Of the many profound changes experienced by cities in 2020, writes John King, the most meaningful might be the “realization of the importance of public space in all its forms, as well as heightened expectations of what such spaces should provide.” From public seating to pocket parks to vast open spaces, the restrictions on indoor(and many outdoor) activities highlighted the need for safe, accessible, and abundant public spaces.
“In a July survey conducted by the East Bay Regional Parks District, more than 20% of the respondents said they visit one of the district’s 73 parks ‘weekly,’ four times the amount recorded in 2019.” Public spaces also took on unexpected uses, including parking lots transformed into dining spaces, vacant lots turned into COVID-19 testing sites, and parks used to distribute free food and necessities. Phil Ginsburg, general manager of San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “parks are not luxuries or sweet amenities — they’re essential infrastructure.”
But some warn against “knee-jerk” reactions from city planners and officials who assume, for example, that restrictions on cars are “an absolute good.” Oakland’s Slow Streets program received such criticism for its expedited implementation and lack of adequate public outreach. Oakland architect June Grant argues that plans must be made at the neighborhood level, where local users know how they use their local roads and public spaces. Ryan Russo, director of Oakland’s Department of Transportation, admits that the city’s policies have often failed to reflect the experiences of underrepresented communities. “It’s too easy to listen to voices that reflect your own experiences. We need to stay in conversation with the community.”