COVID-19 Responses: The Urban Innovations that are Here to Stay

Cities, citizens, and institutions constantly evolve and are typically very resilient – according to Isidora Larraín and Pauline Claramunt. The authors present three urban innovations implemented in cities around the world that may just prove that COVID-19 responses hold the potential to become long-term solutions to long-standing problems, especially in South America.

Innovation I: Creating Space for Outdoor Community Life

One of the most popular strategies to promote physical distance and increase alternative forms of mobility during the pandemic has been to implement temporary low-cost interventions, commonly known as tactical urbanism. Open Streets in New York City and Strade Aperte in Milan are citywide programmes that have set an example of expanding pedestrian spaces and cycle networks to ensure social distancing. Milan’s plan includes 35 kilometres of cycling and walking space interventions to enhance the existing public transport connections and provide alternative transportation modes to everyone.

New York has implemented around 160 kilometres of pedestrian space supporting outdoor dining and open restaurants, outdoor learning and play areas. These programmes were made possible due to the close collaboration between the city’s multiple departments, such as transportation, parks, the police, the city council or local community organisations.

NYC Open Restaurants in Thompson, Brooklyn and Broadway, New York City © Pauline Claramunt, 2020

Other community-based tactical actions were implemented to ensure the provision of critical services and food supply. In Chile, many municipalities have split traditional farmer markets into smaller street stands across the neighbourhoods to avoid large agglomerations and minimise commute. Also, flea markets and street vendors have increased their presence in public spaces, and cities have softened their regulations to encourage these urgent adaptations.

Traditional farmer markets are divided into smaller street stands © ASOF, 2020 & Isidora Larraín, 2020

Innovation II: Reinforcing Participation and Communication

Ironically, when socially distanced, we are more connected than ever. Even with movement limitations, the discussion of local issues continues to take place in public hearings by way of digital meetings. Stakeholder participation tools have adapted, transforming participatory design processes. Bottom-up and top-down communication have increased with these new tools and technologies. While Buenos Aires, Argentina, faced a long lockdown, participatory processes – led by the city government – in the neighbourhood of San Telmo gathered community input and brought together local creativity and entrepreneurship for the co-design and adaptive reuse of a new public space below a highway.

Digital meetings were key during the lockdown, including activities such as collective mapping, drawing, storytelling, carrying out surveys, developing a cultural agenda, and even generating colour patterns. This led to an increase in the participation rate of neighbours, local business, and community-based associations reaching a more diverse audience. Moreover, the number of meetings increased due to low cost, and accessibility allowed by digital tools.

When reopening started, they also included extended workshops on streets. Mixed methods – digital and in-place strategies – are here to stay, allowing for safe participation. Reinforcing combined methods of participation has become the new way of collectively designing for this unknown future.

Extended Workshops with COVID-19 protocols © IDB Uruguay, 2020

Innovation III: Strategic Collaborations and New Amenities in Public Spaces

As COVID-19 urges us to stay at home, it has also increased home deliveries substantially worldwide. Large delivery companies, such as Amazon, claim having adapted to the situation by adding extensive health and safety measures. Still, most delivery apps are based on transitory and unregulated labour and are using the streets as the workspace. Most of the time streets are not conditioned for this use. As delivery services increase, streets in China, Singapore and other countries, especially in South America, are full of motorcycles and bicycles.

In many cities the transformation from in-store shopping to kerbside pickup and distribution centres have increased delivery demand. As a solution, Montevideo has implemented an innovative sharing parklet, a sidewalk extension that provides more space and amenities for people living and working in the area and, especially, for delivery workers. The sharing parklets include hand sanitisers, bike repair stations, and solar chargers, located strategically at a hotspot for food-delivery servicers.

Sharing parklets for delivery workers and communities, Montevideo © IDB Uruguay, 2020

The sharing parklets offers an open space that is used by delivery workers during rush hours and is enjoyed by the nearby school and neighbours the rest of the day. The strategic collaboration was a key part of the co-design process and co-management agreement. It involved the public sector, the Inter-American Development Bank, app companies, the local pharmacy, shops, and schools close to these new urban amenities.

The Urban Innovations that are Here to Stay

There are many other initiatives that are responding to issues that have been exacerbated due to COVID-19, such as increased homelessness or shared transportation risks. Some key examples are addressing homelessness in New York City, creating WIFI spots to study and work remotely in North Carolina State as well as handwashing stations in Rwanda for public transport. By taking care of delivery workers, homeless people and commuters, we thus protect each other and ensure the healthy functioning of our cities.

All of these innovative approaches to public space, participation and new amenities are available for replication and upscaling. Similarly, evaluation and adjustments are key for long-term actions and investments in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to adapt to new scenarios. Finally, the year 2020 has demonstrated that urban innovations are possible, and that finance models and flexible regulatory frameworks are indeed evolving to support the development of more equitable and resilient cities.

Isidora Larraín de Andraca
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    Pauline Claramunt Torche
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