How Do We Rethink Public Space After the Pandemic? Start With Rolls of Tape.

Socially distanced protest in Tel Aviv. Photo: Oded Balilty/AP/Shutterstock/Oded Balilty/AP/Shutterstock

We’re committed to keeping our readers informed. 
We’ve removed our paywall from essential coronavirus news stories. Become a subscriber to support our journalists. Subscribe now.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are learning to hit their marks on it, guided by bits of colored tape. Tape has become a low-tech weapon in COVID-19-induced urbanism, measuring out spots for customers to stand in line for groceries, X-ing out park benches that are too close together, defining safety zones spaces in elevators and subways. We know where to stand and why, grateful for these scraps of guidance and, at the same time, resentful at the necessary regimentation. Bit by bit, cities are rolling out informal instruction manuals for a new standard of social behavior, and the messages can feel infantilizing: Stand here, don’t sit there, keep out. But tape is also a liberating force, breathing new flexibility into urban infrastructure that is built to resist change. The challenge of the next chapter will be to make that flexibility permanent.

In the coming years, state and local governments may not have the money to throw at long-term plans and vast fixed infrastructure costs. Managing streets and public spaces, though, requires little more than tape, traffic cones, spray paint, and a sense of urgency. In a matter of weeks, officials and private citizens all over the world have jury-rigged enormous metropolitan areas. Groceries arrive by cargo bikes. Restaurants sell groceries. Sheets of stapled plastic protect cashiers. In Tel Aviv, organizers of an anti-government demonstration marked off Rabin Square to show thousands of protesters while maintaining safe distances. The result was a gathering so pointillistic that it qualifies as performance art.

As a post-lockdown city edges into view, we’ll have to develop new ways to use the places we share, from public restrooms to restaurants, classrooms, hallways, subway cars, and sidewalks. Prodded by fear and guided by tape, we will develop new social dances that resemble the formal ballroom steps of yore: “Step back, slide, turn away, and touch as little as possible.” The rules will change as the science does. We can’t yet reliably pinpoint the likelihood of being infected on a beach or a subway platform, by touching an elevator button, sitting on a park bench, or sharing a car. We don’t know how legitimately outraged to get when we feel a jogger’s wake against our cheek or whether those who have had the disease run the risk of reinfection or infecting others. We’re unsure how to feel as we move through terrain we can’t fully control; I suspect it will be a long while before most of us are willing to sit shoulder to shoulder in an auditorium, pinned in place for hours on end.

One thing is clear: The virus is redefining our relationship to both personal and public space, and we’re going to need more of both. New York, one of the world’s great pedestrian cities, is still imperfectly engineered for the COVID era. As Meli Harvey, an intrepid student of sidewalk widths (and an employee of Sidewalk Labs) has pointed out in a new interactive map, most of the city’s walkways don’t allow two passersby to give each other wide berth, let alone an ordinary crowd. And just try keeping proper distance from the person coming toward you on one of those all-too-common stretches of sidewalk segmented by scaffolding and lined with garbage bags. If the virus returns with cold weather, the first snow will dramatize how clumsily we use the space we have, leaving narrow channels alongside berms of ice and turning every corner into an impassable slough.

When we finally emerge from our lairs, pedestrians, bikers, stroller pushers, users of wheelchairs and walkers, and transit riders are going to need more acreage. Cities all over the world have figured this out. Oakland, California, is temporarily closing 74 miles of streets to cars, Milan is retrofitting 22 miles, Berlin is converting parking into bike lanes, and Paris is rushing to expand its cycling network by 400 miles. In New York, Mayor de Blasio firmly rejected retooling any streets at all, because his city is different from all other cities, then finally buckled to pressure from the City Council. In the coming weeks, the Transportation Department will retool 40 miles of streets for more pedestrian access, rising to 100 miles for the duration of the crisis. I hope — unrealistically, perhaps — that officials are already studying which of these measures to make permanent.

The signs aren’t good. The mayor resisted the Council’s demands for weeks, offering exquisitely hermetic logic: In normal times, taking space away from cars would aggravate vehicular traffic; today, reckless drivers are taking advantage of vacant streets to speed, so taking away some of their space would endanger pedestrians. He should be making the opposite argument: A half-empty city’s pedestrians need ample clearance, and as the emergency ebbs and the sidewalks fill, they will need more. Stealing outdoor space from cars might even allow restaurants to partially reopen and spread out into the street, making it possible to keep tables spaced and limiting contact.

Cities, like the rest of us, get along in ordinary, hectic times by addressing that day’s problems. Planning for the future is always a task you can plan on doing … in the future. When you’re in charge and you’re facing a huge and intractable problem — how to fix a crumbling highway through the heart of Brooklyn, for example — the obvious solution is to make it someone else’s (ideally your successor’s). The time for dithering is done. This moment’s problems (blasted budgets) can’t wait, but the next set of existential challenges (like climate change) are hurtling toward us too. The virus demands the ability to improvise and strategize at the same time.

Flexibility is not the mayor’s strongest suit, but it has become one of the most important tools of governance, because decisions about public space, streets, traffic, and transit have to be made at a time when, in William Goldman’s immortal words, nobody knows anything. If jobs come rushing back, and if the millions now working at home return to their offices, and if those offices remain in central business districts, and if commuters are creeped out by the idea of public transit, and if oil prices remain low, then traffic will be horrendous, transit agencies will go bust, our cities’ air will blacken again, and the Earth will continue to boil while we frogs fail to get alarmed. If, on the other hand, the economy sputters, or employers decide they’d rather save on real estate than have employees on the premises, or companies scatter, or life feels too short to spend much of it idling in the Lincoln Tunnel, then a few silver linings may start to glow in a sky full of thunderheads. These nauseating levels of uncertainty leave planners and politicians with two choices: Do nothing and see what happens, or pursue the outcome you want, rather than the one you expect.

At the moment, New York appears to be pursuing the first option. Before the epidemic, cars ruled the streets, even if that meant they were inching crosstown at something slower than a shuffle. Today, cars rule the streets, even if that means they are careering down empty avenues and pulverizing the occasional tree. After the crisis, they will continue to rule the street, especially since it looks like the congestion-pricing scheme that was to launch early next year will be postponed. New York should grab the opportunity to diversify the streets. Some roads carry cars but not pedestrians or bikes; it shouldn’t be too big a stretch to engineer the reverse. A lot of New Yorkers depend on buses: The way to keep them uncrowded is to run them more often, which in turn means clearing away impediments. A few months — and a million years — ago, the success of a sole busway along 14th Street prompted calls for more. The time has come to lace the five boroughs with pop-up busways that can be installed practically overnight so that they’re ready when passengers flow back.

The spirit of improvisation can’t build a city forever. There’s no quick and easy hack for a tunnel under the Hudson, no ingenious workaround for an airport. When life returns (I can’t bring myself to write the words to normal), Penn Station will still be a mess with multibillion-dollar, multi-decade needs. But in the meantime, as we wait for a vaccine to arrive, the federal government to realign, tax money to flow, and our universal anxiety to ebb, there’s plenty a city can accomplish, given enough ingenuity and tape.

How to Rethink Public Space? Start With Tape.