Pandemic Teaching Us What We Already Knew About Cities

People are coming to conclusions about what a pandemic means for cities, transportation, public spaces, and other hot button issues. Turns out they’re drawing the same conclusions as before. Density is deadly. Transit is a petri dish for disease. Bikes are in the way.

I’ll admit I’m not taking the bus right now. I feel bad about it. Not just because I lost something I enjoy. As someone without a car, it’s a slight hardship to stop riding. I feel worse that there are people out there who don’t have the option to work from home.


Does the biggest global health and economic crisis of our lifetimes (exacerbated by an almost inconceivable lack of federal government response) really mean we abandon the idea of dense pedestrianized cities — with lots of people, places to be, and things to do?

You may have noticed there are many other routine, enjoyable, and necessary things that have been eliminated or greatly curtailed by Covid-19. Bars, restaurants, movie theaters, sports, beaches, having a job, elective surgeries, seeing your mom, taking vacations, petting a stranger’s dog, being with your friends. The list of things that have been interrupted is endless.

But you’ll never read this in your local paper: “Screw the idiot councilwoman who invented Easter dinner with your family. That concept didn’t survive first contact with a global health crisis!” Please stop sliding “pandemic” into that pre-existing list of reasons you hate having more apartments in the neighborhood.

That’s not to say I don’t have a deeply held belief that’s been reinforced by this pandemic. Physical distancing has placed a premium on public outdoor space. This comes at a time when our streets have never been more dangerous. Though traffic is down by more than half statewide, deaths caused by car crashes have doubled. Drivers have more road-space than ever, and they’re using it recklessly.

In this new reality, cooped up at home most of the day, where do we go to get some fresh air? Preferably a safe distance from intersections swirling with car traffic? Parks.

I was happy to see the Minneapolis Park Board take action recently to close some parkways to car traffic. This created space for people to enjoy the river and the lakes while maintaining physical distancing. One problem with that action was that it gave individual Park Commissioners a veto — allowing them to reopen parkways in their district unilaterally. Some of them are now using that veto power.

Commissioner Kale Severson just reopened a short section of West River Parkway which had been closed to cars. Commissioner Brad Bourn is doing the same on Lake Harriet Parkway. Severson’s argument is that people should stay home and out of the parks; opening the parkways just draws a crowd. Bourn says that he’s trying to provide access to parks by car, for vulnerable people who can’t safely leave their vehicles.

First of all, I think it’s incorrect to conceive of older, immuno-suppressed, or otherwise vulnerable individuals as people who don’t need safe places to exist outside their vehicles. To the degree you want to promote recreational driving, I say: gas is cheap and there are no shortage of wide open roads taking you wherever you want to go. Just be careful of the other drivers.

Outdoor activities like “walking pets, hiking, running, biking, hunting, or fishing” are explicitly permitted in the Governor’s order. But we need the space to do it. Physical distancing, in some form or other, is a mitigation strategy that will be with us for the long term. Possibly until development of a vaccine. That could be 18 months. Covid-19 isn’t over on May 4. Telling people to stay indoors indefinitely isn’t sustainable or necessary.

It’s safe to be outside. It’s essential for our physical and mental health. More than ever, local government needs to focus on how they’re going to provide safe public spaces. That’s going to mean making more of them.