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Urban Walkability Gains a Foothold in the U.S. - Resilience

By Andy Hirschfield


Jake Poznak, co-owner of Moonrise Izakaya, a Japanese restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, could have easily been a statistic of the COVID-19 pandemic.


According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 100,000 restaurateurs across the country had to close their businesses because of the pandemic. After the first wave, when restaurants began to reopen, the city helped restaurants build outdoor dining enclosures that take up spots on the street otherwise reserved for parked cars. Expanded outdoor dining in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic was a lifeline for Poznak, the business, and the vibrancy of the neighborhood.


“Without outdoor dining, we would be out of business,” Poznak says. “I was shocked that all winter, people were willing to get on the sidewalk. I have one of these street enclosures.”

Outdoor dining provided a lifeline for restaurants like Poznak’s. But consumers have come to want the sidewalk build-outs to become a permanent part of New York City’s urban landscape, rather than turning them back into street-side parking.


That appreciation is something Poznak has seen firsthand, and he says that keeping outdoor seating has a long-term value.


“I intend to completely apply or to keep a tree enclosure permanently,” he says.


Poznak’s experience is indicative of how prioritizing improved walkability and pedestrian access to businesses over traffic and parking has helped many struggling businesses stay afloat. In part, that’s why cities around the country are starting to embrace an urban planning concept called the “15-Minute City.”


The 15-Minute City concept emboldens dense walkability, stating that all people should have access to all the goods and services they would need within 15 minutes of their home. The specifics of the meaning are subject to debate, such as whether that be 15 minutes by bike or on foot. Regardless, the emphasis is on multi-modal transportation options that are more built for the person than the car.


The Roots of New Urbanism


The concept of pedestrian-centered planning has been centric to the New Urbanism movement for decades. New Urbanism advocates for more walkable cities with responsible mixed-use development—a design concept in which developers build housing, shopping, essential services, and work opportunities within close proximity, sometimes on the same properties. These developments also typically are built around walkable streets that prioritize pedestrians over cars, but also provide easy access to public transportation.


New York is well on its way to meeting 15-Minute City standards, particularly as it comes to outdoor dining. The City Council passed a measure in the fall to make outdoor dining permanent.


The city also adopted an Open Streets concept during the pandemic, allowing streets to be closed to car traffic, giving bikers and pedestrians enough space to travel while maintaining social distance. On April 29, the City Council voted to make the Open Streets program permanent, too.


The move exemplifies the shifting sentiment away from cars that has had a hold on every American city since the mid-20th century.


New York is the standout example for a more pandemic-induced move in this direction in the United States—following in the footsteps of Paris, where the idea of the 15-Minute City first caught on.


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