Like many New Yorkers experiencing the quarantine lockdown, I’m working from home in a small apartment with my roommates. As we navigate simultaneous Zoom meetings, disjointed cooking routines, and cramped yoga classes in the living room/ dining room/ office— my daily walk to the park has become a respite, if not an absolute necessity, to my mental health.

In my Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant, a walk to the park means visiting Herbert Von King, an 8-acre park with a history of anchoring community enterprise. The park was built in 1871 by Olmsted and Vaux and remains a core artery within a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood (no doubt fueled by me and my yoga). The daily observations of urban life feel unlike anything I’ve experienced before. By visiting one place and witnessing the slow transformation from Winter to Spring, I’ve begun to recognize my neighbors for the first time in my life, and even attempted a few gingerly “hellos.” Damaging as it is to NYC, COVID-19 has also allowed me to finally slow down and see my neighborhood for the vibrant, and contradictory, hub that it is.

Herbert Von King park has been positively buzzing with people since the lockdown began. From dog walkers clad in face masks, to seniors on benches, to rollerblading yuppies— it’s clear that the park is being used like never before. To prevent crowding, the NYC Parks Department has closed the playground, baseball diamond, and dog park— not to mention erected notorious six-foot wide red banners to demonstrate the required measure of physical distancing. Through my daily observations, I’ve seen people gradually adapt to the pandemic. Exercise buffs started flocking to the outdoor gym in late March. More recently, people have opted out of petting other people’s dogs. Just yesterday, a fight broke out because someone was taking up too much space on a pathway.

Nature, we need you!

From this excellent piece by Michael Kimmelman, to a “COVID-19 and Cities” series from Rice Kinder— urbanists everywhere are looking toward public space to reflect on the current crisis and what it means for the future of our cities.

Physical distancing can, and should, coincide with efforts to keep urban dwellers connected to nature. Though well-documented, the positive impact of nature on our physical, mental, and emotional health is nothing short of remarkable. In her book “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative,”Florence Williams contends that we’re experiencing an “epidemic dislocation from the outdoors” that’s detrimental to our mental and physical health. The solution is simply to spend more time outside. Studies show that just a 20-minute walk outside in the middle of the workday has been shown to increase productivity and creativity significantly.

Personally, I can attest that the 20-minute rule of thumb has proven an essential ingredient for my wellbeing.  As NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver commented in a recent webinar I attended, “while every other public space is closed – bowling allies, gyms, museums— our parks remain sanctuaries of sanity.” The ability for New Yorkers to continue walking, cycling, and exercising improves our personal health now and the overall resiliency of our public health in the future.

Clean air also plays a major part in community health, especially now. Studies are showing that poor air quality is a major contributor to the spread of the coronavirus, especially to those with compromised respiratory systems. Poor air quality and related health issues have disproportionately affected low-income communities of color, where decades of high levels of pollutants, like particulate matter and ozone, have had chronically negative impacts on health. It’s not only vital that hospitals in the most at-risk neighborhoods are prepared and prioritized to receive critical supplies now, but that increased access to clean air and public space is prioritized in these communities that have been systemically disenfranchised for decades previously.

The decision to keep public space open during COVID-19 is not always obvious. In LA for example, Mayor Eric Garcetti closed down all L.A. regional parks because too many people were not practicing physical distancing. But unlike LA, where sprawl has created a public space network of large, clumped-up areas that tend to get overpopulated, NYC open space is less centralized. When we look at the combination of open space and public streets together as a percentage of overall land area in cities, NYC hovers close to the ideal percentage somewhere between 45 and 50%. Yet this blanket statistic does not address the disproportionate amount of space given to cars, and often hides disproportionate inequities across neighborhoods.

Even though the Trust for Public Land ranked NYC #9 in a survey of cities where residents live less than 10 minutes from a park, not all neighborhoods are treated equally: New Yorkers for Parks gave Bed Stuy a ‘C’ in their latest report card for parks survey. NYC has over 2,000 parks, spanning 30,000 acres but acreage is not distributed equally across neighborhoods.

While the NYC Parks Department has closed assets where people congregate such as playgrounds, community gardens, and basketball courts, they have made a commitment to keep at least one park open in every neighborhood, so that all New Yorkers have access to a park within a 10-minute walk. But whether that space is Central Park for Upper East Siders or an asphalt yard in the South Bronx remains a question of equity and resource prioritization. For reference, the next closest parks to my apartment that are currently open and larger than four acres, are Fort Greene Park or Prospect Park. Those are 45-minute and 48-minute walks, respectively.

To ensure that our parks are not being oversubscribed and that all New Yorkers, including those living far from a park, are able to practice safe physical distancing, we need to consider creative public space typologies and the option of repurposing city streets.

