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It’s Time For Chicago To Adopt Open Street Promenades During Pandemic, Firm Says — But Local Input Is Essential

In dense Chicago neighborhoods, it's impossible to get fresh air or run an errand without bumping into people on the sidewalk. Since traffic is way down, open streets would allow for better social distancing, advocates say.

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LAKEVIEW — As the weather warms up, more Chicagoans are anxious to get some fresh air after more than seven weeks of being cooped up inside.

In some neighborhoods, however, it’s impossible to social distance on too-narrow sidewalks that quickly fill with people. For weeks, transportation activists have urged the city to close some streets to vehicles to allow for more social distancing — especially since vehicle traffic is way down.

East Lakeview resident Lisa Wronski said shutting down some streets to vehicle traffic would make it safer for her neighbors to get some much-needed exercise — or just safely run essential errands.

“In East Lakeview where I live, it’s so dense,” Wronski said. “We don’t have backyards and not everyone has a balcony or a deck on top of their building. Some of our green space is just outside public space. We all don’t have privatized areas to hang out outside. So, it stems from me going outside and seeing that the sidewalks aren’t designed for the six feet of distance that we are supposed to keep between one another.”

Currently, people are running into each other on narrow sidewalks in dense neighborhoods, illustrated here.

Wronski, a project manager at Hammersley Architecture, an urban planning and architecture firm in Streeterville, knew that other cities were converting neighborhood streets to public promenades during the pandemic and felt like it would be a good idea to develop a proposal for Chicago. Her boss, Brian Hammersley, principal and owner of the firm, agreed.

“We just saw the need and wanted to create something that would speak to that need,” Hammersley said.

The firm got to work creating a plan to close some streets in dense areas to automobile traffic in order to provide more outdoor space to residents during the pandemic. Already, Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, San Diego and Portland have implemented similar plans. 

The plan would create a “trail” for pedestrians and cyclists to safely run essential errands without bumping into people on the sidewalk. Residents of each neighborhood would select the streets that made the most sense to them.

The promenades would:

  • Only be on side streets, not busy commercial strips
  • Not along bus routes
  • Emergency vehicles would be able to enter, as well as delivery drivers and the post office. Thru traffic would be prohibited.

The plan, which you can see here, is broad on purpose, Wronski and Hammersley said. It was designed to be a conversation starter rather than a specific course of action.

“We didn’t propose actual routes because I don’t think it’s my place to tell someone who is in a different neighborhood than I am how to maneuver through the neighborhood,” Wronski said. “These are guidelines to get people to think about it and talk about it and then if they think that a street is viable for this plan, we’d like to hear about it. It would be cool to have a lot of people’s input and slowly have this turn into a design.”

A promenade plan would allow people to spread out and walk in the street to avoid coming into contact with others.

Hammersley said they dropped everything and “went nuts” to draw up their plan quickly because “The weather is changing and people’s attitudes are changing and we wanted to kind of circumvent that, at least get in front of it.”

On the day their plan was released, Chicago’s Department of Transportation commissioner Gia Biagi put out a call for ideas from the public on improving mobility in their neighborhoods. You can send your ideas to covidmobility@cityofchicago.org.

“We care about the fact that one solution isn’t going to work everywhere,” Biagi said. “We want people to send us a couple of things: What you’re seeing. And the nearest intersection where you are seeing this occur. And some ideas you have and anything else you want to tell us about your experiences on streets and sidewalks. It’s our goal to listen really well, and then we’ll respond with tools and ideas as we go forward.”

Wronski and Hammersley sent the plan to CDOT and also to Mayor Lori Lightfoot a couple days later.

Lightfoot has said the city is watching how other cities have handled the street closures.

“We are looking at what the actual experience is of other cities,” Lightfoot said at an April 29 press conference. “We haven’t ruled it out, but we also haven’t ruled it in. We want to understand what the impacts are gonna be on travel.”

Hammersley said he’d love for neighborhood groups to get on board and work with them to create a plan that includes actual streets and neighborhoods.

“If we could expand this and include neighborhood groups and get input from people, I think for us it would be great to have people to collaborate with of all stripes, from all different neighborhoods. I think it would be different from neighborhood to neighborhood based on how they are laid out and neighborhood needs, so it would be really fascinating to have this new, temporary infrastructure throughout the city and to see how it emerges in all these different communities in slightly different ways as dictated by those communities,” Hammersley said.

While the most of the plan is designed to be temporary, there are aspects that would be nice to see remain in place after the pandemic is over, Hammersley said. 

“I think it will be interesting to see what sprouts out of this emergency and what becomes our norm. The idea is to give people space right now because that’s what the need is. It would be delightful if some of these stay but that’s a different conversation,” Hammersley said. 

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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