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Cities Open Streets and Redefine Their Purpose and Focus

Tampa, Fla.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Los Angeles are repurposing streets for business and pedestrian use during the coronavirus pandemic. So far, the programs have been well received, and may even survive past the pandemic.

A closed street in Tampa, Fla.
A closed street in Tampa, Fla. (Courtesy of City of Tampa)
City of Tampa
As cities reopen and readjust to a socially distanced life, they have implemented programs that allow for pedestrian-prioritized streets. It’s a way to encourage residents to remain active close to home while maintaining social distancing and avoiding gatherings indoors.

Originally, the closing of a street to traffic and opening up the space to pedestrians was done in the name of the complete streets movement, born out of modern urbanism. Today, however, it’s about health. Some health officials are predicting there could be a second wave of the pandemic in the fall months while others forecast there will be more pandemics in our lifetime.

Local government leaders are beginning to reorganize their cities to prepare for the next shutdown. If there are already guidelines in place on how to reduce contact and transit throughout the city without a complete cessation of activity and business, future pandemics might not be so devastating. Some cities are putting this idea into practice, but there are challenges.


A closed steet in one of three Cafe & Retail zones in Tampa's recovery plan. (Courtesy of City of Tampa)

Establishing an Order

Tampa’s Lift Up Local Economic Recovery Plan has enabled restaurants and businesses to expand into sidewalks, streets and parklets so that they could re open their business while adhering to the social distancing guidelines that remain in effect during the pandemic.

Mayor Jane Castor worked with local businesses and the city council to establish a plan that would support businesses during this economic crisis. “Our governor opened up retail and restaurants to 25 percent capacity, so clearly that wouldn't allow the majority of retail or restaurants to even meet their bottom line, much less make a profit,” Mayor Castor explains.

She talked with local businesses about what type of programming would work best to fit their needs, whether it was single-use menus, touch-free payment options, shutting down an entire street or simply setting up tents on the sidewalk. “The ideas are usually easy. The implementation is difficult,” she says.

Tampa is still in a state of emergency, which grants Castor powers to enact changes to help the city maneuver through the crisis and allow her to make changes to store and restaurant ordinances that otherwise would prohibit them from occupying public right of way. Building off Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Executive Order, Castor’s Executive Order 2020-23 outlined the requirements of the “Lift Up Local program,” including the allowance of city rights-of-way, restaurant capacity limitations and the mandates for paper menus and reservations.

Castor worked with several state and city agencies to certify that the plan was done correctly. First, they had to understand what exactly they wanted to do and how they were going to handle different issues, such as how parking lots were to be used, how businesses were to gain permission to use parking lots they didn’t own, and what would be allowed for alcohol consumption. After compiling all the ideas, the city put it into order. “The city attorney wrote it up and I made all of the council members aware of just what we were doing,” says Castor. “Then we worked, too, with the state beverage to ensure that they didn’t have any issues.”  

The executive order does not require Tampa businesses to get a permit prior to making these socially distant changes, but the city closely manages what they are doing. “There's a lot of oversight, especially in the very beginning,” says Castor. “We had law enforcement officers out there, we had our fire inspectors and we have our code enforcement, as well, ensuring that everybody abided by the rules.”


Kansas City's program opens neighborhood streets for their residents' use, including walking, scootering or biking. (City of Kansas City/Karen Warden and Ryan Mott)

Utilizing Resources and Creativity

Kansas City, Mo., has enacted a similar program to Tampa’s, and they, too, had to recruit different city agencies to ensure the program’s success. Maggie Green, the public information officer for Kansas City’s Public Works, explains that the city had to loop in several different departments. “It was more people than you think you need to involve,” she says. “People like your fire department, your EMS folks, the police department, even your IT department and people who manage the permitting on the IT side of things.”

Open Streets KC involved many different departments because it was a three-part program enacted by a city council resolution. The first element allowed residents to apply online for a permit, essentially a modified block party permit that shuts down single-block stretches of neighborhood streets allowing only local traffic and emergency vehicles. Then, the city implemented over 100 automatic pedestrian crossings throughout the city to reduce points of contact as residents walk around. Last, the city organized three larger road closures that extend several blocks.

City agencies had to work collaboratively to implement the different regulations of the program, and also partnered with several organizations in the area to further encourage its residents to utilize the opportunities. The local partnerships were crucial in the city’s ability to implement the program, according to Green. “They kind of all stepped up in different ways and said, ‘Hey, how can we help? We can help provide resources if a neighborhood needs them.’ And, again, this really helped us fill the resource gap that we as a department had.”

