OPINION: The Changing Face of Our Streets

Rainbow hunt contribution on a dwelling fence. Image credit: [Julia Frecker]
Rainbow hunt contribution on a dwelling fence. Image credit: [Julia Frecker]

The sidewalks of my suburb are narrow and hard to negotiate on any normal day, and today is not a normal day. There’s a couple with a pram walking towards me, presenting a potential hindrance to my 1.5m bubble. I take to the street. It’s not a main road but it’s a well-known thoroughfare and usually it is filled with cars carefully manoeuvring their way between oncoming traffic and parked cars. Usually. 

From this point in the middle of the road I can see right down the street to the intersecting perpendicular main roads at either end. I see people passing through the street at odd points and some such as me, are walking down the middle. There are no cars coming, none retreating. 

Did it take a global pandemic to give the streets back to people? 

In a time when everything we do is now magnified, examined and in many cases banned. The simple acts of triumphant togetherness feel warm and fuzzy. Our streets are now mapped by teddy bears, waving from their postings in the windows of houses. They mark a new path through the streets for the littlest in our midst. Rainbow paintings accompany them, stuck to windows and fences and colourful chalk motifs carve a joyful route offering the passerby a game of hopscotch on their journey. 

The signage too is changing. There are messages hanging from balconies, wisdom wrapped around telephone poles and reminders to keep our distance are plastered to the walls. 

They shout words of encouragement from the surfaces of the public realm. 

“We got this" 
“Power to the people” 
“This too shall pass”
 

A sense of camaraderie washes through the streets. The uniting togetherness of a common lived experience, one that we are desperate to permeate outside our private domains. The world is closed and yet, people are everywhere. In message or in person, the public realms are filled with encouragement.

OPINION: The Changing Face of Our Streets
Pablo Neruda Poem on a vacant shop front. image credit: [Julia Frecker]

An issue for Australians can be that, if you give us an inch, we’ll take a mile, and there have been concerns about the large rush of people striving to do outdoor activities in the light of the recent advice. However, as people try to handle the balance of working from home, staying sane and for many managing children as well, solace can be found in our government sanctioned ‘outside time.’

The uptake in outdoor exercise has been inconceivable. Local Council’s have been trying to prevent some scarcely populated parks from becoming rubbish dumping wastelands for years and now they are filled with people. People who are steadfastly running their personal bootcamp for one, utilising the street infrastructure and turning them into exercise implements. Cricket pitches have been set up in laneways, and basketball hoops have been affixed to garage doors. When everything is closing in around us, we are desperately clawing out saying “No, I will have a shred of autonomy!”  

Cities are a gift. In times like this they can be scary, teeming with people and risk. However, people are a gift and the uptake in neighbourly enterprise has been striking. They include letterbox drops to the elderly or next-door neighbours leaning on their mutual fence to have a yarn. It is noticeable when walking down the streets, more people are sitting on front balconies, terraces and lawns. They are looking for a person to lock eyes with, enjoying a break in the sun, on a Zoom call from their front gate or sharing a drink over the back fence.

OPINION: The Changing Face of Our Streets
Shout Out Loud Print contributing to the community messaging. image credit: [Julia Frecker]

Apartments, who have been fighting against the new age problem of not knowing your neighbours, have fostered communities over balconies and courtyards. We have seen workout routines in Spain, singing and dancing from Bologna to Sydney all conducted on apartment balconies. Those balconies whilst initially designed for inward use, now represent a full external embrace of our neighbours. 

Our streets are becoming outward looking, despite us all being very much within. We are changing the public realm and our interfaces with it to suit the changing needs of the community.

Some of the changes, as driven by the people, are veering on tactical urbanism interventions.

Tactical urbanism involves small scale often interim improvements to the public realm through community initiative and can take many forms. 

While formal planning caters for the needs of the community, it is hard to predict the specific needs, particularly when the parameters of the area changes. This is pertinent now in the way that the cities are changing in reaction to the changing social climate.

Tactical urbanism can be in the form of physical changes to a place including small ameliorations to space that help with transformation and engagement. In the past many tactical urbanism techniques involve not socially distanced choices, such as pop-up bars and markets. However, tactical urbanism can also be reflected in the way we use space in the public realm, and one of the hallmarks is the reclamation of streets for community use. Cornerstones of tactical urbanism practices are now showing up in formal planning with the improvement of the public realm and walkable streets. 

In our car dominated world, the roads are run by the automobiles and pedestrians are relegated to the thin sidewalks. However, the creeping of pedestrians to the street in this current pandemic is indicative of a new way to use space and reclaim our streets back from the cars.

OPINION: The Changing Face of Our Streets
Interim bike lane Berlin. image credit: [Paul Zinken]

Around the world bikes and pedestrians are being prioritised with temporary street reclamation to provide more room for social distancing. From Berlin to Bogota and beyond, the simple use of traffic cones or a bucket of paint has transformed streets to emergency bike lanes and given more agency to bikes to help essential workers travel to work without having to rely on the transit system. 

In New Zealand, widened sidewalks and temporary bike lanes initiated by residents have now been taken up by the government and funded. Epitomizing a true success story with a tactical endeavour that has been formally established. In New York, the city is temporarily shutting down some streets to cars to give the 1000’s stuck in their apartment buildings more room on the sidewalks to move around.

OPINION: The Changing Face of Our Streets
Park Avenue, New York temporarily shut down to provide residents with more space. image credit: [Carlo Allegri/Reuters]

Positive changes, although not permanent, mark how the streets can be changed to reflect the changing state of the city, and how the community can be the first to generate such a change. 
We cannot settle on the good, without acknowledging the immense distress and sadness involved with this crisis, but positive changes to the city are good in spite of this. There will no doubt be lasting impacts to our psyche, our economy and our interactions with other people from this time. However, cities will be given a unique opportunity for regeneration and with the interim practices in mind, create better cities in the efforts of rebuilding.

Change has been forced upon us in a rapid and scary way but it indicates that we as a world are pliable and capable of change. While scary and devastating things are happening, we choose to change the streets that we love. We choose to reflect ourselves in them when everyone out there needs another reminder that they are not in it alone.

Julia Frecker

Julia Frecker

Julia Frecker is a guest content contributor at Urban.com.au. She is working in the planning sector and enjoys writing about planning, sustainability and environment as a way of combining her passion for the industry and a love of writing. She has a particular interest in urban greenery and food systems and the role it plays in cities around the world.

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