Uncovering JAPA

Ensuring "Open Streets" Plans Advance Social Equity

Though we're in a different phase of the pandemic than we were a year or two ago, many of the uncomfortable truths that it revealed are unlikely to be soon forgotten.

As Arundhati Roy wrote in an oft-quoted article, "Pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal; a gateway between one world and the next." From the disproportionate distribution of the pandemic's burdens (and benefits) to a new appreciation of open space, it has already shaped our built and psychological realities.

One specific planning arena the pandemic has altered is public space and open or shared streets. Conceived as a means of providing open space to stir-crazy isolators while slowing the virus's spread, the movement to reorient streets toward walking, cycling, and recreation has received a near-unanimously positive reception. But even such well-intentioned actions can have negative consequences concerning social equity and racial justice.

Pandemic Alters Public Space Planning Dynamics

In the Viewpoint piece "Open Streets for Whom? Toward a Just Livability Revolution" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 88, No. 2), Dani Slabaugh, Jeremy Németh, and Alessandro Rigolon critically analyze the trend, cautioning planners to consider several potential paradoxes as they design and implement open streets strategies. Their analysis reveals some of the pitfalls of open streets planning, as well as some strategies to ensure its impacts are equitable.

First, the authors outline an environmental justice framework to structure their discussion of the complexities of planning for open streets with the realities of structural racism in mind. Specifically, they focus on four aspects of environmental justice:

  • Distributional justice, which relates to how environmental hazards have been historically concentrated in racialized communities and absent from whiter communities;
  • Interactional justice, which focuses on interpersonal interactions in a certain space;
  • Procedural justice, which analyzes how policy and planning processes can perpetuate injustices through questions of who does and doesn't have a "seat at the table"; and
  • Recognitional justice, which pertains to acknowledging the cultural and historical considerations that continue to shape racial politics of mobility and public space.

"These four components help develop a holistic picture of environmental justice in open streets projects," the authors write, "including several potential paradoxes."

They then proceed to outline some of the existing literature and emerging commentary on open streets in an era of systemic racism, civil unrest, and an ongoing pandemic, discussing six specific paradoxes.

Six Paradoxes in Open Streets Planning

The first, which the authors call the "displacement paradox," focuses on how new infrastructure and investments can accelerate or stoke fears of gentrification.

Regarding an association that they term the "hegemony paradox," the authors write, "open streets aimed at increasing physical activity tend to center a whiter, wealthier pandemic experience," while people of color were more likely to work "on the pandemic's frontlines" and not from home.

The third paradox, the "safety paradox," arises from the likelihood that open streets will also come with an increased presence of police, who routinely impede the ability of people of color to use and enjoy public space.

Next, the "white spaces paradox" refers to how, according to interviews and focus groups, people of color often feel unwelcome in predominantly white pedestrianized spaces, seeing them as "off-limits."

The "engagement paradox" emphasizes how the procedural and administrative context of open streets planning often fails to adequately and fairly engage communities of color, while the "stigma paradox" captures the many barriers to the adoption of active transportation that have resulted in race-based inequalities in patterns of mobility and pedestrian safety.

The authors propose several policies, programs, and partnerships that can help city builders avoid some negative consequences of open streets planning.

Table 1: The authors propose several policies, programs, and partnerships that can help city builders avoid some negative consequences of open streets planning.

Planners Navigate Complexities in Open Streets

So, what should planners do in light of these complexities and paradoxes? The authors propose specific policies, programs, and partnerships that can help ensure open streets avoid entrenching historical inequities.

The article helped clarify the universe of competing priorities and histories that continue to shape the de facto implementation and reception of planning initiatives. Indeed, planning processes are increasingly constrained by urban realities: "greening" neighborhoods can lead to gentrification, and behind discourses of resilience often lurk instincts toward privatization and securitization.

To their list of paradoxes, I might add "a consumption paradox": how the rolling out of open streets and the reappreciation of public space morphed into a conversation about neighborhoods' economic vitality. The proliferation of outdoor dining, for example, turned open space into consumptive space, instead of spaces designed to host a wider range of activities.

There are no easy answers to these contradictions, the authors emphasize, and the planning process is a multifaceted and sometimes circuitous one. But by conceiving preventative programs, enhancing community-based services, building grassroots partnerships, and maintaining a pragmatic, justice-oriented mindset, planners can participate in the so-called "livability revolution" while avoiding its pitfalls.

Top Image: urbazon/E+/gettyimages.com

About the author
Akiva Blander is a master's in urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

June 23, 2022

By Akiva Blander