Open Streets and Parks Are a Matter of Equity and Fairness

CC BY 2.0. Sign in playground/ Lloyd Alter

In many cities, politicians are looking at the world through their windshields.

In an earlier post about the City of Toronto's refusal to close streets or lanes to provide more room for people who walk or bike, I noted that they all seem to think everyone is out there having fun, rather than shopping or getting somewhere, and if they gave people more room to walk, then more people would do it. I wondered, "Are more people going to be attracted and come out because of it? That depends on whether you think people are walking or biking for transportation, as most of us who walk or bike do, or whether you think people are doing it for recreation, which all the drivers seem to, because the only time they walk or bike is for recreation."

CC BY 2.0. My bike-riding pinko button/ Lloyd Alter

My bike-riding pinko button/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0It should be noted that Toronto politics, like those in other Ontario cities, are dominated by suburban politicians, twenty years after the Conservative provincial government merged them all to get exactly that result, overwhelming the bike-riding pinkos who lived downtown. It has been tremendously effective at disrupting transportation and urban planning ever since. These politicians likely live in single-family houses with nice backyards and maybe front porches, and they drive to Costco and Walmart or the big food chains to shop. It doesn't terribly inconvenience them if parks are closed.

But as Robin Mazumder notes, there are lots of people who don't fit that pattern. He reminds us that "Closure of public spaces will disproportionately affect the poor, those who may not have access to private outdoor space." He writes in the Huffington Post:

Although COVID-19 is primarily a physical illness, the way we manage it has implications on emotional health. Prior to starting my PhD, where I currently study the psychological impacts of urban design, I worked as a community occupational therapist with people with mental illness. Most never left their homes, and I saw firsthand the emotional toll that isolation took on them. Isolation also limited their physical activity, which we know has benefits on both physical and mental health.

He also complains about the fines that are being given out to people who dawdle on park benches.

Allowing police to fine anyone they believe to be breaking social distancing rules opens the door to discrimination. People of colour, particularly Black people, are disproportionately stopped by police for random street checks, which has been considered to be a form of harassment. It is not unreasonable to believe that people of colour would also be disproportionately penalized for “breaking” social distancing laws.

This is not just a Toronto phenomenon; Mike Eliason writes from Seattle, which appears to have similar problems, and has been closing parks. "The mayor claims, likely correctly, that some people haven’t been social distancing properly. Instead of using the opportunity to educate residents, and increase open space so residents can social distance properly, the former prosecutor decided that the people shall be punished." The Mayor advised also:

“Walks, runs or bike rides around the neighborhood with children, dogs, or family members can continue to occur.” Here’s the problem with having a wealthy homeowner driven everywhere as mayor: many neighborhoods in this city do not even have sidewalks at all.... Many neighborhoods in this city have sidewalks so broken up and narrow, they are not only difficult to walk or roll on, they are impossible to safely social distance on. And with virtually zero speed enforcement of dangerous driving in neighborhoods underway, it is increasingly life-threatening to even step out on to the street to safely social distance, let alone impossible for people with wheelchairs.

Eliason notes that there is a "massive open space inequity" in Seattle, that "several of the parks the mayor closed are the only accessible parks for rather dense multifamily-zoned areas. This is due to a number of reasons, but largely to a century of Seattle’s racist and classist land-use practices. One wonders if there was any equity lens used in making this decision."

A berlin park in a different time

A berlin park in a different time/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In Berlin, according to Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail, parks are a lifeline.

In a city like this, where virtually everyone lives in an apartment, the parks are all that’s left. For many, they’re the safer place: A poorly ventilated apartment building is, medical experts say, more infectious than being outside. If your partner or your parents are abusive, or you’re teetering on the edge of a mental-health crisis, then the best thing for you might be to get out and feel the sky.

He also notes some of the racial issues that Robin Mazumder did. "When the police break up too-close gatherings, I often see them singling out the darker-skinned kids for rough attention. The pandemic has not delivered an outbreak of justice." But he still notes that "we’ve negotiated a balancing point between freedom and safety, and I’m watching that point, a grassy one, fill with careful, relieved people."

In Seattle, Toronto, or New York, it is mostly the poorer people who do not have space or access to parks. They are the ones packed into tenements and tiny apartments, and they are the ones who do not have the option to work at home, but are out cleaning floors and stocking shelves. But as Gil Penalosa notes, there are many others with a need for some space, some air, some room to move.

In New York City, where the Mayor has refused to open streets, City Council is fighting back. Gersh Kuntzman writes in Streetsblog:

Mayor de Blasio will be forced — by law — to open up scores of miles of roadways for pedestrians and cyclists, thanks to a City Council bill that will be introduced next week. Details of the bill were not provided, but Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a statement that the goal is to “allocate more street space to pedestrians and cyclists ... with a citywide target of 75 miles of streets.”

Toronto park space

© Image by Sali Tabacchi for Ryerson City Building Institute. Reproduced with permission.

That will never happen in Toronto, where the suburban politicians rule. But at some point, they will have to realize that while they have their cars and their backyards, other parts of the city might just explode. As both Eliason and Saunders note, being stuck inside might just be the most dangerous place to be. It's time to rethink this, because this is not just an issue of health, but also an issue of class, of race, of income disparity, all of which are being ignored.

Even the editorial board of the Globe and Mail thinks this is all nuts. "The worry of some civic officials in Toronto is that turning streets over to pedestrians could lead to gatherings or street parties. That assumes people are idiots, which they are not."

The pandemic is an opportunity to start thinking about how to improve cities after the health crisis recedes. Right now, however, these experiments are a necessary emergency measure. Calls to physically distance are one thing; being able to do so is another. With spring coming, cities need to act quickly to make more room for people.

Concrete trucks get a lane

Concrete trucks get a lane; Pedestrians get barely four feet/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The last tweet goes to a Toronto urban critic: