In Durham, Shared Streets to Outlast the Pandemic

The collaboratively designed spaces will calm traffic and provide a place to play.

(Photo courtesy Aidil Ortiz)

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Reverend Rachel Green has lived on Alma Street in Durham, North Carolina, for 44 years. She is the pastor at Sanctuary of Christ Holy Church in Durham. Over the years, Green, 78, has witnessed a swell of new traffic in her once quiet neighborhood. She says cars, ATV’s and motorcycles careen by on the narrow, sidewalk-less streets, effectively forcing her and other seniors off the road.

“It’s important for us to be able to maneuver without being run off the street,” she says, adding that there are a lot of seniors who are unable to take strolls around their neighborhood because of the traffic.

Green and other community members have attempted for years to get the city of Durham to install speed bumps on Alma Street as well as Benjamine, Maple, Spruce and Taylor. Community members even submitted signatures in an attempt to get speed bumps installed. But their requests were denied because of the city’s strict requirements for speed bumps as well as emergency route designations. Alma Street was denied because speeds on the street were deemed too low after a study — they were clocked at 30 mph, below the 35.1 mph required for a speedbump. Benjamine was deemed an emergency route for the fire department. The fire department also opposed speed bumps on Spruce and Taylor for similar reasons. And Maple Street was denied due to mixed zoning.

Now the community is trying a new approach. The city of Durham, partnering with a Durham-based non-profit called SpiritHouse, has received grant money to turn Alma Street and the aforementioned four other streets into collaboratively designed, pedestrian-friendly shared streets. The grant money is part of a program called Streets for Pandemic Response and Recovery administered by the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

The $25,000 grants are intended to “adapt public space to provide health services information to residents, create space for safe mobility, and bolster local economies.” In the case of Alma Street and its neighboring streets in East Durham, the money will fund street calming measures including new traffic circles, crosswalks and curb extensions that residents are hoping will make their streets easier to navigate. The visual design will be overseen by Candy Carver, a Durham artist, and painted by volunteers from the community.

“We know that the pandemic has really hit people hard in terms of their opportunities to be outside and feel safe,” says Aidil Ortiz, a program manager at SpiritHouse, a Black woman-led social justice organization in Durham. Ortiz says that the organization had already been engaging with the community about bike and pedestrian safety before applying for the grant.

But Ortiz, who sits on the local bicycle and pedestrian commission, also hopes that the shared streets project will culminate in a better relationship between the city’s planning mechanisms and the community.

“I just felt very dissatisfied with the way engagement was happening,” Ortiz says. She says the speed bump policy is emblematic of how the city’s government fails to engage residents in the East Durham neighborhood.

“The Department of Transportation doesn’t communicate, so a lot of traffic ends up on smaller local roads,” she says. People often try to use the narrow, sidewalk-less roads around Alma Street in East Durham as a short-cut, she says. And the city’s designation of Alma Street as an emergency route has prohibited the residents from changing this.

The situation that has stretched on for a long time — Ortiz says one resident has been advocating for a speed bump for 40 years. He is now welcoming the traffic calming measures as an alternative.

“He’s willing to entertain shared streets because they are desperate,” Ortiz says.

SpiritHouse has been engaging the community about the shared streets project since July, when they did three sets of in-person engagements – socially distanced and masked-up – on the streets that would be impacted by the changes. The engagements, which will number 10 in total, wrap up at the end of October, when a pilot project for the five streets is built out.

The project is being creative directed by Durham-based artist Candy Carver. Carver says her design will make it easy for volunteers to paint components of the traffic calming designs without requiring a high level of art skill.

Carver, who participated in some of the community-engagements with SpiritHouse, says residents weren’t too worried about aesthetics and were more focused on the issue of safety. (Although Reverend Green said she is excited that the design will include planters for flowers at each end of the street.) Carver says the community engagement process was crucial.

“Listening to the residents makes a big difference,” she says. “To actually be with those people and talk through what their issues were was definitely enlightening.”

Community engagement (Photo courtesy Aidil Ortiz)

While the grant does not cover additional engagement after the project is built, Ortiz says that SpiritHouse will remain in touch with the community to get feedback.

“Did the idea make a difference, do people like them, do they want them to go away?,” Ortiz says of the follow-up information they will be looking for. Ortiz says SpiritHouse will share what they learn with Durham’s DOT, which will decide what pieces of the shared streets project will remain permanent and what resources that will require.

“We need to be clear this is a courtesy these residents are allowing until we can figure out if it works,” Ortiz says.

She says the hope is that the success of the shared streets project will serve as a temporary traffic-calming measure until the city can find a more permanent solution, perhaps revisiting their speed bump policy.

Reverend Green says there is excitement around the project in her neighborhood of East Durham. “The people are very enthused about what’s going on. I had a couple come by my house last weekend to say when is the project gonna get started?” she says.

Ortiz hopes that the project will lead residents to advocate even more for policies that make them feel safer.

“Talking about traffic is the gateway drug to being an urban planner,” she jokes. “When people talk about speedbumps and stop-signs and potholes to me that’s them raising their hand saying that they’re interested in getting into some of this. And I am excited for the company.”

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Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.

Tags: covid-19pedestrian safetydurham

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