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New York City's open streets policy could be permanent fixture, experts say

The city aims to open 100 miles of city streets during the pandemic.

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently said the city is aiming to open up 100 of the 6,000 miles of city streets for pedestrians. The idea is to create more space for people to walk around while maintaining social distancing, which proved to be a challenge on tight sidewalks.

Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, said the virus has "mobilized support for converting streets ... into an extension of the sidewalk for pedestrians or other activities."

"I think that where these streets are converted, if they're being well-used, they'll stick," Moss said.

New York City, he said, could become a semblance of Paris, "with much more outside dining and drinking."

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The city's Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg similarly said during a budget hearing Tuesday that the agency was "re-thinking our streets" with a focusing on biking and walking. She later said the agency was "absolutely" thinking about turning over parts of the streets and sidewalks for restaurant space, according to the New York Daily News.

Sylvia Morse, an urban planner in New York City, noted that if restaurants were to expand to the streets the city's public drinking laws would have to evolve. How that evolvement happens, and who is allowed to access the result, should be a focus, she said.

"This has always been concerning for me around the private enterprises that we see like cafes in public parks," she said, noting that "if you're able to buy an $8 glass of wine, you can have a drink in the park and enjoy," but for others who can't it would be considered illegal drinking just outside those parameters and could then become a matter of who is policed.

Morse emphasized that these are not new questions, but there is more urgency to address them as special provisions are made.

Moss said the most effective way to utilize open streets would be to expand the space around already-existing public parks.

The streets opened so far are both within and adjacent to parks. Throughout the five boroughs, 4.5 miles of street have opened inside six parks, according to de Blasio. Another 2.7 miles of street opened adjacent to seven public spaces.

De Blasio had previously pushed back on opening streets up, saying that New York City could not follow other U.S. cities, such as Oakland, California, because it is "profoundly different."

However, public spaces carved from necessity is nothing new. Central Park, an 843-acre park in Upper Manhattan is the city's most famous, and Prospect Park, a 526-acre park in central Brooklyn, were created after ferry service linked Brooklyn -- once one of the six villages on the western end of Long Island -- to its neighbor, New York City. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions sparked America's first attempt at urban planning, resulting in both parks.

Julio Salcedo-Fernandez, director of the City College of New York's graduate urban design program, told ABC News opening the streets could be the first of many steps in bringing the notion of a city back to the idea that it is ever-changing rather than a fixed space.

"You see the large infrastructures and you see the solid buildings, so a lot of times people think of cities as places of fixity, places that are set," Salcedo-Fernandez said. "But in fact, it's interesting to think of cities as locales that are influx, that are moving, that are always changing."

One way to make better use of the streets is to rethink transportation, he said. In some international models, cities have a tram moving through a public square while pedestrians are also allowed in the same streets.

Though unlikely in New York City's foreseeable future, it is that kind of thinking that should be encouraged in any city, Salcedo-Fernandez said.

"There are a lot of ways to reconfigure the street scape and to make it a lot more innovate and multi-tasking," Salcedo-Fernandez said. "I think that the answer is keep pushing ahead and keep pushing ahead with new ideas."

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