In Milan, plans are underway to turn 35 km of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. “We worked for years to reduce car use. If everybody drives a car, there is no space for people, there is no space to move, there is no space for commercial activities outside the shops,” Marco Granelli, a deputy mayor of Milan, told the Guardian. “Of course, we want to reopen the economy, but we think we should do it on a different basis from before,” Granelli says.

Image for article titled Paris is purposefully walkable—and has lessons for post-pandemic cities

Share the streets

Becoming pedestrian friendly isn’t just about getting rid of cars. In many cities, current sidewalk widths aren’t sufficient to safely accommodate more pedestrians, especially now that people need space not just for walking, but also for queueing outside stores.

Before the pandemic, Paris was expanding pedestrian space in mixed-use zones. Large-scale initiatives redeveloped seven of the city’s famous squares—some designed by Haussmann himself, such as Place de la Madeleine and Place de la Bastille—to give more room to walkers, cyclists, and tourists.

After Covid-19 hit, the city ramped up plans to separate citizens by redeveloping space around transportation stations and major shopping streets, as well as some schools and public facilities.

Other cities are reacting to Covid-19 by either temporarily or permanently implementing sidewalk extensions and reallocating lanes, curbs, and parking spaces so that walkers can allow for more comfortable social distancing strategies. Examples include walkways carved from car lanes (Burlington), reduced parking capacity (Glasgow), and pop-up street improvements (New South Wales).

Image for article titled Paris is purposefully walkable—and has lessons for post-pandemic cities

Dedicate public space to communities

Reforming streets and sidewalks to favor pedestrians is also about creating lively, vibrant communities and neighborhoods. Paris has done this by developing “children’s streets”—roads normally open to vehicles but closed periodically for children to enjoy. Temporary barriers are placed to block traffic, volunteers arrive, games are provided, and paintings on the pavement encourage play.

As the pandemic prevents patrons from congregating inside, restaurants and cafés are having to find space to serve enough customers. In Paris, the streets are again the answer. Until the end of September, dining establishments are permitted to temporarily extend or create terraces, allowing some to expand into streets and parking lanes.

Cities reacting to Covid-19 by either temporarily or permanently dedicating outdoor street space to dining are putting restaurants in the road (Vilnius), using street art to brighten commutes (Edinburgh), and by creating parking lot patios (Ottawa) and parks (Vancouver).

Image for article titled Paris is purposefully walkable—and has lessons for post-pandemic cities

Small acts are good, too

Initiatives don’t have to be expensive. Paris has found large and small ways to push its roads towards a people-focused future. According to Paris’ participatory budget—an initiative that allows citizens to suggest and vote on how the city should spend a portion of its budget each year—a number of pedestrian-focused projects were relatively economical. Installing benches and painting games for children on a car-free street, for example, cost € 20,000 ($22,600).

The pandemic has inspired some cities to enact creative, resource-light ways of putting pedestrians first, from altering the duration of walk lights in order to prevent curbside clusters of pedestrians, to rethinking way-finding by clearly labelling pop-up paths. Liverpool has created new street furniture, places like Washington D.C. have reduced traffic speeds, and yet others have developed creative road stencils to mark pathways and required distancing.

For cities hoping to use this unique period to launch reforms like closing streets, banning cars, and widening sidewalks, the key to long-term success will rely significantly on thoughtful consideration of all affected communities, especially those on the margins. Historically, transit revolutions have disproportionately and negatively affected poorer and minority communities. Cities should take care that initiatives to push pedestrian-friendly plans don’t instead leave some with fewer mobility options than before.

These initiatives will pose a stark challenge for cities that have been developed around cars, and that lack even the simplest of pedestrian-friendly designs. But the challenge is not impossible, and could be well worth it. Just as cholera and revolution influenced Haussmann and the streets of Paris nearly two hundred years ago, the decisions made today could last far into the future.

This article was updated with news of Anne Hidalgo’s reelection as mayor of Paris. 

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.