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The Great Readjustment: Repurposing Public Places and Private Spaces Post-COVID


Art by Banksy, Image credit unknown. Downtown LA.

Shots in arms may lead to butts in seats but what about wheels and feet on streets? As COVID vaccinations ramp up, a return to “normal” seems inevitable. Will that “normal” mean an automatic return to our car-centric lives, with all the asphalt to accommodate vehicles, or can we trade some of that concrete for more room for bikes, pedestrians and businesses?

By looking at what different communities are doing across our state, we can get a sense of how our public spaces and private places will look in a post-pandemic Colorado. From the arid Western Slope of Palisade to Salida’s tourist-tracked downtown, smaller communities are reclaiming and repurposing spaces that used to be exclusively used for vehicle movement.

What does this look like? While Yellow Scene wrote about the Patio Renaissance back in June, as Boulder County patio culture underwent a Europeanization to support small downtowns,  a thus far successful attempt to serve both pedestrians and drivers, in this article we’ll examine examples of tactical urbanism across Colorado’s communities, large and small, showing how they may look different for pedestrians post pandemic.

Community Profile: Palisade

Palisade, Colorado, is a small town on the Western Slope known for its fruit farms and fruit-forward wines. With a population of 2,962, Palisade depends on a steady flow of vineyard-touring wine lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Even before COVID, the town’s main street businesses struggled with limited seating, so COVID-19 guidelines mandating 25 or 50% capacity were a potential death knell for them.

With help from Colorado’s Revitalizing Main Streets Program, Palisade Town Administrator Janey Hawkinson saw an opportunity to allow local businesses more space to accommodate locals and tourists by creating areas called parklets on Third and Main Streets..

Parklets reclaim a street for pedestrians by extending the sidewalk further out into the street, resulting in less on street parking for cars. Parklets usually incorporate bike parking for those cyclists who want to safeguard their “ride” and enjoy the nearby restaurants and shops. They’re a fairly recent phenomenon, this side of the Atlantic, that first popped up in November 2005 when Rebar, an art, design and activism focused collective in San Francisco, held a park(ing) day. Rebar members filled a single parking meter with quarters and rolled out astroturf to convert the small space into a temporary public park.

Now that Palisade has added parklets to its landscape, Hawkinson says, the town has had tremendously positive parklet feedback from local business owners. The more room people have to relax and enjoy the temperate climate near local businesses, the more likely they are to spend money there.

Even the business owners who were reluctant to allow a parklet quickly changed their minds once they saw people flocking to them. Because of Palisade’s mild climate, the town plans on keeping the parklets year-round, COVID or not. Although, just to be safe, Hawkinson has ordered heaters for the winter months since Colorado weather is anything but predictable.

Festival Street Example: Salida – Town officials made the decision to turn the popular F Street from 3rd Street all the way to the Arkansas River, along with a portion of the adjacent Riverside Park, into a “festival street,” which is shut down to all vehicle traffic.

Community Profile: Salida

Salida, Colorado is a mountain town where residents and visitors paddle, bike and stroll along alphabet named streets. Just like Palisade, tourism is a major industry. Town officials made the decision to turn the popular F Street from 3rd Street all the way to the Arkansas River, along with a portion of the adjacent Riverside Park, into a “festival street,” which is shut down to all vehicle traffic. While streets may be closed down for art fairs and festivals by an organization, a “festival street” is closed by the city in order to  allow businesses to extend their seating.

Nearby businesses benefit when locals and tourists gather and can enjoy safe outdoor seating during the pandemic. Bill Almquist, Community Development Director for Salida, said that the city has paid for barriers and worked with the community since June 2020 as they await monies from the Revitalizing Main Streets fund. Once these funds come in, they can incorporate Adirondack chairs and gazebos. When asked if there was resistance from business owners, Almquist said many complained that people couldn’t park right in front of their businesses. Almquist reasoned that the more inviting the space is, the longer time people can spend and they’d spend even more money as a result.

Closing F street caused drivers to park farther away yet still in front of businesses. Some owners were upset at not being used to hunt for parking. But ultimately it came down to a choice between ease of parking, which is already less of an issue because of COVID-19, or opening up more space to residents and visitors. The choice to keep festival streets in place between June and September was ultimately, supported by most Salida residents.

Community Profile: Denver

Beginning in April 2020, the City and County of Denver designated 10.2 miles of open streets and 5.5 miles of Shared Streets for public use. Open streets are car-free roads inside city parks where Shared Streets allow only local residents, delivery drivers and emergency vehicles, albeit at a slower pace due to new signage and traffic-calming roundabouts and barriers.

