How do we rethink Urban Centers?

The profound impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic is disrupting businesses, schools, healthcare services, family lives, economic stability, and social and normal daily activities. In the midst of this crisis, how do we enhance the attributes of urban centers?

BSA Discourse_Chan 200510.pdf (49.4 KB)

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What about more “pocket parks?” Can more distributed green spaces throughout the city enable people to use these spaces if there is less concern over too many people gathering in one area?

In addition to pocket parks, can we think about continuing to address access to the waterfront and opportunities for parks on the harbor. Perhaps there are opportunities in East Boston and in the Marine Industrial Park.

The PDF file that I submitted earlier has hyperlinks that I wasn’t sure would transfer if I just typed in a conversation. In any case, here is the text which may or may not include the links:
Beyond the increasing physical and mental lethargy of sheltering in place for the past month or more, we can marvel at numerous environmental, civic, and technical improvements that have also occurred. Some of the results entice us to consider how we can sustain these beneficial effects more permanently when urban life and activities evolve into a new normal:

Air Quality

Evidence indicates significant improvements in air quality over many highly polluted cities around the world, especially from a reduction in motor vehicle traffic—a major achievement towards reversing climate change. If the condition can be sustained, we could not only enjoy healthier lives but also better withstand future pandemics based on a preliminary Harvard report that cities with low pollution levels incurred 15% fewer Covid-19 deaths than high pollution cities.

Streets For People

The reduction of vehicles plus the need to facilitate social distancing has encouraged some cities to create more pedestrian and bicycle space, such as: reassigning traffic lanes for pedestrians and cyclists, permanently closing 20 or more miles of streets in Seattle; re-routing vehicular traffic patterns and permanently widening sidewalks; and rediscovering the value of parks. Transforming streets into new parks and pedestrian open spaces would greatly enhance urban settings especially with additional landscape, including: improve the air we breathe; reduce the heat island effect during hot weather; distribute more balm of physical, visual, and recreational respite and recalibrate urban density; and increase community, civic, and economic value of neighborhoods.

Public Transit

Public transit has been dramatically impacted due to shelter-in-place requirements, fears of infection, and illness and deaths of numerous drivers. However, the system remains indispensable especially for healthcare workers and providers of essential services, many of whom have no other physical or financial means for transportation—reinforcing the vital importance and advantages of public transit in cities. Ad hoc solutions to maintain public transit services during the pandemic have included: increasing physical separation between the driver and passengers; implementing free service; providing frequent cleaning; and taking the system offline for more thorough cleaning. Thus, major challenges for transportation agencies and designers will be developing means to improve the safety of transit service and concepts to modify or redesign vehicles—which may lead to accelerated implementation of driverless buses, use of robotic disinfection of vehicles, and possibly full-body disinfecting booths for staff and passengers as currently tested at Hong Kong Airport.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to scientific expectations that the coronavirus isn’t going away soon. Social distancing is expected to continue after shelter-in-place requirements are eased and thousands or millions of people emerge from their homes to return to work, transport themselves, and participate in the diverse scope of domestic and employment activities. With the projection that Covid-19—extended and possibly strengthened by constant mutations—will be a recurring event, similar in effect to the annual flu that has been returning each year since the 1918 Spanish Flu, but unlike the flu, is more virile and lethal. Further evidence is emerging that one can get re-infected after recovery, which suggests that any vaccine yet to be developed will only be temporarily effective, and that laboratories will always be a step behind in combating infections. Thus, there is no time to waste to recalibrate the way we live and design our environment, beginning with improving public transit and streets for people so that we may sustain better air quality.

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Pocket parks mentioned early are wonderful places to create and provide relief in dense urban settings. A major issue would be to find and acquire land which may not be readily available. The advantage with converting city streets to linear parks is that they are already in the public realm, so land acquisition costs would be nil. Moreover, the streets can be connected to form a network throughout the city, as demonstrated by the Emerald Necklace, and to augment connections to Boston Harbor. An expansion of the primary Necklace would be desirable, especially to finally fulfill Olmsted’s original plan to connect the Necklace to the harbor at Dorchester Bay via Columbus Road.

I agree that there is a great potential in rethinking “streets for people” and thinking in terms of networks of parks, streets and pockets of exterior spaces, wherever they are available. There is great opportunity to rethink how we design this infrastructure to accommodate also various modes of mobility - pedestrian, bicycle, but these days I have so been observing a lot of roller blades, skateboards and various electric wheels. I have also been wondering about other exterior private spaces such as role of balconies and rooftops in housing. Could this need for exterior spaces result in new regulations around balconies and rooftops?

I posted this already in the “How To” section, but Zhanina’s comments remind me again of our collective ability to communicate graphically. Could there be a series of guidebooks done in collaboration with the City or various institutions to help work out the challenges of opening up while remaining cautious about human contact?

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Obviously funding would be a challenge - perhaps that is where the Task Force group can be helpful in both finding the money and possibly offering paid positions to do the work.