 for respite last summer. Coronavirus may offer a similar incentive to make the most of existing green space simply by making it accessible for a longer period of time.
From parking lot to park
According to data from SpotHero, parking lot demand is down 90 percent since the pandemic began — meaning cities are finding themselves with a whole lot of vacant asphalt to go around. In April, urban planning consultant Brent Todarian listed surface parking lots on Twitter as one of his top ten ways for cities to create space.
“Parking lots are providing areas for pop-up gyms, distancing meetups, and staging areas for parades and drive-by celebrations for birthdays, graduations, and first-responder thank yous,” Nagel told me, “providing a way to celebrate and connect with each other.” Empty lots have also hosted more serious coronavirus measures: teachers searching for Wi-Fi to teach class; endless lines of cars waiting on food banks; and virus testing sites. All of which has gone to show just how much parking space cities have stockpiled.
While there have been plenty of tactical takeovers of parking, what would a broader official reclamation of this space look like? In Slate, Henry Grabar calls for taking over parking lots for al fresco restaurant dining. Past research done by MIT’s Eran Ben-Joseph suggests lot-side community events (e.g. “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot”). Already, parking lots are proving to be useful venues for a wide range of drive-in events. In Vilnius, an idled airport parking lot has been turned into a drive-in movie theater; German dance clubs are hosting drive-in raves in their empty lots; Iranian authorities opened parking lots in Tehran for Ramadan observances.
This line of thinking coincides with conversations around automated vehicles and other desired modal shifts: The pandemic may offer an opportunity to jump-start the process of rethinking this leftover space. “It’s something we were thinking about regardless of the pandemic,” said Ferrini, who cited PeckhamPlex, a garage-turned-cinema, as an example. “In London over time, there’s been an increasing recognition that it’s not the best use of public space.”
Go back to school
What to do with schools in the summer and after school hours has been a question for cities for some time, as educational infrastructure makes up a big chunk of the urban built environment and can lay unused for extended periods of time. This off-season, of course, will be exceptional: It’s so far unclear when students worldwide will be able to return to class.
In the meantime, schoolyards and public college campus grounds could be opened to allow for safe recreation or play for neighboring communities — something that park advocates have long said could be an easy way to boost park access. This, in turn, overlaps with street space, as cities and safety organizations ponder how to safely return students to class if bus use is reduced because of contagion risk.
“Routes to schools will become very important over the summer,” said Ferrini. “But really, it’s just anticipating the next evolving opening, and prioritizing routes to those places.”
As many others have noted, some of these radical-looking adaptations to the coronavirus era are things that urban advocates have been pushing for years — or are simply aspects of pre-automotive city life that were forgotten. It turns out some of this space was there all along.