WAF Newsletter - Place making for people in a post Covid world - June 2020

Place-making for people in a post-Covid world

Richard Hyams, 18 June 2020

COVID-19 has changed what is required from our public spaces, writes Richard Hyams.

Bustling city centres, narrow streets and packed public transport hubs need to be reconsidered in the age of social distancing. These measures will likely be lifted, yet the pandemic will continue to influence the design of our public realm for years to come. By rethinking our public and open spaces, we can begin to build environments that better withstand future incidents as well as provide added benefit to quality of life and our environment.

Designing for people

The pandemic has placed a renewed focus on public health, raising critical questions about how we can accelerate positive changes in design that put people, community and safety at the centre of architectural practices.

As we navigate the impacts of COVID-19, reducing density is a pressing concern across all environments, from office design, to transport systems, to the public realm. It is clear – particularly in densely populated urban environments such as London, where streets are typically narrow and busy – that intelligent thought is needed in the redesign of public space to allow for adequate social distancing. Not only to protect public health, but to allow for safe access to commercial properties and communal spaces.

To facilitate this, we are likely to see the further reclamation of city centres from vehicles, a process that has been under way for some time in a bid to reduce air pollution and improve pedestrian safety. In 2015, for example, Paris committed €30 million to rerouting traffic around seven of its most iconic (and busy) spaces. Now, in cities such as Auckland, Cologne and Denver, the pandemic is serving as a catalyst for the closure of road networks to increase space for pedestrians and cyclists.

With road traffic significantly reduced, organisations such as Transport for London are considering how they can temporarily alter road layouts to better serve the UK in the current climate. However, with COVID-19 adding to the longer-term environmental threat, we are likely to see a trend towards more permanent solutions, such as car-free zones, that put people first.

Going forwards, technology could provide additional solutions through the use of sensors and smart systems to monitor density and encourage safe social distancing. In New York, an interactive tool designed to show residents which streets are wide enough an adequate distance has scratched the surface of what is possible. Heat maps, accessible via a mobile app, are just one possibility being suggested to provide information on street width and density so that people can navigate the public realm safely.

Reimagining the city in planning and practice

It is estimated that up to 30,000 UK businesses in the hospitality sector – restaurants, pubs, and bars – may never reopen due to COVID-19’s financial impact. It is evident that we urgently need to repopulate public spaces if these businesses are to survive.

To cater for the hustle and bustle of city life, these indoor spaces could be brought outdoors. For instance, Aberdeen has announced plans to pedestrianise key parts of the city and fast-track applications for outdoor seating areas for restaurants, cafés and bars. In London, a similar proposal is being considered to temporarily pedestrianise Soho. If approved, this will allow local restaurants and bars to expand their drinking and dining areas out into the street. With social distancing measures significantly decreasing capacity in our indoor environments; such measures would help to boost takings and reinvigorate the local economy.

Ebury Bridge Estate project by astudio

Developing the garden city

According to a recent survey, 63 per cent of people agree that it’s more important to be active now than it was before the pandemic, so the need for additional green space is apparent. Not only are these spaces vital to maintaining our physical health. For many, green spaces serve as a place for positive social interaction and can therefore positively impact our mental wellbeing. Past studies by Public Health England have shown that access to green space correlates with levels of mental stress.

Green space at the Ebury Bridge Estate project by astudio

In places like London, however, the construction of sprawling transport hubs and high-rise buildings, to accommodate an ever-increasing number of businesses and workers, has left little room for green areas. The city currently boasts 800 square kilometres of green space, and yet just 26 per cent of it is publicly accessible. With visitors ordered to stay away from overcrowded parks, finding the space to walk, jog, or cycle can prove challenging.

In areas that lack available space, temporary areas can be made available in the form of rooftop gardens, temporary extensions, or multi-level platforms that would provide an immediate boost to capacity. However, given current social distancing measures, as well as the risk of further outbreaks, more permanent solutions will be required.

While the pandemic has increased demand for some land uses, it has also reduced the need for others. With 71% of UK businesses planning to permanently adopt new remote working practices, sprawling rail lines that once transported commuters to and from the office will see a decline in usage. New York City’s High Line, a 1.5-mile elevated park hanging alongside the city’s sprawling skyscrapers, offers a fantastic vision of how these underused spaces could be dramatically adapted to meet these altered demands.

It’s time to reunite communities, but safely

Even with the threat of a second corona wave, it is important that we begin to return to some level of normality. Not just for economic reasons, but also because of the impact the pandemic is having on our mental health — according to the UK Office for National Statistics, 53 per cent of adults feel that the pandemic has negatively impacted their wellbeing. By enabling people to come together again in community settings, we can begin to reverse some of the damage.

But first we will have to find the balance between community and the need to maintain distance. By making our collective wellbeing the focus of future design, we can create a public realm that is truly fit for purpose in the post-COVID age.

Richard Hyams is founder of the London-based practice astudio.

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