Proposal to close some streets during the Covid19 pandemic to increase open space for residents

Update from Councillor Patricia Nolan: 

On March 30, the Cambridge City Council had two policy orders about closing some streets – one about Memorial Drive and one about selecting streets across the city – during the Covid19 emergency.  I was happy to work with colleagues Mayor Siddiqui, Vice Mayor Mallon and Councillors Carlone, Sobrinho-Wheeler and Zondervan on these proposals.  One councilor evoked the Charter Right, which ended debate in the meeting and pushed back the vote to next week’s meeting, April 6. Questions have been raised about this proposal, which I address below. Please take a look, and share further questions and thoughts.

First, WHY close streets in a pandemic?
To provide a safe way for people to be outside WITH ENOUGH SPACE FOR DISTANCING.  We are lucky that we are a city with resources and are taking real and meaningful action to help people during these challenging times. As we come to understand that social distancing orders will be in effect for the foreseeable future, it is important that we think about creative ways to keep people active while adhering to the social distancing guidelines that experts recommend, which we know are essential for all of our public health.  Physical distancing is critically important. AND exercise, along with access to sunlight and fresh air, are vital components of public health, especially for the youth in this city. With schools, afterschool programs, playgrounds, and basketball courts closed, the places where students and residents of all ages normally get the chance to move and be active will not be available to them for some time.

We are lucky in Cambridge to have a number of parks and lots of open space, but there are issues, leading to the proposal to close some streets across the city: 

  • Playgrounds, basketball courts and most recently Mount Auburn Cemetery are closed, which makes the other open spaces more precious, restricted, and crowded. 
  • The parks with the most contiguous space – Fresh Pond, Danehy Park, Riverbend Park, and the Minuteman Bikepath become extremely crowded when the sun is out, with narrow paths that do not allow for 6+ feet of separation in passing. 
  • Many residents are not in walking distance to the larger parks -we need to ensure that residents in those areas have adequate space to be outside while maintaining 6+ feet of separation from others
  • Perhaps most importantly, open space is not evenly distributed throughout the city – places like Riverside, Cambridgeport and Mid Cambridge have fewer parks and narrower sidewalks.  East Cambridge has a number of open spaces, but in much of the neighborhood narrow sidewalks and rarely do residents have a backyard.  Our values of equity and fairness means we should ensure people from all corners of the city have safe access to the outdoors, and the most space we have at our disposal right now are many of our streets! 

These Policy orders asking the DCR to close Memorial Drive and the city to work with neighborhood groups to close streets in neighborhoods across the city would decrease the demand for the few open spaces now by opening up more space around the city. In tandem, these orders would create enough space for people to feel safe and secure going outside and getting exercise. 

Wait – didn’t you ask the governor to issue a shelter in place? And now you are advocating people to head outside? I’m confused, or you are. 
I did advocate early on for a statewide effort to close down non-essential businesses and to limit gatherings and to minimize contact with others.  That is exactly why I support these ideas.  A shelter in place is not a lockdown.  It allows outdoor activity – and public health guidelines encourage people to be outside AS LONG AS THERE IS PHYSICAL DISTANCE.  Allowing people to be in the streets while walking or running around in circles (for families with young children) is exactly how we balance the need to be outside with the need to be physically distant. 

Wouldn’t closing down streets create magnets for people and make it impossible to be separate?
IN a word: NO.  I love going to Mem Drive on Sundays – we often went with our kids when they were younger.  Unless there was a major event (Riversing, Head of the Charles, etc) there was ALWAYS room for people on Mem Drive to stay a safe distance.  Besides, Fresh Pond and the Charles River would not act as magnets if people had more open space in their own neighborhoods to walk.  And, if the streets that are closed get too crowded – that is a sign to close MORE streets, not fewer. Fresh Pond and the path along the river are already too crowded – additional street closures will help mitigate what is currently a dangerous situation. 

What about residents who need to go to work? Pick up prescriptions? Delivery trucks? Emergency vehicles?
With so many fewer cars on the road, now is the best time to use some of our roads and open them up to pedestrians. Residents and emergency vehicles would still have access (at a greatly reduced speed), but there are streets in every neighborhood that are not essential for non-residents to access for the duration of this pandemic.  Our Parking and Transportation Department can look at what streets would make sense to close to traffic and work in tandem with neighborhood groups across the city to make the decision on which streets make sense to close temporarily. 

Summary: Let’s be a leader – along with other forward thinking progressive urban cities – and provide ways for our residents to be safe, physically distant and sane.  People are feeling the strain of social distancing and are turning to walking, running, biking, and simply being outside as an outlet. So far we’ve seen overwhelming support for this idea – let’s do this!

If have thoughts or comments, please send email to me at pnolan@cambridgema.gov
and Michael Scarlett, my legislative aide, at mscarlett@cambridgema.gov.