Crisis Creates Opportunity

Design thinker Nick Kapica talks about how the current Covid crisis creates an opportunity to quickly adapt our urban public spaces to support physical distancing, and suggests that we also try something much bigger.

The Covid-19 climate has raised an uncertain future for our communities and the public spaces we typically enjoy. Right now city councils across Aotearoa need to make physical changes in the streets in order for us to safely re-inhabit our cities. This gives us an amazing opportunity to explore what city spaces designed for people would look like. Wellington CBD provides an ideal laboratory to prototype such an idea.


Temporary, low cost design interventions, known tactical urbanism, can be put into place quickly as they require less planning consents and consultation. They allow design changes to be tested, and adapted in real time, rapidly exposing what works and what doesn’t. Tactical projects avoid the need for long planning, design and consenting processes that weigh-up often polarised attitudes towards change. Working tactically designers can bring the advocates, objectors and the decision makers together and test ideas.

It is widely agreed that cars take up way too much space in our city centres. Many cities already prohibit car access to their centres to improve air quality and allow public life to thrive on the street. Parisian authorities recently banned cars to areas with high pedestrian counts. Hamburg is creating a ‘Green Network’ by connecting the parks throughout the city by closing roads to cars and only allowing access to bike users and pedestrians. Copenhagen is internationally famous for its unique creation of lively pedestrian streets and is often referred to as a city for people. Each of these cities have developed specific ways of designing the city around people. They have created car free areas and pedestrian networks, bike routes, and integrated this with public transit and parking provision.


Milan is using the coronavirus lockdown to double down on this mode shift and make a leap forward, quickly and temporarily reallocating street space from cars to cycling and walking as the city opens back up. 35km of streets will be transformed to protect residents; the Strade Aperte plan includes low-cost temporary cycle lanes, new and widened pavements, 30kph speed limits, and pedestrian and cyclist priority streets. As Covid-19 restrictions are lifted Milan has the chance to set a precedent for other cities arund the world.

In a matter of weeks Covid-19 has removed cars, and people, from the Aotearoa’s cities. When the people come back it is the time to test some new ideas. Let’s Get Wellington Moving already has plans to slow traffic in the centre, reduce car parking, and make more space for pedestrians and cyclists. Wellington could, like Milan, use this crisis as an opportunity to put these objectives into action quickly. If we prioritise Wellington’s streets for people, where would the connecting routes north south flow? Where do pedestrians have priority? Where do the bikes have priority? What is shared?

Tactical urbanism strategically activates streetscapes and public realm and meaningfully engages the hearts and minds of the community. We can now apply tactical urbanism to helping people feel safe and comfortable in returning to places they love. We can also use it more purposefully by helping people discover new ways of getting to places, and perhaps discovering new places entirely.

Let’s design the future Wellington — and build it now using techniques and methods from tactical urbanism. We can quickly test ideas and through public engagement seek the new problems that need solving. Through a ‘tactical’ master plan we can provide opportunity for already active grassroots groups to become involved.

Groups such as Millions of Mothers, Living Streets, Cycle Wellington, Talk Wellington, and Connect Wellington all have great ideas about what a better city looks like but they are spending most of their effort trying to establish space in the first place. We now have the space, the cars are gone, we just need to design a new way of reinhabiting the city. People enjoy places that are a joy to move and linger in.

If the cars are staying outside the city we place to part them, bike and scooter locations, and public transport that is easy (and cheap) so you can’t resist using it. Let’s Get Wellington Moving includes the development of a mass rapid transport system (MRT) from the airport to the train station. This is a long studied, technically complex, high cost public project for Wellington. But while MRT provides an exciting city-shaping opportunity and will catalyse urban regeneration along the route, it is still many years away.

Tactical Transportation using existing buses on dedicated routes would test ideas for an MRT system. Using a combination of tactical urbanism and tactical transportation we can use this opportunity to radically rethink Wellington while enabling the city to recover and find its new normal.