We upgraded our wheels and purchased a double stroller to enjoy more outdoor time with our two small boys. If you have been reading this column for very long, you know we like to walk, and now we’ve been out even more. Since the pandemic hit, the car traffic around our home has been quieter than ever before. But the streets themselves are alive with people. Every day now, I see them buzzing with neighbors on bicycles, families out together with kids on scooters and friends chatting away as they weave through the streets, moving side to side, seeking shade from old sycamores, elms and pines.
I feel the weight of raising children in turbulent times. I feel the weight of running a business with my husband from home during an economic downturn. I especially feel the weight of vulnerable lives at risk during a pandemic. And I am noticing how the health crisis has magnified injustices that existed prior. Amid so much heartache and anxiety, it feels crucial to recognize the good. I have written about some of these silver linings already: enhanced creativity in art, a chance to reevaluate goals and priorities, nature as a salve and a renewed focus on remote working.
As Californians are encouraged to stay at home throughout this summer, I’ve seen more focus on our personal spaces, on simple pleasures and rituals. While it’s not all roses (the thorns include limitations on child care, isolation from friends and family, canceled trips and rowdy children under tow), those of us lucky enough to work from home are taking advantage of increased family time. People are spilling out into the streets like never before. Neighborhood avenues suddenly feel like tangible extensions of our living rooms. All of this reminds me of growing up on a cul-de-sac in the ‘90s, roaming between neighbors’ backyards, extra time spent at those with a pool. And now, in 2020, all of this is bringing people together with what are being called “slow streets” in some parts of the state, including Alameda, Berkeley, Glendale, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento and San Diego. The idea behind this movement is to limit traffic within neighborhoods to promote socially distanced outdoor activity for more residents.
On April 11, as the first California city to create a slow streets program for recreation, Oakland has been rolling out street closures to nonessential/non-local traffic on 74 miles (nearly 10 percent) of Oakland’s streets. As Curbed.com reported last month, the idea is to reclaim part of the city’s public space to allow Oaklanders, who have been stuck inside for months, to walk, run, rollerskate, bike, or do whatever movement boosts their mood and keeps them healthy with more adequate distance than sidewalks afford.
You could probably guess that I love this idea. Slow streets could lead to longer-term changes in often car-centric cities like our own. And I’d argue that if residents are able to experience a safer, more walkable, more bikeable city now, they would be more likely to advocate for it later. Yes, it may delay commutes by a couple minutes, but this would improve the quality of life for everyone.
I especially love this sentiment from Courtney E. Martin in Curbed about fighting for amenities like slow streets in an equitable way throughout Oakland: “Our long-term expectations, one hopes, won’t just be transformed in terms of what we each want for our blocks and our families, but all blocks and all families in our cities. It would be a tragedy, on top of so many tragedies we’re experiencing right now, if a ‘slow street’ became one more accoutrement that white and elite families knew how to acquire to heighten their property values in Oakland. We can’t let this happen.”
I would love to see neighbors rally behind the slow streets model here as well.
Since March, when we began this period of sheltering in place, it quickly became obvious to me that a lot of us had been spending so much of our time running around, “busy” in one way or another. I admit there have been many moments when I felt compelled to stay just as occupied during the pandemic. I have loved following super-DIYers complete home renovation projects at warp speed. And I was taunted by reminders on social media that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine. One post declared, “If you don’t come out of quarantine with a new skill, you didn’t ever lack time… you lacked discipline.” But at least for me, instead of frenzy, I seek stillness. I am delighted by the removal of distractions and an ability to gain introspection about our business and our family’s future.
Like a lot of people I talk to, I want to emerge from the pandemic more intentional about how I spend my time. I want to remain focused on the simple joys, including family walks in my own neighborhood, on streets that prioritize people not cars. A movement toward slower streets would help us all find a little more space and time for those we love. Really, isn’t that what it’s all about?