Public Space in the Age of COVID-19: How Other Cities are Coping

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday made good on her threat to shut down the city’s lakefront, 606 and Riverwalk after some Chicagoans refused to follow social distancing guidelines. But will limiting access to public space reduce the demand for it? Other cities have responded to the need for breathing room by creating more public space, but so far, Chicago doesn’t appear ready to follow their lead.

“Most Chicagoans have been doing their part, but many have not. And you know who you are,” Lightfoot said Thursday at a press conference announcing the closures. “For those of you who refuse to abide by this common-sense directive to help save lives, we will arrest you.”

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Many Chicagoans are feeling cooped up and frustrated, not just by the closures but toward fellow residents for ignoring the guidelines. And while some well-intentioned residents are still going out for a walk or a run, it can be difficult to stay 6 feet apart on a narrow sidewalk or one that’s crowded.

One idea: closing off certain streets to cars, which New York City is testing out.

“We have many fewer vehicles in New York City – open streets,” said New York Gov. Andre Cuomo. “People want to walk. They want to go out and get some air. You want a less dense area, so pilot closing streets to cars, opening streets to pedestrians.”

Some hope Chicago follows suit.

“Looking at the streets without any cars, you just see all this open space,” said Courtney Cobbs of Streetsblog Chicago. “Opening up our streets for people to walk and rollerblade and skateboard and all of that is a good use of our resources.”

Another idea New York’s trying: adding more bike lanes. So too is Bogota, Colombia. Mexico City’s considering it. But despite the dearth of traffic, Chicago shows no signs of getting in on New York’s act. The mayor’s office didn’t directly respond to a question about those ideas. The city Department of Transportation says it’s listening to public health experts, monitoring other cities, and monitoring traffic to see if there are ways to improve things for pedestrians and bicyclists.

“I feel like biking is good for my mental health,” Cobbs said, “and right now, it’s a perfect opportunity to get around on a bike because there are fewer drivers.”

Kate Lowe of the University of Illinois at Chicago says while making the city more friendly to alternative transportation is a good idea, bike lanes are often associated with gentrification. And, she says, it’s important to remember that not everyone feels safe biking in their neighborhood.

“We have to understand bicycling holistically, so plopping down bike lanes everywhere — there’s more complexity to that than simply repurposing streets,” Lowe said.

For now, with miles of public space in the city closed off, Chicagoans will have to find other places to spend time outside. In a statement, the Active Transportation Alliance urges the movement of essential workers to take priority and warns that more park and trail closures, and fines and arrests, could harm communities of color and vulnerable Chicagoans.

Per the mayor’s order, the shutdown is in effect until further notice.

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