Public Space in Flux: Shaping the Built Environment of the Future

Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, TX, on April, 10, 2020 / image: Taner Ozdil

­As an integral part of community life, public space is essential to the social, physical, mental, and economic health of cities. From urban plazas and community parks to city sidewalks and corners, public space creates a collective sense of community and allows for enhanced social inclusion, civic participation, sense of belonging, and recreation.

But what happens when we’re told that those spaces are no longer safe? Since March 2020, COVID-19 has challenged the civic right to public space and connection, creating a flux in access and experience that will clearly have long-lasting impacts on how landscape architects work within the public realm. As we step out of initial knee-jerk reactions and into yet another wave, what is the role of urban design within the context of this “new normal”?

To see how different cities are responding and how firms and practitioners are adapting and exploring innovative ways to leverage the pandemic and shape the built environment of the future, we asked a cross section of Urban Design Professional Practice Network (PPN) members to share their pandemic experiences and ways in which the industry is rethinking the approach to public space design.

Maren McBride, ASLA — Seattle, WA/Vancouver, BC

In both Seattle and Vancouver, it has been inspiring to see a clear shift in the way that communities have collectively, and proactively, embraced public space—no longer seen as something nice to have, but essential to health and wellbeing. It’s a strong reminder of the incredible responsibility we have, as landscape architects, to create an equitable, sustainable, and resilient public realm that fosters human connection and joy, even in times of crisis.

Outdoor gatherings at George Wainborn Park in Vancouver, BC / image: Maren McBride

At Berger Partnership, we have adapted remarkably well in terms of functionality, given the context—moving projects forward full steam ahead while, conversely, other projects stalled and new work seemed to disappear for a time. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of designing for the unknown and unpredictable—flexibility, adaptability, and exploring ways in which landscape architects can foster community-driven processes. As an office, we have embraced new technologies for remote work, but more importantly, increased use of technologies already in our office, in particular BIM as a multi-disciplinary collaboration, design, and visualization tool.

Pop-up plaza program off Main Street in Vancouver, BC / image: Maren McBride

Our next challenge will be in crafting what the “new normal” looks like for our team. How do we empower ideation and engagement in a WFH or hybrid setting and how do we adapt the best of both to enhance our approach to design and collaboration?

Daniel Ashworth, ASLA — Jacksonville, FL

What I have seen in some southeastern communities in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina are people beginning to reclaim their streets as people space to allow for social distancing. I have seen several instances of sidewalk cafes occupying parking and even vehicular lanes on some streets, and there have been serious discussions of closing entire streets for other uses than vehicles.

A street cafe on Bull Street in Savannah, GA / image: Daniel Ashworth

The other big change has to do with our work. We now conduct our public and stakeholder meetings using Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and using engagement tools such as Social Pinpoint to keep our projects moving toward completion. Even interviewing for projects has been affected; we now have conducted several shortlist interviews via Zoom or other webinar-based means.

A street cafe in Habersham’s town center, near Beaufort, SC / image: Daniel Ashworth

Jordan van der Hagen, Assoc. ASLA — Duluth, MN

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I noticed that nearly every restaurant and small business I encountered had established some sort of presence on the street in front of their storefronts. While this trend appears to have been the norm in cities across the U.S. and beyond, the reaction to the pandemic within the urban environment in Duluth was one that came with both positive and negative impacts. While on-street dining and parklets didn’t catch on as successfully here in Duluth, there were a few notable examples of establishments that already had outdoor spaces expanding them to meet the newfound demand. Bent Paddle, a local brewery, even took the idea a step further, convincing the city to vacate the street they were on so they could convert it into a “front lawn” for their patrons to sprawl out and enjoy craft beverages while listening to music on their new stage.

The pandemic scene wasn’t as bubbly everywhere across town. In our downtown, the abundance of people working from home combined with a plethora of ongoing street reconstruction projects to really put a damper on the neighborhood, resulting in the permanent closure of several businesses. The city also converted one of its major hilltop scenic byways, Skyline Parkway, into a bike/pedestrian only street. The project was widely beloved by all except a few disgruntled folks who decided to throw the blockades over a steep edge onto private property, ending the pilot project early.

Overall, the pandemic has been encouraging new ideas and bringing mixed results, but as proven by the people who opted to sit on outdoor patios in sub-freezing temps last winter, we are a community capable of weathering the storm.

Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, TX, on April, 10, 2020 / image: Taner Ozdil

Taner R. Ozdil, Ph.D., ASLA — Dallas-Fort Worth, TX

The year of the pandemic peak, 2020, has shown how desirable yet fragile outdoor public space is in urban and suburban centers in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (DFW) and why design creativity has to navigate these challenges to ensure livability in 21st-century cities. While most Texas communities, beyond their political will, were coming to a grim realization with climate change and its impacts (such as the heat island effect and flooding) over the past two decades, the year 2020 had in store other unprecedented challenges for the built environment in DFW. On the one hand, communities’ daily routines in urban cores were fundamentally transformed due to COVID preventive measures; on the other hand, many were encouraged to come back to fill those same public spaces: streets, streetscapes, parks, plazas, and even parking lots. This was not only to take in one last breath of fresh air before what almost felt like the end of “normal” as we knew it, but also to ask for equity, inclusion, and justice for all in DFW. If the challenges were to secure storefronts, street furniture, amenities, and bikes/scooter shares on one day, it was to reclaim public space with signs, PPE, and retrofitted streets, sidewalks, and parking lots with tactical urbanism strategies the next day.

