Dispatches from the Community Design PPN

Apartment residents in the Washington, D.C. area gather on their balconies every Friday to applaud, cheer, and bang pots and pans for healthcare workers and first responders. / image: Alexandra Hay

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reshape nearly every aspect of life, from personal interactions to business to learning to recreation, ASLA will be sharing insights, observations, and impressions from ASLA members based around the country here on The Field. In recent weeks, we’ve shared updates and resources curated by the Historic Preservation and Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Networks’ leadership teams. Today, we share dispatches from the Community Design PPN team:

  • Bob Smith, ASLA – Watkinsville, Georgia
  • William Aultman, ASLA – Washington, D.C. Metro
  • David Jordan, ASLA – Waynesboro, Pennsylvania
  • Regan Pence, ASLA – Omaha, Nebraska

Bob Smith, PLA, ASLA
Principal, Smith Planning Group
Watkinsville, GA

We are social creatures, and the importance of social interaction has become apparent as we respond to the requirements to suppress and slow the spread of COVID-19. The effects of this isolation, such as anxiety, depression and loneliness, caused by social distancing, school and business closures, and shelter-in-place orders, is being tracked by various mental health organizations. While these measures are necessary to slow the spread of the disease, the toll on our mental health is very real.

Social interaction occurs naturally in great neighborhoods. It may be the gathering in the village green, the meeting of your neighbor as you walk to the corner store, the smile and wave from your front porch, and the conversation on the park bench. These are spontaneous interactions, unplanned, occurring during the course of everyday life. We know now how important these unintentional interactions are, and how vital they are to our health.

It’s fascinating to watch how we are adapting. Video conferencing has jumped from the board room to a tool used by families and neighbors just to stay in touch. It won’t ever take the place of the park bench, but it’ll just have to do for now. Perhaps the most moving COVID-19-inspired method of social interaction that should remain when crisis is over is the singing from the balconies. May it never end.

William Aultman, ASLA
Senior Urban Planner
Bechtel Infrastructure Planning & Development
Washington, D.C. Metro

When thinking about community design in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some reflections come to mind that will have lasting effects on the next generation of community building in the United States and beyond.

The last 25 years of community design have been particularly geared toward conversations about density, walkability, and resiliency, with New Urbanists and Landscape Urbanism (among others) pushing, with great success, to adapt our cities, suburbs, and small towns to these principals. These good efforts addressed and sought to repair such issues as the “place-lessness” of auto-oriented housing and retail, the overt focus on the car when designing the public realm, the overly consumptive and petroleum-dependent nature of the typical American suburb, and its significance in contributing to global climate change and the lack of resiliency in our built and natural environment. This growing paradigm made great strides at reinvigorating our inner cities, retrofitting and densifying our suburbs, and preserving and fortifying our rural towns for the betterment of all, reinventing and rediscovering the “sense of place” one finds in older, denser, and well-preserved cities, suburbs, and rural “Main Streets” everywhere.

COVID-19 has done its best to stop that progress in its tracks. Almost overnight, over a quarter of a century of important and popular urban thinking was turned on its head. Density was now a killer of our most vulnerable populations in our most populous places. We suddenly saw density as a culprit, an accomplice to the ravages of COVID-19 across our society. We are now afraid of density—afraid of our friends, neighbors, and coworkers, afraid of passing the virus between ourselves. Ultimately, that fear has given way to the self-isolation and stay-at-home orders that were enforced in most states and municipalities. This bizarre but critical method of slowing the spread of the virus, combined with the necessary restructuring of society to only allow essential businesses to operate, meant we could no longer enjoy the basic and comforting things that communities of all shapes and sizes provide. No walking down a busy street to your favorite ice cream shop and standing in a crowded line, no browsing fresh farm produce shoulder to shoulder with your neighbors at the local farmers’ market, no walking uptown for dinner to the little dim sum place that just opened, only to run into friends and head out on the town afterwards. We can all think of many examples of how COVID-19 has changed our communities, and the paranoia and anxiety of being close to our family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and, most frightening of all, strangers, was (and for many still is) our new reality.

