Reimagining Public Spaces for Life after the Pandemic
Reimagining Public Spaces for Life after the Pandemic

Reimagining Public Spaces for Life after the Pandemic

Our society is experiencing a watershed moment. The ways in which we use our public spaces have been drastically altered, with little to no warning. The pandemic has simultaneously elevated our anxieties about going outside but also increased our appreciation for access to public spaces. As a result, we have more people focused on the intricacies of cities and suburbs than ever before. Which means we have a real opportunity to reconfigure our shared spaces in a way that benefits our overall health and well-being.

For the first time in a century, cities all over the world are opening their streets up to priorities other than motorized transportation. Whether it’s to provide protected walking and biking corridors for essential workers or providing room for those who wish to safely use the public space right outside their doors, these cities are taking advantage of the reduced need for cars.

Over the last few months, we’ve fielded a number of questions about the best ways to accommodate the changing needs of our public spaces and expectations of our clients, some of the most common being:

  • What changes must be made in the short- and long-term for our public spaces to function safely, efficiently, and equitably?
  • How can we transform and adapt the road right of way in the public realm?
  • How can we respond to the need for people to connect and maintain community in public spaces while respecting the need to limit exposure?
  • How can we build flexibility into public spaces now so that we’re better prepared for the future?
  • How do we keep stakeholders engaged and motivated when we can’t meet in person?
  • How can we give all members of the community a voice in the design process, in spite of barriers to communication?

Difficult questions, but all essential to address if we are to transform our public spaces into something much greater.

What to do now

Adopt More Equitable Engagement Practices

Equitable engagement is essential to successful design, planning, and placemaking, which is why it’s crucial to find new ways to engage all members of the community in the age of social distancing. In fact, communication and connection are arguably more important than ever. We still have to build consensus and trust, especially if we want to deliver a product that’s accepted, supported, and ultimately, successful.

  • Adopt more robust virtual tools and communications practices, including a project website for sharing information and updates, live streaming workshops, collecting feedback through surveys, and engaging on social media.
  • Consider ways to engage those people who can’t access virtual tools, like a table at a farmer’s market or a chalkboard in a community center. Consider where people are gathering now and how you can reach them where they are.

Take Back the Sidewalks + Streets

In most American cities, street rights-of-way account for about 30 percent of land use in a downtown area, making them our most abundant public spaces. Before cars, streets were spaces full of life, leisure, and commerce with a multitude of means for getting ourselves around with priority given to pedestrians. But the overemphasis of motorized vehicles on streets has made them dangerous and divisive, particularly for already vulnerable parts of the population. We can’t afford to allow such a large piece of our cities to be dedicated to a single use or treated as an afterthought. Green spaces, pedestrian ways, and successful street life are essential ingredients of a vital and resilient city, especially in a pandemic.

  • Creating safer pedestrian spaces by reducing vehicular speed and giving back to everyone else the extra space that this makes possible.
  • Consider the mix of needs in your setting. Some places need enhanced personal mobility more than access to third places like cafes and restaurants. All streets can do a better job of supporting their use by young and old.
  • Consider opening select streets and sidewalks for outdoor dining, encouraging pedestrian traffic down the center of the street, much like the set up for a neighborhood festival.
  • Think about alternatives for on-street parking, bus stops, and delivery loading zones in the future, as they already compete for the same space at the curb. Give priority to finding ways to incorporate trees and green infrastructure—reducing exposure to extreme heat events, air pollution and other stressors while giving back benefits such as reduced crime, higher social capital and increased property value.

Prioritize Green Space

Access to water, plants, clean air, and sunshine are all essential to quality of life and overall well-being. In fact, given the current circumstances, it’s no surprise that our parks, forests, trails, and canals are now the destination for many, not the buildings or cities themselves. So how can we prioritize these organic spaces, and more importantly, ensure that they are accessible to all?

  • Improve dense developments with personal balconies, shared roof decks, and flexible spaces for urban agriculture and multi-generational play within, and on top of, the building.
  • Reintroduce community gardens, to vacant lots, public parks, and even hospitals. By dispersing centers of agriculture and encouraging social interaction outdoors, we can improve economic, health, and social impacts.

Consider adding public green spaces that are well suited to maintaining social distancing rules, such as botanical gardens, wide, multi-use trails, river and wildlife corridors, and arboretums.

Build Flexibility into Urban Infrastructure

At its core, urban infrastructure is built for permanence. So how can we build for the next chapter, making flexibility the norm, and responsive to individual and collective health? Can we design parking garages that become temporary housing, or hotels that become hospitals or dorm rooms as needed? Afterall, the best urban building is one that lasts long enough to adapt and respond to the user’s changing needs.

  • Design building exteriors to reflect the surrounding area and “community language” on the outside – incorporating history or memory, culture or context and allowing for customization of interiors on the inside that recognize diverse needs or activities.
  • Explore options for incorporating Universal Design elements that are inclusive of all mobilities and mitigate the need for additional high touch appliances or hardware.

Consider the idea of public restrooms or other shared spaces that reduce the need for touching door handles or use alternative means for separating space or providing privacy.