4 NYC Urban Planning Trends (Post COVID-19) 

Snowstorms, COVID-19, and Urban Planning

Nothing beats the night before the first impending snowstorm. We become little kids again wishing for a snow day so we can sleep in, go sledding with our friends and watch a movie while sipping hot chocolate. But did you know snowstorms, especially blizzards, are great for urban planning and design? The natural path of snowplows, motor vehicles, and pedestrians create a natural version of urban design flow that transforms our cities and makes our streets safer. Following a snowstorm, you’ll notice cars naturally follow a pattern where they avoid parts of the street, creating extended curbs and crosswalks for pedestrians. Urban planners use these storms to survey where they can add sidewalks and bike lanes and limit cars to only the space they need.

Although we are a few months away from a snowstorm (hopefully, it’s still 2020 after all), we can take a similar approach to COVID-19. Instead of forcing ourselves to go back to “normal,” we should be learning how New Yorkers have naturally adapted to COVID-19 and use those findings to fix parts of our city that weren’t working before. 

As we would if we were urban planners following a snowstorm, let’s take a look at New York City during COVID-19 and envision a safer, more efficient, and better city. Some trends we are seeing: 

Expanded Sidewalks

For decades New York City has been working hard to make itself safer for pedestrians. During the Bloomberg administration (which the DeBlasio administration has continued), New York expanded its pedestrian walkways and pedestrian-only streets, which has come in handy during social distancing. However, we know that there’s not enough. The city council has closed down numerous streets in the five boroughs to allow for more pedestrian walkways. Still, we need more outside space for pedestrians to walk (with or without a dog), run, bike, skateboard, eat, drink, hang, and enjoy the best city in the world. 

In addition to pedestrian walkways, bike lanes, which were once a hotly contested and controversial topic, have been incredibly successful. So successful that Citi keeps expanding the program. In February of this year, Citibike unveiled e-bikes with Lyft. Due to COVID-19 and some break issues, the bikes trickle out a bit slower than many riders would like; however, we expect New York’s bike program to expand due to many avoiding crowded public transit. We would be amiss not to mention the potential of scooters, mopeds, and segways following in the steps of the Citibike program. We might be so pro them right now, but we should plan for the inevitable. Wider bike lanes that keep scooters off the sidewalks will be preferred. 

New Yorkers have always known how to make the most of our limited outdoor space. Stoops, black tar roofs, hydrant sprinklers are just a few that come to mind. Who hasn’t spent the dog days of summer on all three? This can explain why so many New Yorkers love the new outdoor dining spaces currently occupying our sidewalks and parking spaces. This isn’t just a trend in 2020. New York City mayor Bill De Blasio announced that outdoor dining would continue next year, which can add revenue to restaurants who will still be recovering. Expect more nights in the streets and fewer places for those with cars to park moving forward. Restaurants, bars, and storefronts will start thinking about maximizing their extended spaces (permit permitting) and design their locations accordingly — including moveable, sustainable, flexible, and weatherproof furniture and decor. Parking space mini-parks will also continue to grow significantly after COVID-19. (Put your damn car in the garage) 

More Green and Blue Spaces

In addition to pedestrian sidewalks and streets, there’s also an emphasis on more green and blue spaces. Before quarantine, we knew that parks with trees and water are vital to our city’s health and physical and mental health. “Health” and “wellness” were already buzzwords before COVID-19, and New York City has been investing more and more in our green and blue spaces. Just look all along our waterfront, however, not in all parts of the city, which needs to change. 

Our green spaces can also help serve communities. We can and should equip all of the public green spaces with free wifi. As of April 2020, 500K New York City households have no internet access. That includes many children who need access to the internet to learn. More green public spaces can provide much need services to many of our underserved communities. Green spaces will, therefore, need to be multifunctional. Done are the days of single-use spaces. One thing Hudson Yards got right was the retractable roof and venue at the Shed.

With even more focus on public health, including mental health, behavioral health, socio-economic health, and the existential threat of Climate Change, we expect city planners and developers to incorporate more green and blue spaces into our city — both our shared public areas and private spaces.  If they don’t, people will leave. 

A Focus on Clean Air 

Unfortunately, urban planners haven’t always cared about clean air. But, COVID-19 proved to the naysayers (yes, there are some) that yes, clean air inside and outside is vital to our city’s health. There are many areas within New York City–mainly black and brown communities–that don’t have good air quality.  Whether it’s because of nearby industrial plants, living in a building that hasn’t updated their air filtration in decades (how COVID-19 travels indoors), or they are living in an apartment complex that’s infested with mold, New York needs to do better. We now know how COVID-19 and other pathogens spread, and that is something we cannot unlearn. It is in our city’s best interest to increase the air quality (both indoors and outdoors) for everyone, everywhere.  More green and blue spaces mean cleaner air, healthier communities, and a better New York. 

We expect a lot of movement in the city council and the upcoming NYC Mayoral Race to focus on affordable housing with green spaces and plenty of access to essential services in the coming year. 

Greater Access to Essential Services 

Last year we wrote about why many tech companies were leasing office space in the Hudson Yards neighborhood of Manhattan. We concluded it was due to its proximity to Penn Station.  Conventional wisdom during COVID-19 was to run away from the city’s density and become a hermit in the woods somewhere (PS people in rural areas got COVID-19 too). However, density makes cities such as New York City work in the first place.  They are economical, cultural, and social engines. More people can access the same core services closer to their homes and workplaces and don’t need to travel far. For example, older adults can safely get their groceries or prescriptions by walking one block to the grocery store or pharmacy, versus driving miles away. They can even get it delivered to their doors within an hour. 

With that said, COVID-19 shined a bright light on the fact that many in our city lack access to public transportation (especially when the subway closes overnight), housing, water, food, wifi, and healthcare. Although New York City and the State of New York face economic challenges in the year ahead, there will be heightened attention on ensuring all parts of the city have to access core services closer to their homes and their places of work. One example is commercial and residential buildings — we were already seeing large commercial and residential buildings incorporating amenities and retail to accommodate their tenants before COVID-19, and we expect even more buildings to participate in this going forward. The closer your essentials are, groceries, pharmacies, urgent care centers, gyms, green spaces, the safer you’ll be, and the healthier your community will be. 

The most consistent think about New York City is that it is always changing. Now let’s change it for the better. 


Continue reading: 5 Ways COVID-19 Changed Our Office Space For (the) Good.