Six systemic barriers that led to inequitable COVID-19 responses

While the intent of the COVID-19 emergency-response projects across the country was to retrofit our built and living environments to serve the changing needs and “new normals” generated by the pandemic, people’s experiences navigating their community varied widely. This is the second post in our series profiling findings from our recently released field scan, Shared Spaces and Health Equity: Lessons from a Pandemic.

“The idea of Slow Streets or Open Streets is a concept embedded in the assumption that people want to spend time on the streets, without being mindful of the fact that people have varying relationships with their streets.” 

–  Ben Stone, Director of Arts and Transportation, Smart Growth America

Which barriers did you see in your community and how is it shaping your next steps? Join us for a dialogue on Thursday, June 2 at 2 p.m. ET with America Walks and the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership about what practices cities have successfully carried forward based on lessons from the pandemic, and what additional practices should be considered.

Register here

Photo by Andrew Kelly, REUTERS (source)

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare pre-existing inequities in our systems. Cities and decision-makers faced several challenges in their efforts to ensure that their pandemic response measures to reallocate public space benefited everyone. As months passed, residents and advocates raised questions regarding the prioritization, location, engagement, and accessibility of these street interventions such as: 

  • Did these projects focus on connectivity to everyday destinations or were they purely for recreational purposes?
  • Who were the primary partners making the decisions? 
  • Were interventions prioritized for communities with poor access to parks and public spaces? 
  • How much attention was paid to ensure that essential travel was convenient?

Many of these questions alluded to pre-existing systemic barriers. Our recent field scan, Shared Spaces and Health Equity identifies six of those barriers below –

Barrier 1: Limited community engagement 

In the face of devastating budget cuts, almost no opportunity for in-person engagement, and the focus on delivering rapid responses, many cities’ community engagement efforts fell way short. While most rapid response measures can easily be shifted and retrofitted even after being implemented, many cities failed to make these changes in part due to limited community engagement. But some cities did successfully shift their approaches to be more inclusive. An early innovator of the Slow Streets program, the City of Oakland revisited its strategies after disproportionate representation in their feedback and evaluation – with 60 percent of responses from White community members, despite being 24 percent of the population.

“The point is that you should have these processes set up way before the crisis happens, be proactive. Go in the community walking, biking, and rolling around asking questions or holding meetings at the community center or have spaces for regular feedback where people could put comments, like at the library or hospitals.” 

– Dara Baldwin, Director of National Policy, Center for Disability Rights

Barrier 2: Lack of accessibility 

With the expansion of public spaces into sidewalks for outdoor dining and other recreational purposes, sidewalks no longer served their primary function as thoroughfares for pedestrians and people with assistive devices. Many instances of blocked sidewalks were reported across the country, with causes ranging from lack of clarity on regulations and poor enforcement and accountability from business and restaurant owners. The City of Philadelphia received 27 complaints related to blocked sidewalks in the first month despite outdoor dining guidelines requiring clearance for pedestrians.

Barrier 3: Cycles of disinvestment

Communities with historic disinvestment, limited access to capital, lack of infrastructure for safe active travel, and persistent economic challenges needed COVID-19 interventions the most, but unfortunately many did not often receive the support they needed. For example, one of the largest and earliest projects in the pandemic, the New York City’s Open Street Program received community backlash for leaving out areas hardest hit by the deadly virus, and instead catering to neighborhoods already rich in resources and open space.

Barrier 4: Loss of public transit service 

As budgets were realigned due to significant revenue losses, many municipalities pulled back public transportation investments. Street closures and outdoor dining were one of the most common responses to serve the recreational needs of those who stayed at home. Concurrently, frontline and essential workers – who make up more than a third of total transit commuters in the country – were disproportionately burdened by transit cutbacks. Some transit agencies used the pandemic to shift their approach to provide better access for these riders and rethink the future of transit in their communities, but many transit agencies continue to struggle and have returned to the status quo.

“As active transportation advocates, our framing about transit is often a competitive viewpoint to driving, as opposed to recognizing it more as an essential utility. We need to reinforce that regardless of how many people are using transit, you need a basic level of service for functionality of our transportation system and our economy” 

– Mike McGinn, Executive Director, America Walks

Barrier 5: Rigid regulations for use of public spaces and business operations

The need for flexibility in the use of sidewalks, streets, and public spaces during the pandemic conflicted with conventional zoning and other regulations. Relaxing existing regulations became crucial to support the economic viability of home-based businesses—particularly those that could use the public realm to sell products. In one example of the need for flexible regulations, a Seattle resident was forced to close down her at-home business due to a zoning violation after a complaint by a neighbor, which led to the city council easing its restrictions. 

Barrier 6: Inequitable law enforcement

As we consider the use of public space, another important question to ask is, “Who has safe access to public space?”. “Stay-at-home” and “social distancing” quarantine orders added an additional layer to the rules governing the use of public spaces. A review of the first six months of the pandemic found that BIPOC communities were 2.5 times more likely to be policed and punished for COVID-19 violations than white community members and black community members were specifically 4.5 times more likely.

Some cities have made lasting changes in response to these identified barriers, but in many cases, our approaches to making decisions about transportation and public space have largely returned to a pre-pandemic “normal.”

Download the full report 

This field scan was supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under cooperative agreement OT18-1802 supporting the Active People, Healthy NationSM Initiative, a national initiative led by the CDC to help 27 million Americans become more physically active by 2027. Learn more.

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