Black History Month:
The Slow Streets Movement Needs More Black Voices
As American cities shut down to slow the spread of COVID, car traffic across the country dropped by an average of 70% at one point. All those quiet roads opened the door for municipalities to tap into the Safe Streets (or Slow Streets) ethos and rethink how their many miles of pavement could be redesigned for additional or new uses.
Some jurisdictions closed a number of streets entirely to vehicular traffic, allowing pedestrians to take over and restaurants to spill outside. Some also added new bike lanes, helping in part to spur the 121% boom in adult bike sales during the pandemic. Many cities are thinking about making these modifications permanent.
While these efforts are well-intentioned, they fail to address one basic question: Safe for whom? So far, many Safe Streets initiatives are unfolding in well-capitalized and majority-white areas that feature restaurants, shops, parks, and other cultural and leisure activities. Too often, communities of color have not been part of the equation. Architects and designers have an opportunity to change that dynamic by understanding the flow of resources, enabling more inclusive engagement and participation, and capturing measurements for success.
As we’ve seen in the age of COVID, different populations have different health, safety, and wellness concerns and outcomes. In many of our biggest cities, COVID is affecting people of color at a far greater rate — five to seven times greater in some instances — than the white population.
Even more disturbing, the difference in health and safety needs between communities has been further underscored by the killings of George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, and numerous other Blacks who were simply going about their daily business within an urban context.
Even before the pandemic and recent civil unrest, it was clear that communities of color were struggling with urban health, safety, and wellness issues. For example, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx pedestrians are struck and killed by vehicles at a significantly higher rate than the rest of the population. A major reason for these alarming death rates is the lack of investment in public infrastructure in low-income areas, where a disproportionately high number of minorities reside. In fact, some people of color in low-income communities have grown tired of waiting for the city to act. These concerned citizens have resorted to DIY street improvements, such as painting crosswalks in areas that have seen pedestrian fatalities.
Thus, it is clear that we cannot talk about Safe Streets without also talking about race. For many people of color, safety means being outside without having to deal with the environmental issues that lead to poor health outcomes and make us more susceptible to the effects of diseases like COVID. It also means simply being able to navigate streets without having to worry about the threat of violence or death.
To address these issues, an industry that is notorious for its lack of diversity — just two percent of licensed architects are black — will have to better engage with communities of color.