Castellana Ave, Madrid
Yale Environment, 6/1/20

We have had many opportunities to apply the permaculture principle “Creatively respond to change” since the onset of pandemic. Some of us made major lifestyle changes; some of us on homesteads or in communities found our resilient designs became very useful.
Society made some drastic changes, and a number of them set positive trends. The meaning of creative response would be to deepen and broaden those trends.

One of these trends is the use of public open space, including streets, as community commons and people-centric zones. The idea has been explored by the Mayors’ Commission on Climate Change, and by urban planners and transportation conferences around the world. COVID offered an opportunity to try it on a large scale. Cities from Paris to Shanghai are launching or expanding similar programs.
It seems that placemaking, a key social permaculture strategy, is emerging as a vital design practice that addresses both climate change and social justice. 

During COVID lockdown it was inspiring to see photos on social media of people bicycling and strolling down the middle of car-free streets in so many cities. When the alternative was social isolation in their own homes, people chose to spend more time outdoors.

A survey in Canada by charity organization Park People found that two-thirds of the 3,500 respondents reported having spent more time in parks during the pandemic, while almost 40 percent said their use of parks had doubled. Under the pressures of necessity, residents and city planners awakened to the obvious thought that public spaces could be used flexibly.

Though some streets were closed to traffic temporarily, others became permanently car-free, or are in the process of doing so.
Salt Lake City offers one example, recently closing some downtown streets to cars regularly during part of the week, as it had during the pandemic because of demand by residents and local businesses.

Seattle Times, 5/7/20

Seattle closed 20 miles of streets permanently to thru traffic.

A more holistic viewpoint toward urban planning and use of public spaces, including streets (which we so often do not consider as space for anything but cars) could reduce use of fossil fuel transportation, and its attendant pollution and environmental injustices. Pedestrian-oriented streets increase green space, and can accommodate food forests and community gardens. These boost local economies, build stronger communities, boost health and reduce medical costs, and generally raise the quality of life while healing the earth. 


If you’d like to see more of this in your region, there are a few things you can do. It’s easier to get streets closed to traffic temporarily than to secure permanent closure. Start with a neighborhood event on a Sunday morning that uses the mostly quiet streetspace, then repeat it monthly. The more community support an event garners, the more likely it is to become permanent. The invisible structures of community engagement take time to build, but they are indispensable if any activity is to evolve towards permanent culture.

A number of cities are closing certain streets every weekend or during set times of day. Designers can find resources for the work of closing neighborhood streets from the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

And of course, there is City Repair, which has had major successes helping people reclaim their streets and other public spaces. City Repair gained notoriety by creating intersection murals. These have really taken off, with cities all over the US now soliciting neighborhoods to create their own intersection art. Search your city government website for a “Paint the Pavement” program, or ask them to start one.

A growing body of research shows that walkable, communal spaces yield a variety of economic, community, and individual benefits. Research shows clearly that wherever cities create safe access for pedestrians and cyclists, that space gets used – a lot. This in turn supports local businesses and economies, reduces pollution and crime, bolsters the tax base (walkable neighborhoods are very popular with tourists and residents), and increases quality of life. It gives people better transportation choices than driving. Use these studies to help sympathetic planners or neighborhood councils make change.

The success of many “slow” or “open” streets programs has depended on advocacy by local groups, from bicycle clubs and environmental activists, to business improvement districts and groups promoting neighborhood safety or inclusion for children and elders, etc. Find out which organizations in your area share parallel interests, and link them up via social media or other venues to coordinate actions. This also puts you in a position to influence the design process and takes a minimal amount of time since you’re using existing resources more efficiently.

As you align with local groups, make sure to include the people who live or work in the neighborhoods being impacted. Omitting this step can create unnecessary problems, as invisible needs such as home deliveries and parking access may be frustrated. Any program will be more successful to the degree that local people feel it is what they need. This article offers some tips.

Civil disobedience was thoughtfully used as a last resort by City Repair and others when city officials refused to listen or allow citizens to participate in the design and use of their own public spaces. Common spaces belong to the walking and cycling public and not to drivers only. Streets can be pollinator corridors, linear edible landscapes, and play zones at the same time. Shifting their design to nurture people and regenerate ecologies makes sense across the board. Fortunately, and thanks to pandemic privations, a broader range of people and institutions are now speaking that language. 

More Urban Tidbits – and a couple of very worthwhile short videos

Since those of you who bike have been experiencing a lot of hot weather lately; this delightful, inspiring, and informative video about urban winter biking may provide a respite.

How did guerilla gardening spark a major local food movement in NYC? A beautiful video about two women warriors who changed their communities through persistence, love, and the help of the natural world.