2021 Practice Plenary – Practice, Public Space, and the Crisis of COVID-19: Learning from NYC’s Open Restaurants and Open Streets Programs

Poster with small images from New York City in circles, and blue text advertising the Practice Plenary event.

Event Description

Beginning in late 2019 communities throughout the world began to enter lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our understanding of the virus was changing daily, and professional expertise was sought to guide countless day-to-day decisions big and small. Professions with expertise in public health, epidemiology, medicine, and other scientific domains had a clear and vital role to play. The contribution of the architecture, landscape, and spatial design professions, however, was perhaps less obvious.

In the early months of the pandemic designers used their fabrication capacity to manufacturer small batches of PPE and were consulted for numerous op-eds, white papers, and design proposals concerning, for example, how to make workplaces safe for occupancy. By the summer of 2020 it was becoming increasingly apparent that with the adoption of remote-working and without an effective vaccine, most offices would remain closed and empty for many, many months to come. However, as the northern hemisphere entered its first pandemic summer, many communities began to experiment with moving indoor activities outdoors, where the risk of virus transmission was dramatically lower. This significant relocation of life from indoors to outdoors demanded new types of spaces and structures – a shift which (at least in theory) overlapped with the expertise of the architecture, landscape architecture, and other spatial design professions.

In New York City, the “Open Restaurants” and “Open Streets” programs were launched. The former allowed dining establishments to repurpose sidewalks and on-street parking for their businesses, while the latter allowed residents to repurpose entire streets for recreational use. Intended to be temporary and in many respects developed in real time, these two programs represented a radical rethinking of public space. And while the initial Open Restaurant and Open Street projects were largely informal and lightweight, over time — and as local temperatures began to plummet — the Open Restaurant structures/parklets/coronashacks/steeteries/streateries/whateveryoucallthem became increasingly robust, formal, and building-like. As of November 2021, there are more than12,000 Open Restaurants and 360 Open Streets registered with the city. And so effective and popular have these programs become that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio initiated the process of making them permanent, despite a host of unresolved questions ranging from regulatory and operational concerns to broader issues of equity and access to public space.

So how did the architectural profession participate in this unprecedented wave of building across New York City (and beyond)? Open Restaurants and Open Streets – representing essentially thousands of new buildings and parks — have transformed the streetscape of the city. They have also demonstrated the ways in which the architecture and landscape architecture professions — and the myriad rules, regulations, and city agencies that up until now have governed building and public space in one of the world’s global capitals — have and have not been able to meaningfully participate in the response to the global crisis of COVID-19.

Now that many communities are beginning to move into the next stages of reopening — and now that it is becoming increasingly likely that Open Streets, Open Restaurants, and many similar programs around the United States and the world may become permanent in one form or another – the GSD Practice Forum is bringing together students, practitioners, and policy makers to assess how the design professions showed up in the response to COVID-19. Using NYC’s Open Restaurants/Streets Programs as our case study, we will seek to understand how spatial design professionals found ways to meaningfully engage in their communities’ response to the COVID-19 crisis, sometimes operating in traditional, official capacities while at other times operating outside the bounds of professional practice. Ultimately, our collective aim is to uncover lessons that can guide how the discipline, profession, and practice of architecture must evolve to address the current and future crises our world will face.

Hosted by the GSD Practice Forum.


Michael K. Chen, Co-Founder and Board President, Design Advocates.

Mike Lydon, Co-Founder, Street Plans

Andrea Chiney, Arianna Deane, Ashely Kuo, Founders A+A+A

Erik Botsford, Deputy Director, NYC Department of City Planning

Gia Biagi, Commissioner, Chicago Department of Transportation

Dan Doctoroff, Chairman and CEO, Sidewalk Labs

Participating Courses

Elements of the Urban Stack (taught by Elizabeth Christoforetti)

Frameworks of Practice (taught by Jacob Reidel)

Foundations of Practice (taught by Jeffry Burchard, Gregg Garmisa, Timothy R. Twomey)

Practices of Landscape Architecture (taught by Karen Janosky and Paola Sturla)


9:00-9:10 Introduction and Opening Remarks

9:10-9:25 Presentation from PRO-7445, Elements of Urban Stack

9:25-9:40 Michael K. Chen, Co-Founder and Board President, Design Advocates

9:40-9:55 Mike Lydon, Co-Founder, Street Plans

9:55-10:10 Presentation from PRO-7408, Frameworks of Practice

10:10-10:25 Andrea Chiney, Arianna Deane, Ashely Kuo, Founders A+A+A


10:30-10:45 Erik Botsford, Deputy Director, NYC Department of City Planning

10:45-11:00 Gia Biagi, Commissioner, Chicago Department of Transportation

11:00-11:15 Dan Doctoroff, Chairman and CEO, Sidewalk Labs


11:20-11:40 Roundtable & Response

Speaker Bios

Michael K. Chen, Co-Founder and Board President, Design Advocates

Michael Chen is principal of Michael K. Chen Architecture, based in New York City. MKCA’s growing body of work is recognized for a commitment to craft, collaboration, and civic engagement, and has been widely featured in national and international publications and exhibitions.

