What did we learn about public spaces and health equity during the pandemic? 

During COVID-19, expanded public spaces, wider sidewalks, and increased active transportation options became critical for providing opportunities for physical activity, accessing essential needs, and safely getting outdoors. But the burden of vulnerability to the pandemic was not spread evenly across our communities. Our newly released field scan explores how decision-makers did (or did not) account for existing inequities and identifies common barriers and six lessons for the future. 

“COVID was like an accelerator, magnifying our challenges that were already there with a finer lens, all at once. It has been a unique opportunity to review performance measures, recommit to shared goals, and build partnerships between health and transportation sectors to help us build back better for all.”

 – Bill Nesper, Executive Director, League of American Bicyclists 

Join us for a virtual dialogue with some of the contributors to this field scan on Thursday, June 2nd, 2022 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the report findings and continue the conversation about how to make our public spaces safe for active travel for everyone moving forward.

Register here

In early 2020, in the face of the nearly unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic, municipal and state governments put in place new guidelines and restrictions that partially or fully closed businesses, restaurants, public facilities, parks, trails, and other gathering spaces. A large portion of the population adjusted their lifestyles to do everyday activities from home, although millions of essential workers or employees whose jobs did not permit the same flexibility kept riding on pared-back transit services or trying to find other ways to get around. 

Many spaces once filled with vehicles were quickly occupied with people walking, biking or rolling as cities across the country opened up streets for people, removed parking to expand outdoor dining or set-up pop-up bike lanes, allowed use of expanded sidewalks and streets for home-based and smaller local businesses, and revisited their curb management overall to serve diverse needs while creating space for people to be outdoors safely while social distancing. 

But not all communities experienced the benefits of these interventions to the same extent, such as people with physical disabilities, frontline and essential workers with outside-of-9-to-5 working schedules, and households with lower incomes. This wasn’t a new challenge but a result of systemic barriers that existed well before the pandemic, compounded by the need for rapid responses. 

“We kept saying some people are essential, but we did not support their ability to get to and from where they were going. That’s not a way to run a city. If we believe that low wage workers are essential, then their means of getting around the city should be robust regardless of the amount of usage.”

– Mike McGinn, Executive Director, America Walks

The pandemic highlighted some of the ways we need to change our conventional approaches to make our communities resilient and our streets and public spaces safer for everyone. Shared Spaces and Health Equity gathers six lessons learned and a series of examples, based on an assessment of over 400 local policies and interventions around the country and interviews with key non-profit leaders: 

Lesson 1: Recognize your discipline’s limitations to measurably improve health equity—the challenges are interdisciplinary and your efforts must be as well

Active transportation projects—like implementing Complete Streets, streetscaping treatments, or design enhancements to parks and other shared places—are often done with the goal of improving safety for all users, increasing physical activity, providing a base for economic growth, or meeting sustainability goals. Achieving these goals in ways that benefit historically underserved communities requires creating a cross-disciplinary decision-making process.

Lesson 2: Deploy tactical urbanism and demonstration projects (light/quick/cheap) to test ideas quickly, engage the community, and build trust. 

Done right, “light/quick/cheap solutions” like setting up temporary traffic barricades, creating pop-up parks, doing street safety demonstration projects, or providing outdoor seating for businesses in public right of way, are a powerful tool to respond to a community’s evolving needs and preferences. The pandemic has provided lessons about how to plan and implement these projects in ways that build rather than erode trust. 

Lesson 3: Commit significant resources to ongoing community engagement in ways that build trust in the community’s key audiences.

Decision-making must move at the speed of trust. While the pandemic required rapid interventions, it also demonstrated how moving too fast can fail to serve the people who most need them without a foundation of community input and trust in place. Rather than treating community engagement as a checkbox exercise, an inclusive community engagement plan overcomes barriers to participation especially for underrepresented communities.

Lesson 4: Consider how different groups of people use and relate to streets and public spaces and then embed that awareness deeply into your plans and processes.

Everyone has a different relationship with the streets and other public spaces like parks. The design of those spaces and regulations that govern them play a big role in whether they are inclusive. It is time to update how we define and measure the success of communities’ transportation networks and ensure that the needs of your most underserved neighbors are prioritized in those definitions. 

Lesson 5: Institutionalize more flexibility into regulations and policies governing public spaces to accommodate evolving community needs and priorities.

The pandemic underscored the importance of reviewing outdated guidance and regulation for use of our streets, curbs, and public spaces. In some cities, relaxing regulations during the pandemic helped remove critical barriers for home-based businesses—often owned by women and people of color—at a time when that flexibility was sorely needed. Municipalities should use this as an opportunity to set up regular review processes to identify policies that need to be updated as an ongoing practice to meet the changing demands and needs of the communities.

Lesson 6: Provide access to a diverse range of transportation options in rural areas and small towns, not just more urban areas. 

Life in rural areas is still arranged around small downtowns or town centers, unlike the popular assumption that living in a rural area inevitably means spending a lot of time driving long distances to accomplish daily needs. Collaborations to leverage emerging technology and service models to improve mobility options for rural and small town residents is extremely important to build resilience in rural communities and improve access for the 1 million rural households that don’t have access to a car

Are you a local elected leader looking to make your community safer for walking, biking, and rolling? We are currently accepting applications for our next Champions Institute, a technical assistance and peer learning program for local elected officials.

In addition to the lessons, we also profile COVID-19 emergency-response initiatives that recognized the barriers and attempted things differently, including stories about Wenatchee, WA’s demonstration project for community engagement, Austin, Texas’s self-enforced healthy streets program, Portland, Oregon’s healthy businesses initiative and more.

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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