Recreation Management Rec Report - The Newsletter for Recreation, Sports & Fitness Facility Managers

Feature Story

April 2021

ULI Report: Pandemic Led to Innovation in the Public Realm

The Urban Land Institute's Building Healthy Places Initiative released a report detailing how cities around the world have adapted their public spaces, addressing new challenges and meeting new needs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The Pandemic and the Public Realm: Global Innovations for Health, Social Equity and Sustainability" profiles more than 30 cities that have developed innovative public space projects since enhanced public health measures began in Spring 2020. Featuring interviews with city officials, nonprofits and more, these examples from around the world provide insights on how to create safe, equitable and desirable public spaces going forward.

"Throughout lockdowns and pandemic-induced changes to the public realm, cities have adapted remarkably to COVID-19 restrictions," said report authors Matt Norris, director, and Diana Schoder, senior associate, ULI's Building Healthy Places Initiative. "We hope that, by seeing what has been possible during a time of crisis, cities will be inspired to continue creating people-centered, healthy public spaces that everyone can enjoy—even after the pandemic is over."

Examples from the report highlight how cities can innovate with low-cost, immediately responsive and creative interventions that promote health and social equity. They spanned four different types of public space projects:

  • "Streateries": To support local businesses and community life, cities encourage outdoor dining, safe shopping and efforts to ensure that residents can meet all their basic needs within their own neighborhoods. For example, in Vilnius, Lithuania, the city center was transformed into a vast outdoor café from spring to fall 2020 to support local restaurants and create places for people to dine out safely.
  • Slow/Open Streets and Bike Network Expansions: By closing streets to car traffic and expanding bike networks, cities reclaimed streets for pedestrian and cyclist use. For example, in Canada, Montreal implemented temporary "safe active transportation circuits" linking neighborhoods and four city parks with pedestrian and bicyclist paths, reconfiguring streets and removing parking spaces in several areas to create safe routes.
  • Creative Placemaking and Public Art: Arts initiatives provides information about COVID-19 safety precautions, attracted people to local business districts and thanked frontline workers. For example, in Philadelphia, Mural Arts Philadelphia facilitated the creation and installation of art that promotes safe physical distancing at meal distribution sites, grocery stores, bodegas, pharmacies, sanitation centers, play streets, parks and libraries.
  • Innovations in Parks: Cities made existing parks safer, such as by drawing social distancing circles, and found creative new spaces to serve as parks, such as by opening golf courses to the public. For example, to alleviate crowding on a popular walking path in Atlanta's Chastain Memorial Park, the Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation opened the park's 115-acre golf course to the public.

The report found five common themes that wove through each city's decisions to adapt public space for pandemic use:

  • Temporary, flexible, low-cost and iterative projects can respond to rapidly changing needs while building support and collecting data for more permanent projects in the future.
  • The most successful public realm interventions and associated programs have challenged assumptions—and ultimately altered perspectives—on entrenched policies and public realm needs.
  • The majority of these efforts were led by city agencies—often in collaboration with local businesses, building owners and nonprofit organizations. The public sector can play an essential role in cross-sector coordination while also streamlining necessary permitting processes and project approvals.
  • Cities can maximize the impact of multiple local projects by combining efforts. For example, creative placemaking initiatives can complement a slow streets program, making both more effective.
  • Equitable, people-centric public space has been essential during the pandemic and continuing to prioritize equity will remain critical in the recovery and beyond.

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