Urban designers—more than ever in DFW, if not in most of North America—had to start thinking about how to create more adaptable outdoor spaces for all with creative and impromptu design/build strategies. As the form of user participation and occupation in the urban outdoors evolved from our daily routines before 2020, the events of these challenging times reminded us that the sophistication of our public space has to advance to a new level, responding to the complexities of what seems to be more than ever, the fragile state of our environment, economy, and society.

On the waterfront in Alexandria, VA / image: Daniel Straub

Daniel Straub, ASLA, PLA, LEED AP — Alexandria, VA

We have been generally fortunate in the Washington, DC metropolitan area to have many Federal government and private sector workers who have been able to work remotely and then utilize the many parks, open spaces, trails, and bikeways to get doses of nature and fresh air. We have seen many street closings and a significant number of small business expand their activities into the public space, including into areas generally reserved for parking. We have also seen a heavy use of public areas, including parks and open space, for family gatherings, private refuge, and even art installations. Finally, we have seen active community (and local/state) efforts to protect existing open space from sale and possible development (for example, River Farm in Virginia).

Union Street in Alexandria / image: Daniel Straub

From a professional and work perspective, most offices have survived the adjustment to remote work successfully and are adapting to the possibility of a hybrid work environment with Zoom and Microsoft Team meetings. ASLA’s Maryland, Virginia, and Potomac Chapters banded together to develop the Regional Conference (June 9-10, 2021) which addressed many of the issues we are all dealing with, including:

  • Park Pulse: Using Landscape Analysis to Support Safe & Equitable Access to Nature
  • Pandemics & Protests: Reshaping Studio Culture
  • Paradigm Shift: Influencing Positive Change
  • Design for Distancing: Reactivating the Public Realm
  • Property in Perspective
  • The Evolving Role of Urban Waterfronts in Shaping Urban Form, Community Health and Spatial Equity
King Street Park, on the Potomac River / image: Daniel Straub

We also witnessed the remote presentation of a panel discussion supported by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) evaluating the status of security at the Capitol, the fencing installed after the events of January 6, 2021, and the importance of the design factors identified by Frederick Law Olmsted. Faye Harwell, FASLA, carefully and meticulously laid out the parameters that FLO used and that should be included in any future security planning efforts.

Visitors exploring Groundswell, a public art installation in Old Town Alexandria’s Waterfront Park / image: Daniel Straub

Finally, AIA|DC also presented several remote events addressing the pandemic and security issues including Rethinking & Revitalizing Urban Parks Post COVID-19 (May 25, 2021) with Jon Fitch, ASLA, as a participant.

Nicholas Petty, ASLA — Chicago, IL

Here in Chicago, the discipline is entering an activist phase. Amidst heated debate over the role of policing in communities of color and the concurrent epidemic of gun violence in which mass casualty events go under-reported outside of local media, the concept of defensible space is evolving. First advanced in the early 1970s (in the heat of anti-war and civil rights movements), the theory of crime prevention through urban design appears sound, but hinges upon a trust and community buy-in at all levels of society that has failed to emerge over the ensuing fifty years.

The current issues surrounding law enforcement tactics, agency/ownership, and socio-environmental justice raise questions about the very definition of ‘threat’ in the 21st century. The implications can be dire: how to safeguard against the air? The water supply? Hunger? The police themselves? Who’s got time for a pandemic?! Some folks just have to make it through the next day. Seen in this light, the role of the landscape architect is to not only to promote, but defend, the conditions that enable life in each moment. How this manifests spatially will become one of the defining challenges of our time.

Sara Hadavi, Assoc. ASLA — Manhattan, KS

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been related to schools’ disruptions due to lockdown. In Kansas, many schools have been creative in finding adaptive ways to respond to the imposed limitations. Outdoor classrooms have been a meaningful response to bring kids back to schools when indoor settings do not provide sufficient safe spaces with appropriate ventilation. The Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education has been a great advocate for outdoor classrooms. Safe, green schoolyards that meet the needs of quality outdoor classrooms are not available in many schools. Nearby parks in school districts, however, could be great community assets to help schools continue their classes during the pandemic. As studies demonstrate, green outdoor settings improve students’ performance and effectiveness. This indicates the need for developing more outdoor educational facilities even after the pandemic. It highlights the role of landscape architects in creating more adaptable outdoor green spaces that could easily be accessible to nearby schools and help provide safe educational opportunities beyond what is offered in indoor settings.

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