Pedestrian Zones Can Save Our Cities (and Ourselves)

by Mark Bitterman

This summer millions of people will yearn to go out and live life together like never before. This summer, millions of independently owned small businesses will fail because they could not serve their customers. The dissonance is jarring.

That’s the path we are headed down, but it doesn’t need to be that way.

We can open our cities to people this summer by simply banning automobiles on the streets where we live most publicly. (The cover image by Karl Jilg commissioned by the Swedish Road Administration illustrates nicely how cars don't merely take up our  physical environment, but imperil us!) With cars gone, we can give pedestrians 26 to 32 foot walkways down the middle of the street. We can give the small businesses that make our towns and cities the place we love 10 to 12 feet of sidewalk to create outdoor versions of themselves.

Whether you live in Portland, Houston, Little Rock, or New York, we give up an enormous amount of space to cars. First, there are some two billion parking spots in the USA. Tack the matrix of paved roads onto that and you have as much as 60% of our cities given over to vehicles. That may (or may not) have worked for us in a time of social proximity, but in a time of social distancing there is simply not enough room for us to both live in our city and drive in it.

Getting back together in crowded spaces is going to take time. Herd immunity. Testing. Vaccine. All will take time. There are two big reasons why we can’t and should not wait.

The first is economic. Bricks-and-mortar businesses like shops, restaurants, and salons were built to operate face-to-face with customers. They are paying rents and salaries based on pre-coronavirus occupancies. If spaces can accommodate only half the customers they previously did, they will be out of business in months if not weeks. Until we can safely and comfortably return to crowded rooms, the economics of paying rent will not work for most small, proximity-based businesses. That puts million of jobs in jeopardy. We must give our small businesses a little elbow room to be entrepreneurial, expand the space they need to bring their goods and services to all of us.

The second reason why we need to bring life back to our cities now is for our own health, both psychologically and physically. We are built to be social. Suicide rates, anxiety, and depression due to the coronavirus outbreak is a mental health crisis. More clinics and clinicians and medications are not the answer. Treating mental illness is more expensive and less effective than curing and preventing it. We must make society healthy.

The psychologically healthy among us are also part of the problem. We bring an arsenal of poor reasoning skills to undo the logical necessity of keeping our distance from one another. Simply telling teenagers (or adults, for that matter) that they’ve got to stay in will only get us so far because we’ll let our animal cognitive abilities overrun our reason. Rather than tell ourselves we’re crazy or weak, we could listen to our impulses.

Deep down, culture is the intersection of safety, economics, and identity. Re-ordering our city architecture in ways that keeps us safe, provides a livelihood, and gives us a place to be ourselves is how we adapt in the face of adversity and emerge with a healthier, more robust culture than ever.

Lively streets and thriving businesses can be ours. Summer can bring us the fresh open air to be out in the world. Summer can give our independent small businesses the space to re-invent how they serve and delight us. Share the sidewalks and streets with people. Prioritize pedestrians over drivers.

I’ll speak for my home town of Portland, Oregon. I propose that June 1 to August 31 we create pedestrian zones on portions of the following streets:

  • NW 23rd Ave.
  • SE Hawthorne Blvd.
  • The Pearl District
  • N. Mississippi Ave.
  • NE Alberta St.
  • SE Hawthorne St.
  • SE Division St. 
  • SE 13th St. 
  • SW Broadway

That’s nine or ten neighborhoods bought back to life. Millions of shoppers, diners, and drinkers. Thousands of jobs, shops, restaurants, and landlords. It’s endless ways to connect us with one another. It’s millions of dollars of economic activity that ripple out to the extended community of other independent small businesses that share in that prosperity.

Neighborhood associations, business associations, mayors, city commissioners, city council members, citizens! Let’s reclaims for our own two feet all that gorgeous shade-dappled space where we spend time with friends and family. Let’s open our shopping streets to pedestrians only for the summer.

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