In March of 2020, Michael co-founded Design Advocates, a network of independent architecture and design firms collaborating on pro-bono projects, research, and advocacy serving communities of need. D/A’s work has concentrated on improving safety, physical distancing, and mechanical systems of indoor spaces; and the safety, availability, and design of outdoor spaces to ensure that all communities have equitable access to essential services and public space. Design Advocates has grown to encompass 250 firms and volunteers at work on over 100 projects and initiatives.

Mike Lydon, Co-Founder, Street Plans

Mike Lydon is co-founder of Street Plans, an urban planning, design, and research-advocacy firm based in Miami and New York City. Mike is an internationally recognized planner, writer, speaker, and advocate for livable cities. With Tony Garcia, Mike is the recipient of the 2017 Seaside Prize and co-author of Tactical Urbanism: Short-Term Action for Long-Term Change, which was honored by Planetizen as one of the top planning books of the past decade. The same website named Mike as one of the top 100 urbanists of all time in 2018. Most recently, Mike co-authored NACTO’s Streets for Pandemic Response and Recovery Guide and published the Streets for Voting Guide with the Center for Tech and Civic Life.  Mike lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and two sons. He encourages you to trade four wheels for two.

Andrea Chiney, Arianna Deane, Ashely Kuo, Founders A+A+A

A+A+A is a women-led studio and design consultancy. Their work explores creative solutions for the built environment with a focus on community driven design processes. With a passion for creative engagement with the public, their practice employs a grassroots approach to tackle spatial justice issues. As facilitators, the studio designs thought provoking and playful additions to the urban landscape.  Their multifaceted approach has been applied to engagements from New York City’s Chinatown and Queens, to South Florida. Past collaborators and clients have included the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Think!Chinatown, Center for Court Innovation, Youth Design Center, Urbane Development, and the Queens Museum.

Erik Botsford, Deputy Director, NYC Department of City Planning

Erik Botsford is the Deputy Director for Manhattan planning at the New York City Department of City Planning. He works together with a group of 20 urban planners and designers charged with planning for the growth, resiliency, and equity of the Borough of Manhattan. Erik has been with DCP for 18 years, where he has managed major initiatives such as the neighborhood rezoning plans for West Chelsea, East Harlem, and now SoHo/NoHo. He has long had a keen interest in the innovative use of public space, having served as City Planning’s representative in the design and development of the High Line and as manager of the overhaul of the City’s regulations related to Privately-owned Public Spaces such as plazas, atriums, and arcades. Erik lives in Brooklyn with his husband, two children, and goldendoodle.

Gia Biagi, Commissioner, Chicago Department of Transportation

Gia Biagi is an urban planner and designer with experience in the private and public sectors who was appointed Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) by Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot in December 2019. The Mayor charged Biagi with implementing a vision for a transportation system that prioritizes equity and mobility and works to lower the economic and environmental burden of transportation on residents and communities.

As Commissioner of CDOT, she oversees the department responsible for Chicago’s roadways and bridges, sidewalks and bike lanes, traffic signals and signage, streetlights, the permitting of activities in the public right-of-way, the citywide bike share system, and policies focused on complete streets, climate adaptation, and new mobility. Her current work includes development of the City’s new Strategic Plan for Transportation and implementation of Mayor Lightfoot’s“ Chicago Works” capital improvement infrastructure program.

Before answering Mayor Lightfoot’s call to return to public service, Biagi was a Principal at Studio Gang Architects. At Studio Gang,her work centered on how to move toward equity, mutuality, and positive change in cities by working with a range of partners including community-based organizations, cultural institutions, developers, government, and other public and private groups and individuals.

Prior to joining Studio Gang, Biagi spent more than a decade in public service at the Chicago Park District in roles that included Director of Planning and Development and Chief of Staff.

Dan Doctoroff, Chairman and CEO, Sidewalk Labs

Dan Doctoroff is the Chairman and CEO of Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation company that seeks to radically improve quality of life in cities for all. Prior to founding Sidewalk Labs, Dan was President and Chief Executive Officer of Bloomberg L.P., the leading provider of news and information to the global financial community, until December 2014. Dan also served as Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding for New York City, leading the city’s economic resurgence and the reversal of its fiscal crisis after 9/11 through a five-borough economic development strategy. He also oversaw the creation of PlanNYC, New York’s pathbreaking sustainability plan.

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