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Coronavirus Is Crowding Limited Outdoor Spaces, Says FIU Architecture Professor

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Cyclists ride on the Venetian Causeway bridge just before it reopens to car traffic after nine months of construction in 2016.

This post was updated Tuesday at 5:15 p.m. with new details about a Miami-Dade County meeting and town hall this week.

The coronavirus pandemic is limiting the amount of time that we spend outside our homes.

Parks and beaches remain closed, and that means if you want to get some fresh air, you essentially have to do it in your own neighborhood, which might not be set up for walking or riding a bike.

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Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced Tuesday that there will be a virtual meeting Wednesday to discuss  parks and open spaces as part of beginning to plan for life after coronavirus. He also said a virtual town hall will likely be held Friday.

WLRN’s Alexander Gonzalez talked with David Rifkind about trying to spend time outside. Rifkind is a professor in the architecture and urban design department at Florida International University and in the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab.

ALEXANDER GONZALEZ: David, as a professor, you've had to switch over to distance learning, and like many of us, you're now working mostly from home. Have you taken some time to go outside? And what sorts of things stand out to you?

DAVID RIFKIND: I go out three mornings a week to ride my bicycle in different neighborhoods. One of the things that I've noticed is that a lot of the really popular cycling and jogging areas have been pretty crowded. Places like the Venetian Causeway or the mixed-use path along Red Road in South Miami. Those have always been really popular with people who are walking, jogging and cycling. But now they're incredibly popular to the point of being so crowded that it's difficult to maintain a safe distance during the pandemic.

How are outdoor spaces integrated into the design of cities across South Florida? What are some problems that you notice when it comes to getting to a nearby park or even walking on sidewalks, for example?

The first problem is that we have a relatively small amount of park space per capita compared to other major cities in North America. And then the second problem is that our road network is really designed primarily to serve automobiles and motorists, and it's only secondarily there for pedestrians and cyclists. So as a result, many streets in South Florida don't even have sidewalks. Many of the ones that do have sidewalks have relatively narrow strips of concrete that are not terribly safe to walk on.

In what way has the pandemic made access to outdoor spaces better or worse?

What used to be open space that would allow people to go for a walk, to stretch their legs, to breathe and just clear their heads – a lot of that space isn't available to us anymore. So it is forcing more people to use the relatively limited network of safe pedestrian and cycling paths in South Florida. And as a result, some of these pathways have gotten even more crowded than they would be normally. 

What we're also seeing is that all local gyms are closed. What that means is that there's more people going out and riding their bikes just to try to stay active and to try to keep up something of their exercise regimen. So what we're seeing is even more congestion along the network of pathways that people have been using for exercise.

You look a lot at the way that things have been designed and from a historical perspective and also from today. Looking out into the future, there are likely to be more pandemics. What lessons could we learn from this current crisis that could be used to redraw what Miami will look like in the future?

One of the key lessons that we're going to learn going forward is the need to have a network of walkable streets that provide enough space for people to use those streets safely and to maintain social distancing. So, for example, we're going to need sidewalks that are more than 6 feet wide so that pedestrians can walk past each other at a safe distance. 

The other thing, too, that we're going to have to think about is how this pandemic is changing our relationship to where we work. If after the pandemic passes, we find that many of us want to continue working remotely, then we're going to need much less space for commuting. We won't need as much highway space. And we're also not going to need as many parking garages.

If that's the case, then that's all space that we could recover for use by pedestrians and by cyclists. Those hours that you save commuting are then hours that you could then spend going for a bike ride or going for a walk with your kids or with your parents.

It sounds utopic, but it's a kind of a sort of a beautiful vision that I think most people share.

The transcript of this interview has been edited lightly for brevity and clarity.