When James Oglethorpe designed Savannah in 1733, touted as the first planned city in the US, each series of planned blocks included a public park, creating walkability and equal access to public space. Public open space is good, it allows us to engage with our landscape and community in a safe, egalitarian, and productive way. And until COVID-19, a successful public space was one which was crowded and inviting, where one might sit for hours with no rush to move on. Today, as so many of us have been forced to find new destinations, public spaces have never been more important.
When non-mandatory services closed their doors to the public, trails, walking paths, and parks allowed us some normalcy. You may have seen videos of animals overtaking streets usually populated by humans, and we’ve arguably done the same thing - taken over streets typically dominated by cars. Bicycling rates are up as fresh air becomes a desirable escape and public transportation options have ceased to become a viable option to carry us between points A and B. Planner Caitlin O’Hara has been especially encouraged by the masses of people reclaiming streets. “It’s as if people have a newfound sense of appreciation for the outdoors…while maintaining a safe level of distance.” She notes the reduction of vehicular traffic and increase in pedestrian activity has contributed to both enjoyment and safety, and she’s right. There are fewer cars on the road, and more people taking to the outdoors, because that’s one of the few places we have left to go.
When the Governors of Maryland and Illinois issued stay at home orders in late March, residents were still permitted to leave their homes for “essential functions like buying food or receiving medical care,” however in both Baltimore and Chicago, going outside for fresh air and exercise was also permitted. And as the study of space is our profession, we found this allowance lent itself to frequent observations. Principal landscape architect Brian Reetz realized he was turning a more critical eye to the connective tissue between the outdoor spaces he and his family visited, questioning whether or not the pedestrian experience was designed to a high enough standard. Brian can’t help but notice the qualities of the public space. “By itself, the asphalt path and its simple materials might seem unimpressive, but it may be the most impactful design work I’ve encountered, especially in light of COVID.” This observation is especially interesting as our profession so frequently thrives on cutting-edge materials, we’re now most focused on the distribution and balance of pathways, dirt, and grass.
As the weather has turned warmer, these public pathways and spaces are seeing much higher demand, and herein lies the problem; cities currently under rules designed to avoid crowding means that already populated parks are causing recreational spillover. As a result, cities around the world are pressed to respond to an increased demand for public space. States like New York, Montreal, and Denver have closed certain streets to cars, opening up space for pedestrians and cyclists. Bogota gifted 137km to cyclists, and Oakland transferred 10% of their street mileage to bicycles. Caitlin notes, “in the past, occurrences like this have only been made possible with major weather events or the influence of movements like Open Streets, a worldwide initiative that reimagines public roads as community spaces.” And as citizens quite literally take to the streets and abandoned corners to create their own recreational refuge, it brings to mind what urban planners call the Cow Path, an eroded footpath which often demonstrates the desired shortcut between two points. In short, if we’re not given the space, we’re going to make it ourselves.
What these human-created options show us is that many existing public open spaces are simply too small or too few, especially now when distancing is at a premium. While so many city planners felt like a crowded park meant the place was a success, fewer realized that a crowd could also mean that the demand was too high for the supply given. This perhaps causes a shudder when compared to what many cities do when they find highways are too congested – add another lane.
As architects and city planners, we continue to take the long view. Principal Cecily Bedwell explains that planning projects aren’t built over months, they’re built over years, and they involve and affect many users; not just a single individual, tenant or owner. With the pandemic, the urgency is focused on public engagement. The immediate need is the creative thinking on how to best get input and reach stakeholders. “Large public workshops, town halls, and charrettes will need to become virtual,” Principal Matt D’Amico states, agreeing that community leaders will need to engage stakeholders and other members of the public in important local decisions when staying safe means staying home.
The coronavirus will certainly have lasting impact, but stakeholders need to be reminded to look beyond the behavioral changes like mask/face covering necessities and physical distancing, to the longer-term design solutions that allow people to distance when needed, but do not permanently divide us. And this part is crucial, because strategies like creating signage as key to post-pandemic public space use is only effective if all users are literate, attentive, and compliant. Some of us are left out of the equation when it comes to expectations to ‘read before using,’ as we can’t reasonably expect a three-year old to stop in front of a playground and review the rules before making a beeline for the monkey bars.
“The places where people congregate…will be smartly retrofitted for social distancing” and while we believe public transportation is a key piece in the viability of this shift, our word count prevents us from exploring that topic in tandem with public space. Design is even more important because the current rules and regulations are created to address crowding, not density. Only allowing 50 members into the gym at a time (crowd control) doesn’t change the fact that there are still 200 people with memberships, eagerly waiting at the door (density). As architects and urban planners, many of us speculate that a post-COVID world won’t necessarily hurt the design of cities or suburbs, it will just restructure them, forcing them and those who govern them to rethink the use, demand, and design of public space – and hopefully respond accordingly.
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