The Luxury and Challenge of Public Spaces

Story and Photos by Josh Miller

Since childhood, I’ve loved being outside. I ejoyed climbing bluffs, playing basketball, frisbee in the park and rollerblading on the walking bridge in Chattanooga, TN. It wasn’t until the past eight to 10 years that running became my obsession. It wasn’t just the act of running, it was the exploration of new places, the view through a camera lens and a fence of a city slowly starting to wake up. I noticed the occasional nod and smile as I passed someone while the sun rose, honoring the briefly shared space we inhabited.

Josh Miller.

I run early. A 5 a.m. cup of coffee and out the door is how I like to start my day. I feel safer when the world is half asleep. It’s when my mind is clearest. I can strategize and connect disparate ideas. I can write — I outlined this piece while running. This, I have come to realize, is even more of a luxury than I knew. I’ve never felt like my life was at risk. Yes, vehicles turn without looking and I’ve had to hit a car-hood or two. As I got leaner and grew out my hair, I started getting more and more catcalls, and in the summer, weird looks because some people have a hard time understanding “what” I am. A man, a woman, trans? For the record, I’m a gay man who is slightly curvy and wears short shorts. Yet, none of this compares to other experiences, like shifts due to COVID-19, those faced by women and communities of color when we talk about being in public spaces.

In March as COVID-19 started to impact our lives in more drastic ways, I started putting in a lot more running miles, afraid that one day Governor Andy Beshear would say, “You can’t be doing that” when it came to being outside. And while that didn’t happen, over the weeks, attitudes have changed and the number of people outside has drastically jumped.

With warmer weather brought more people out on the Big Four Bridge in the afternoons and on the trails of Jefferson Memorial Forest. It brought confusion surrounding how to navigate physical distancing while passing each other. How to share space with bikes, strollers, wheelchairs, dogs and kids.

Biking on the Big Four Bridge one afternoon, I encountered people walking together, but on separate sides of the bridge for physical distancing, who got visibly angry when I rang my bell and announced that I needed to pass. I’ve had to dodge children and families of five to six people taking up 2/3rds of a path. And, the smaller motions, such as a smile, a nod or a wave, have for many been replaced with glares, a quickened pace or refusal to make eye contact.

As I thought about the many benefits of being outside, I harkened back to the words of Florence Williams who I met in Aspen, Colorado in 2017 at the Aspen Ideas Health Festival.

“We need quick incursions to natural areas that engage our senses. Everyone needs access to clean, quiet and safe natural refuges in a city,” she writes in her book The Nature Fix. “Short exposures to nature can make us less aggressive, more creative, more civic minded and healthier overall.” Williams researched the effect of time spent in nature all across the world.

Being outdoors — whether it’s in a forest, a park or just taking a stroll downtown — can provide benefits.

The question becomes, how do we evolve mental models and shift attitudes so that everyone feels safe and welcome to go out and engage with each other outside? This is a question of safety, public health and overall community wellbeing. If a gym is closed, and you don’t feel safe going to a park or walking down the sidewalk, how will you practice healthy physical activity that we know can impact not only our bodies, but our emotional, social and mental health?

“When I think about going in public spaces, I enter with a bit of caution,” said Louisville Ballet dancer Brandon Ragland. “Right now, especially, I feel like tensions are so high and people (myself included) are tired of being stuck at home, so I try to get fresh air whenever possible. With that being said, as a Black man, it is hard to feel like I have the freedom to enter public spaces without fear of other people perceiving me as a threat. For the most part, I tend to stay in my neighborhood, which has a variety of people of different racial backgrounds. Thankfully, I have not felt unsafe walking or running outside during the day. I generally try to keep all my outside activities to during the day.”

Yet, even in broad daylight — as we saw recently with the shooting of Black runner Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, who was chased down by two White men — does not guarantee safety. When I heard about Arbery’s murder, something hurt deep in my stomach for him, for his family. I thought about what it would do to me as a person to know that I was held prisoner in my home because of my skin color, when all I wanted to do was go outside. I cannot comprehend what it is like. I’m White, my skin is so fair I almost glow. I do know that my weight and physical strength, my mental and emotional health and the unhealthy coping mechanisms I seek to avoid, would all be impacted and exacerbated.

Add the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19 on top of the existing racism and other phobias in our country — homophobia, sexism, etc. — and it’s the perfect storm. “As for what I’ve noticed when I’m out and about, people have gone far beyond ‘cautious’ and ‘basic safety.’ They have gone straight up crazy!” said runner Melissa Joyce, who I met as a 2016 Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon Ambassador. “There’s rudeness, yelling and even violence when people think you’re ‘invading’ their space. The public at large has started operating from a stance of fear, and logic and common sense has died. Maybe that’s not everywhere, but it’s what I notice in my circle of life.”

I’ve seen what Joyce describes, and also people demonstrating the positive ways we can engage in public spaces. It gives me hope knowing that together we can change this. It’s our role as community members who value each other’s health and wellbeing to shape the public spaces we use every day.

“I try to make eye contact and nod my head,” said Yvonne Austin about being out in public. “When maneuvering outside, I always take the lead to maintain distance.”

Artist and Quappi Project owner John Brooks, who often takes his poodle Ludwig out for walks, said, “There has been a noticeable difference in the number of people in the park [Cherokee] since they closed the loop to automobile traffic. I have mixed feelings about this because of accessibility to public spaces, but at the same time, it’s a much more pleasant place to be. It even feels bucolic at times and, of course, there is much more space to practice social distancing. The traffic flow of pedestrians and bicycles typically is to the right, and while it is somewhat random because people go in both directions, everyone seems to find the rhythm. No one is bumping into each other. Most everyone seems to be respecting the practice of social distancing.”

Athlete Melissa Christensen recommended, “Walk single file when you are with your household and encounter someone else on a path or trail to increase room. Definitely call out passes [when you need to go around someone] and do it with plenty of notice to allow the person to react. There are a lot of people who aren’t used to using trails and walkways using them right now that might not be familiar with trail etiquette. Definitely wave or nod since it’s hard to see smiles if you have on a mask.”

All good recommendations and things to consider. If we take the Big Four Bridge as an example, could we collectively consider the flow of traffic like a multi-lane road, staying on the right as we head across and leaving the middle for passing? Can we infuse these spaces with grace if someone’s bell surprises us, or we must slow down or move to make way for a child? And, can we go out of our way to ensure that spaces are welcoming for everyone? I don’t have all of the answers, but collectively, we can change that.

In Paris, they converted miles of roadway into multi-modal paths because of the number of people outside and an increase in biking as a primary mode of transportation. As we look ahead, I believe COVID-19 is going to fundamentally change what it means to share space in the long-term – on sidewalks, in parks, on roads. The question is, will you be part of that solution? Will you be an ally and trained accomplice to ensure that our public spaces support a different approach to health and wellbeing so that we can, in the words of Governor Beshear, “Get through this together”? I certainly hope so. V