Fellow Kaja Kühl, reflects on health and racial equity in our public spaces as part of our Trust by Design campaign. Kaja Kühl directs the Hudson Valley Initiative at Columbia University's GSAPP. The initiative enables research and design projects that enhance the built and natural environment by expanding social impact design, taking research and scholarship beyond the classroom. She is also the founder of youarethecity, a research, design and planning practice focused on creating dialogue about the urban environment.

I just concluded the first session of a summer course I committed to teach to a group of high school students. The course is called “Whose Streets?” and the students have been hired to build and maintain the Shared Summer Streets infrastructure as part of a project I helped conceive in Hudson NY to “enhance and expand public space for residents, businesses and community organizations to recover and reconnect with each other”. I have been teaching urban design for more than 10 years. Public space and health equity have always been prominent issues, but this is special. For one, as many of my colleagues are preparing for a fall semester largely held online from their homes, I decided to teach this class in person – literally on the street – physically distanced, muffled by my mask. First, we put up the “Share the Road/5mph” signs together, then we watched as cars slowly drove by us wondering what the hell was happening as we occupied half of the roadway with easels and drawing pads.

The chant – “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” – manifests how the convergence of the two biggest events these teenagers have experienced in their lifetime – a global pandemic and an unprecedented movement to end systemic racism – claim the streets as their territory. The time is now to remake our streets into healthy and healing public space shared equitably between many different users.

Hudson is a small city, with approxametely  30% of the population below the poverty line. Residents have long felt tension between its booming second home economy and those living in Section 8 housing. The city recently elected its first black mayor who has made increasing equity in the city his highest priority. It also began charging a short-term lodging tax two years ago that is now being put to use to implement the Shared Streets plan. The city is investing some of this extra cash in public seating areas, public restrooms and planters to slow traffic. Yes, this will serve upscale businesses to attract their customers back into the city, but it is also paying my young students, who are building planters as road barriers and picnic benches, learning skills in carpentry, urban design and data collection, at a time when most internships or summer jobs have been canceled. Many business owners are nervous about the new limits on traffic and parking, worried that customers will not come. But the majority of residents are thrilled to have more space to be out on their main street while keeping their distance. It’s an experiment that will run through October and evolve and improve over time, we told anyone who was listening. Now it’s our time to listen and continue to shape public space based on what we hear, make it available and meaningful to everyone.

The ad hoc transformations of streets everywhere is energizing, but I believe we should be careful not to see them as the actual transformation. To me they are a beautiful form of community engagement. They are experiments, and make visible to everyone what might be possible. They should be seen as process, not outcome. As urban designers, we have an extraordinary opportunity, not to remake our streets within the course of a summer, but to include as many voices as possible in this experiment to heal our public space from past mistakes and create equitable healthy spaces for our future; To listen and observe. In our first session today, the students had a lot to say about their main street and how it does or doesn’t work for them.