In NYC, it has become evident that narrow sidewalks and oversubscribed parks do not always do the trick when it comes to staying six feet apart. The Department of City Planning recently tweeted a visual that was intended to help people understand how to appropriately social distance themselves on NYC sidewalks, but is more illustrative of how hard this is to do in a city like New York. In fact, urban planners at Sidewalk Labs recently published a visualization tool that maps sidewalk widths within all five boroughs. The map shows how many of New York’s sidewalks are narrow and dotted with obstacles like benches, tree pits, and bus shelters.

Temporarily closing off streets to cars would relieve the crowding of sidewalks and parks, while simultaneously testing this intervention’s effectiveness for future urban planning initiatives. Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Carlina Rivera recently introduced legislation to open city streets during the coronavirus pandemic. The legislation has widespread Council support and will require the city to temporarily allocate more street space to pedestrians and cyclists in neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs, with a citywide goal of 75 miles of streets. Design Trust’s very own Samira Behrooz testified in favor of this legislation, and the city is now looking into how to open 40 miles of streets starting next week.

How would increasing street closures play out in a post-COVID world? Expanding our greenways and bicycle paths do so much more than reduce crowding parks – they also create a sustainable commute option for essential workers, reduce pollution, promote an active lifestyle, and connect communities.

Pivoting to a resilient public realm

While the need to cope with our current needs remains a priority, COVID-19 is increasingly being viewed as an opportunity to go beyond a “return to normal,” and to re-think urban life as one that is more connected, healthy, and equitable.

Some believe the virus ripping through NYC, America’s densest center, will lead to a mass exodus from cities. However, this isn’t the first time that cities have had to adapt to a public health crisis. Our modern waste water treatment system, for example, was prompted by widespread cholera outbreaks.  In one of my favorite histories of epidemiology and public health, a physician by the name of John Snow collected data on cholera outbreaks in the 1800s, leading him to discover that cholera is a waterborne disease and can be controlled with the adequate management of sewage.

As viruses like COVID-19 illuminate so cruelly, density can be a double-edged sword. Density contributes to increased social interactions and amplifies germ exposure. Still, desirable compact urban living remains a key element of smart urban planning.

Mainstream urbanists tend to view dense centers as utopias of sustainability where emphasis is placed on proximity to large parks, bougie coffee shops, and jobs. But as placemaker and author Jay Pitter posits in her insightful essay on urban density during the coronavirus crisis, “dominant density propagated by mainstream urbanism fails to adequately address social determinants of health, like income, race and disability, which are proven to be deepening coronavirus related health and social inequality.” It’s crucial that we use a nuanced understanding of density when discussing urban life in a post-COVID world.

Ultimately, the pandemic, while anti-urban in nature, is not likely to thwart the continued global urbanization process. In fact, the global population of people living in cities is expected to double in the next 40 years, from 3. 5 billion to 7 billion. As urban development expert, Carl Weisbrod, asserts in his principles for a just recovery:  

“The promise of cities has not been extinguished… Cities are not static. They have always reinvented themselves in response to economic and social change, and they will further evolve in response to this pandemic. Active streets, intellectual cross fertilization, brick-and-mortar retail, face-to-face interaction and all that makes urban life vibrant will return, perhaps to some extent in some new forms. Urban areas will continue to attract and retain people of talent and will regain their dynamism as centers of innovation and drivers of our local, state and national economies. That is the lesson of history, recent and ancient.”

New forms of urban life are already emerging. Street closures, mobile food pantries, and the 7:00pm cheer for public health workers, are just a few examples of how the public is reacting to a city-wide quarantine.  

In the next few months, “what’s next?” will be the most pressing, and interesting, question we must ask ourselves. How might our streets and sidewalks evolve to act as connective tissue throughout our neighborhoods? Can we improve public spaces such as urban farms and gardens to support our now-evidently delicate food supply chain? And, crucially, how will the crisis in municipal budgets impact the rate and scope of necessary improvements to public space? 

From my seat on a Brooklyn park bench, I see a community in flux. New Yorkers are adapting to an unprecedented moment of isolation— but the need to protect the health of our neighbors is a collective mission. At the core of a strong public realm is the ability to create community through creative and collective action. As the crisis continues, planners and urbanists should take note of the creative solutions currently being enacted, and permanently incorporate them into a better future of city life. While I discover the simple joy of watching my neighbors in the park, I can only hope that we remember the value we assigned to public space once this is over.

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The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) issued tips for safely using parks and open spaces during the COVID-19 outbreak.

NYC Planning

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Visualization of how to practice physical distance on sidewalks

Ryanna Fossum

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Herbert Von King Park during quarantine