While Open Streets KC is complex, Green believes that it has been beneficial to both the community and the city agencies, creating a focal shift in how they approach projects. “I definitely think a deeper outcome here is that there is this willingness to be creative and be flexible and really frame a lot of this work around truly helping the community out and not getting hung up necessarily on the boxes to check and the bureaucracy behind it.”


 A "slow street" in a Los Angeles neighborhood. (Courtesy of LADOT/Jacob Sigala)

Letting the Community Lead

No matter the size of the community, having the residents at the forefront is one of the main reasons why these pedestrian programs are succeeding. Los Angeles, Calif., one of the largest cities in the nation, has also launched a similar program to those of Tampa and Kansas City.

The Slow Streets L.A. program, like Kansas City’s, does not install any permanent mechanisms, such as speed bumps or permanent barricades, to close the neighborhood streets. Seleta Reynolds, Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT)’s general manager, says that the signs and temporary barricades should alert drivers that pedestrians and bikers will be on the street. “It really is just a message to people driving that, on those streets, they should consider themselves guests,” she says.

But given L.A.’s size, the department had to weigh the impacts of the program and where it would actually be beneficial to the residents. Some neighborhoods, such as South L.A.’s Boyle Heights, were being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and the city acknowledged that certain neighborhoods had different priorities. While the program seemed simple on the surface — applying temporary barricades, for example — the city knew it had to act as a guest in those communities. “Just like everything else that we do in transportation, we're entering a community and we really need to be clear about who we're there to help and what we can do and who we are empowering to lead in sort of directing resources to their community,” says Reynolds.

LADOT relied heavily on community-based organizations during the planning phase. For several years, the agency has been working with these organizations to help bridge two main barriers that prevent Angelenos from interacting with government services: access and trust. Reynolds explained that even if the city provides services, a resident may not be able to access it because it’s not delivered to their neighborhood, it’s not advertised through the channels where they get their information or it may not be in their language.

However, even if the residents have access to the information, they may not utilize a service out of government distrust. “They're worried about giving their name to government or participating in a program because their experiences with government are either that we ignore them or that we do harm in their neighborhoods,” says Reynolds. “When we create a resource and we provide a service, it's worthless unless we take the extra step of investing in the right resources to translate things into multiple languages and make sure we're reaching out to faith leaders and other folks in the community that are the kind of conduits of information to those folks.”

This is not LADOT’s first time running a street closure program. The department has been offering a similar program since 2015, Play Streets, that allows temporary street closures in neighborhoods across the city. Reynolds says the city learned a lot of lessons about community interaction, including how not to use police as official enforcement to ensure that their residents are comfortable. “If you decide when you're designing a program like this, and you're working across your city with different departments and the decision is, ‘well, we can't have one of these, unless we have police there,’ then you need to go back to the drawing board,” she says. “The presence of law enforcement is one of the reasons why people don’t feel comfortable out in their own neighborhoods.”


Kansas City's Open Streets program requires creativity and community participation when it comes to enforcement. (City of Kansas City/Karen Warden and Ryan Mott)

The Future of Open Streets

Kansas City has started developing its own temporary outdoor seating program and Green believes that, while the city had been in conversations about creating micro-mobility zones, it would not have happened so quickly. “I’ve kind of phrased it as a silver lining during this challenging time, that we were able to really see some opportunity, jump on that opportunity and really create something positive for our neighborhoods,” says Green. “It would definitely look different if we weren't in the middle of a pandemic, but I do think that Kansas City, as a whole, is really starting to think more about this type of outdoor space, connecting community to the outdoors and placemaking and streetscaping.”

Los Angeles has also expanded into providing businesses with an outdoor space. The city created its Al Fresco program that allows businesses and stores to utilize public spaces like sidewalks, parking lots, and parklets. “A really important ingredient of that program is going to be, how do we make sure that we allow and we enable not just brick and mortar restaurants, but street vendors to be able to operate in those spaces,” says Reynolds.

Both Los Angeles and Kansas City have plans to continue their outdoor programs through the end of the city’s State of Emergency order, though officials continue to re-evaluate as things progress.

From the beginning, Tampa’s Lift Up Local worked to incorporate the residents into the process and focus on their needs, which is why it has done so well, according to Mayor Castor. “It’s been so successful because it was a collaborative effort. We worked together to develop a plan that was safe and could be implemented and would be in the best interest of those businesses,” she says.

Castor believes the program, or a similar version, is something that residents could see again in future months. But she expects that the program may be temporarily suspended during the summer due to Florida’s hurricane season. “Here in Florida, Mother Nature will determine the end date.”

Zoe is the digital editor for Governing.
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