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Sarah Lozanova headshot

Two Years Later, COVID-19 Has Reshaped the Built Environment

By Sarah Lozanova

A street transformed to an outdoor dining space in San Mateo, California

Since February 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed many aspects of daily life. As cities implemented pandemic-resilient strategies, the result has been a shift in how many residents interact and conduct their daily routines within the built environment. As the pandemic continued, cities have changed the way residents use the streets, transport themselves, dine in restaurants and attend festivals. So far, the evidence suggests that many of these changes will likely stay permanent.

The great move outdoors

Many towns shied away from having large indoor events, with many of those events moved outdoors if they weren’t canceled outright. Music festivals, graduation ceremonies, and even private parties were often moved to parks and other open spaces, as organizers favored venues with opens spaces that could help mitigate any spread of COVID-19.

With permission from local governments, numerous restaurants augmented their outdoor dining options. Sometimes, this shift entailed closing down streets or removing parking spots to free up space. In addition, some restaurants invested in heat lamps, outdoor furniture and tents to extend the outdoor dining season.

Cities redefined the dining experience during COVID-19

New York is one example of how cities and towns transformed public spaces. The city has given up 8,550 publicly-owned curbside parking spots since the pandemic started, according to local data. And, former New York Mayor de Blasio declared the program will be permanent. This move shows agility in the face of a challenge and helped numerous restaurants stay in business during the pandemic.

In a recent interview with the New York Post, Andrew Rigie, head of the Hospitality Alliance, which represents many city restaurants and bars, said, “Outdoor dining has transformed New York City’s streetscape for the better and has been a critical lifeline for thousands of small businesses and jobs throughout the five boroughs during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Rigie added, “[This] announcement to make outdoor dining permanent, to allow the use of heat lamps to keep customers warm outside during the cooler months, and to allow restaurants to utilize adjacent space where feasible so they can accommodate more guests and generate much-needed revenue is a major step to rebuilding a stronger, more resilient and livable city.”

Boosting restaurant revenues also means more income for the city via taxes, not to mention more dining options for locals. But not everyone welcomed these trends. Converting parking spots to outdoor dining has been opposed by some New York residents. On the other hand, making it more difficult to park in congested cities is a welcome change for people who feel more encouraged to walk or bike within their neighborhoods.

Access on city streets for automobiles has been further limited in cities from Washington, D.C. to Seattle. On that point, New York City has maintained its Open Street program, which gives priority to pedestrians and bikers on certain roads. In other areas, curb extensions limit parking and car access, freeing up more open space.

Other long-term affects COVID-19 had on communities

The expansion of life outdoors is more than about restaurants and cafes.

In addition, many schools, camps, and daycare facilities moved their programs partially or fully outdoors. Some schools in Maine obtained grants to build durable gazebo-style outdoor classrooms that could last for decades. Many students and parents have been supportive of the move towards the outdoors for reasons aside from COVID-19.

Numerous studies show that students learn better outdoors, so this approach could be beneficial for student achievement. It is especially important for children with ADHD to spend time in nature to boost their ability to concentrate and reduce stress.

The benefits on adults are undeniable as well. For example, Vitamin D is critical for a healthy immune system and we can get a daily dose from exposing our skin to sunlight.

The pandemic has also caused gardening to rapidly gain popularity, as many stores sold out of such supplies. The demand for seeds skyrocketed, with Johny’s Selected Seeds noticing a 270 percent increase in their typical spring sales in 2020.

Beyond dining: Will these changes in our towns and cities last?

Not everyone could afford to eat outdoors at restaurants or have such food delivered. Local food shortages and other factors driving food insecurity encouraged citizens to become more self-reliant. Disruptions in the food supply chain left some empty grocery store shelves and long lines at food pantries. For families without access to ample garden space, community garden plots has enabled many to nurture their green thumbs.

Some pandemic trends will leave a positive environmental impact. For example, ridership on public transportation plummeted in early 2020 in many cities and has since only rebounded in some metropolitan areas. Reduced demand and the decrease in revenues that such systems generate could result in long-term reductions in service, further hindering ridership. Increased demand for new and used cars also raises concerns about the long-term viability of public transport networks across the U.S.

The unprecedented changes resulting from the pandemic created opportunities for urban planners to change how things to build more resilient cities for the long term. While an increase in outdoor dining and education, bike lanes and gardening show promise for more sustainable cities, such open street programs were not necessarily equitable. But as many citizens seek a return to the pre-pandemic days, local leaders from San Jose to Miami now feel pressure to re-open certain streets to cars once again.


Co-written with Leon Kaye

Image credit: Albert Hu via Unsplash

Sarah Lozanova headshot

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.

Read more stories by Sarah Lozanova