However, community is adaptable and resilient, just like our best cities, neighborhoods, and towns. We will overcome the paranoia and anxiety of crowds and crowded places, and we will once again be queuing up for the next new thing, hanging out with our friends and family, and gathering in the park to play a pick-up ball game. We will move forward just as our communities have moved forward along with us for centuries. Yes, things will certainly be different…but dare I say better!

In response to this challenge, we will not turn our collective back on critical initiatives, such as better and smarter density at all levels of habitation, work, and play; smart city applications to help improve safety and security of our neighborhoods and streets; integrating walkability with individual experience and accessibility in mind; not to mention a comprehensive system of multi-modal transit opportunities for all—and this list is only a start. Just as we did not turn our backs on our friends, family, colleagues, and strangers during these trying times, we will march into this new reality wiser, ready for the next challenges, remembering how we all pulled together, took care of one another, and made sure we were doing everything we could to help. Even if it was by just asking our neighbor (safely from the balcony) if they needed anything. Together, we will work hard to make the planning and design of our urban, suburban, and rural spaces denser, stronger, more prepared and resilient than ever before, because to do anything but that will be putting the selfishness and paranoia of our individual fears before the strength and determination of our collective power, both physical and mental, to build a better world.

David Jordan, ASLA
Landscape Architect/Senior Planner
Urban Design Ventures
Waynesboro, PA

The pandemic has been an interesting phenomenon to live through in the work world, with staff transitioning to working from home and learning to cope with virtual meetings, the angst of not having access to needed information locked away in an inaccessible office, the uncertainty of when stay-at-home restrictions will be lifted, and when some semblance of order will return. Fortunately for our firm, work has remained strong.

The impact on everyday life has been a bigger challenge with social distancing, wearing face masks, stay-at-home orders, non-essential businesses closed, and businesses considered essential operating almost as usual, with additional safety protocols being implemented such as limiting the number of people in the store at any given time, establishing social distancing in checkout lines, and providing directions to traverse the store.

Living in a somewhat rural community, working from home is a daily occurrence. The most significant change has been sharing a home office with my wife, who is working remotely until stay-at-home orders are removed. Being detached from more metropolitan areas and only seeing the impact on the news makes it difficult to comprehend the pandemic. Locally, the new normal seems to be a human issue rather than a business issue as my community was already struggling with the loss of businesses from an economic stand-point, not as a pandemic issue. Once this is over, hopefully life will return to normal, but our economic issues will remain.

Regan Pence, ASLA
Landscape Architecture Practice Lead, Lamp Rynearson
Omaha, NE

We have transitioned to a mostly-at-home work force. Since the transition we have seriously honed in on our remote work capabilities, as have many of our clients and municipal staff. Prior to COVID-19 we had been hesitant to think our remote work capabilities could be successful due to the sizes of our files, internet connections, and the collaborative nature of our industry. Knowing now we can shift successfully into a remote work paradigm makes me wonder about many other office-based industries, if this could mean downsizing previously needed commercial and office space, and how this shift could ultimately affect (good or bad) the entire economy.

For many communities across the globe and for many in our own community, those within the service and restaurant industries have been deeply affected and still have many challenges ahead. Their customers are more fearful of germs and more focused on cleanliness than ever before. Even as retail, restaurants, and public spaces begin to reopen, people are hesitant to leave the house and fear unknowingly touching something that hasn’t been disinfected or being too close to an asymptomatic person. How is this ultimately going to affect our retail, restaurants, public transportation, and spaces? What systems or designs will have to be put in place to allow people feel safe in crowded areas? Designers of all kinds have a host of new challenges to consider.

See ASLA’s COVID-19 Resources page for more information; this page will be continuously updated with new resources as they become available.

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