Empty streets, empty buses, commuter-less streets, 2020’s months of lockdown have offered urban planners a unique chance to carry out research… by simply looking out the window. Like many in my field, I’ve been both struggling with the pandemic but also interested in what it might teach us. I knew that my former Arup colleague, Demetrio Scopelliti, had also been pondering this question in his role as Director of Urban Planning and Public Space at the Agency for Mobility, Environment, Territory (AMAT) in Milan – a city hit hard by the virus and a very strict lockdown. So, we decided to discuss how the city has responded.
Many authorities are poised to spend stimulus money, but are faced with new questions about air quality, public transport demand, ongoing safety issues posed by the virus, encouraged by a general public sense that better choices should now be made. Our conversation about Milan, London, Paris and other cities has led us to a kind of manifesto of new ideas for urban and transport planning in the post-Covid period.
1. Take advantage of this unexpected opportunity
Demetrio explained that for decades Milan had based its mobility strategies around traditional modes of public transport, building and expanding new metro lines, finding ways to bring more people into the city centre. “We’d been conscious of the need for more walking and cycling, had introduced a congestion charge, but the approach was incremental. Yet after a few weeks of lockdown and empty streets, suddenly we have made progress on new bike lanes, nurtured ‘parklets’ in underused areas of the city and designated streets for pedestrian use – all of it done almost overnight.”
His advice for the usually measured and slow-paced world of transport planning? “Take advantage of this unexpected period.”
2. Experiment at speed
Milan isn’t the only place to respond at speed. Leaders in London, Barcelona, Paris and other cities have also made public commitments to provide additional bike scheme provision or expand cycle lanes. Looking at the additional 35km of lanes Milan is instituting, Demetrio observed that “it would have taken years to achieve what we’ve managed in just a few months. You have to move fast and push for experimentation while public support is there.”
3. Private cars aren’t the future
Lockdowns offer a skewed version of a city’s future, so we have to be cautious in our conclusions. We know that there’s a danger that, faced with the dangers of enclosed mass transit systems, people could return to using private cars, with all the negative effects on congestion and air quality. “There has obviously been a huge reduction in the use of public transport – and we have been aware the crisis could lead to an increase in car usage. So, our thinking as a city is that we need to become sustainable by reducing commuting and private transport, encouraging ways of living without the need to travel huge distances. Our future can’t be private cars – a city needs safe walking, cycling, scooter infrastructure.”
4. Green the streets (put ‘parklets’ everywhere)
With Milanese life so constrained, there has been an understandable desire to have safe public places to congregate and reassume some semblance of normal life. Into this moment, comes the idea of ‘parklets’ – converting former parking bays close to shops and bars into small social spaces, helping to stimulate commercial activity. “We found shop owners coming together to request that their streets be re-zoned into ‘parklets’ or totally pedestrianised. And ten were agreed in just two weeks. The authorities don’t need new funds, they simply enable.”
The city’s rapid adoption of parklets has been inspiring and there are now over 1000 approved applications for these improvised public spaces across the city. “Despite being unsure of quite how popular this idea would be, we defined a process and it quickly took off. After a little initial resistance, we are now seeing wide support for extended sidewalks and pavements, reusing car parks and so on.”
5. You must sell the benefits
In every city and country, there’s both a yearning to return to how things were and a desire to retain improvements lockdowns have brought. As transport planners, if we want to build on the advances that we’ve been able to make, there is a public relations exercise to undertake first. “In Milan we know that particularly women and younger people are switching to cycling and walking. And we know that travelling by bike or e-scooter is much faster than getting in a car or taxi for short trips. But we have to make sure people understand this. We have re-activated the city’s congestion charge and need to continue plans for our low emission zone. The idea is to show other modes are cheaper and faster.”
6. Be ready for some resistance
Of course, you have to prepare for a degree of resistance when city transport or access is radically changed or reconfigured. Demetrio reflects that “when you reclaim the streets, there’s always some pushback. But the fact that other global cities are clearly moving in the same direction means there’s wider public support for change.”
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The economic and social pause by the pandemic might be coming to an end, but the space it has provided for a new public dialogue is incredibly valuable. Existing trends around personal health and sustainable mobility options like walking/cycling have converged during the virus outbreak. If a city as in love with cars, taxis and mopeds as Milan can make a switch, anywhere can. And as Demetrio observes, “thanks to the virus there is now a healthy competition between cities, to respond in the most beneficial ways, and define a new future for their cities. As urban planners we have a great opportunity, so let’s not waste it.”
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