Denver’s “Shared Streets” were chosen based on a formula of high population density, limited access to nearby parks, or areas whose parks saw increased use during COVID.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive with one resident living near a shared street stating, “I didn’t know how much I would enjoy this type of ‘walkable’ city/neighborhood. Please, please, please – make it permanent.” 86% of those surveyed, who live on or near a shared street, want open and shared streets to remain in place “after the pandemic.”

Bayaud-Pennsylvania Denver Shared Street – Beginning in April 2020, the City and County of Denver designated 10.2 miles of open streets and 5.5 miles of Shared Streets for public use.

Repurposing Streets Takes Community Input and Involvement

A pandemic has a way of making us slow down and really take stock of our lives. How much time do we spend in traffic? How much time do we hurry and rush from one location to the next? If our lives look different post-COVID, it only makes sense that the way we get from place to place would, too. Reimagining our streets is certainly not confined to Colorado. Among America’s 100 largest cities, 91 took action to protect business stability by repurposing public space to allow outdoor retail and dining, or by turning paid parking spots into curbside pickup spaces for online orders and takeout. And 20 cities also closed streets to cars to provide space for people, promote exercise and encourage necessary distancing.

Tactical Urbanism

Change happens from necessity or innovation and tactical urbanism is an example where both forces are at play. Tactical urbanism, a movement in landscape architecture, shows how urban spaces can be repurposed. The movement grew in response to the notion that cities lack adequate green space and are overly car-centric.

Parklets and festival streets are examples of tactical urbanism. Another example is found in Golden, CO’s Miner’s Alley between 11th and 14th streets. Currently it operates as an alley with the occasional car and regular trash pickups. But, perhaps spurned by the speakeasy entrance in the alley, the town has applied for permission and funds through the Revitalizing Main Streets Program to convert it to pedestrian-only use.

Another tactical urbanism example, however temporary, was this summer’s drive-in movies shown in large urban parking lots like the Denver Mart fka Denver Merchandise Mart and in Longmont CommCi (Community Cinema) from the Boulder County Collective .

Pedestrian v. Autos: A History

You would have to travel back 100 years to find a time when walking was the norm and cars were dangerous newfangled death machines. The first cars were loud, belched exhaust, and intruded into streets that, prior to their arrival, were the domain of bicycles, horses, and horse-drawn carriages.

As injuries and deaths resulted from a cruel chicken game of car vs. human, people got fed up. In 1923, 42,000 Cincinnati residents signed a ballot initiative petition that would require all cars to be mechanically limited to 25 miles per hour. Auto manufacturers, fearing their sales would be impacted, and drivers looking for freedom to select their own speeds, went into maximum overdrive, ultimately defeating the initiative.

Fearing they’d have to keep lobbying against future bills like a game of whack-a-mole, auto companies flipped the burden of fault to pedestrians. Working with politicians, they passed laws against jaywalking. It even became a classist struggle since “jay” was a derisive term for a countryside resident. They coined the term and convinced lawmakers to put the burden on pedestrians to avoid cars. Pro-car factions used fresh-faced Boy Scouts as spokespeople, handing out cards telling pedestrians to cross only at street corners. And in a very odd New York safety event, a man dressed like a hayseed, aka a “Jaywalker,” was jokingly rear-ended over and over again by a Model T.

Anyone who has ever had a car bear down on them as they enter a crosswalk can attest that our urban streets are dangerous and unwelcoming. By reclaiming the streets for more pedestrian use, the balance of power shifts from machines and returns it to its rightful owners – us.

Revitalizing Main Streets Program

Palisade, Salida, and Denver are success stories of Colorado’s Revitalizing Main Streets Program, a 30 million dollar bipartisan allocation by our state legislature. Funds were appropriated in March 2021 and CDOT is still accepting grant applications. There is $9,000,000 available for small multimodal and economic resiliency projects with a cap of $150,000 per project.

Approved projects must:

• Encourage active, multimodal transportation, including better access and safety for pedestrians, cyclists and scooters.
• Promote public health and safety by encouraging social distancing and/or providing publicly available personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitation stations.
• Improve equity and public space access for low-income and disadvantaged users.
• Expand economic opportunity and development in a regionally-equitable way.

Although local governments apply for and receive the funds, nonprofits and community groups are expressly encouraged to weigh in.

If you live in an area that could benefit from a street make-under, now is the time to let your local leaders know. Whether you’re a business owner or a parent worried about your child’s safety, these are your roads, your tax dollars, and your time to take a stand.

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