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.
How advocates for landscape architecture have shaped and are continuing to shape the waterfront of Duluth, Minnesota
Landscape architects are uniquely equipped to take on the challenges of the 21st century, but these challenges won’t always fall on our desks. We can easily point out problems in the built environment of our cities; we care about these issues and are trained to solve them; but more often than not, it takes somebody with a check to get us moving in any meaningful way. As problems in our cities continue mounting, we as landscape architects and designers can show the public our capabilities and commitment to the health of our communities by becoming landscape advocates, something which has proven successful in my city of Duluth, Minnesota.
A Bad Idea
The city of Duluth lies where the Great Lakes begin. Lake Superior stretches out from its shores towards an infinite horizon, while the city’s downtown straddles steep hills abutting the waterfront, creating a sort of urban amphitheater with the lake taking center stage. In spite of this visual relationship, the city and the waterfront have been historically disconnected from each other in the physical capacity. Industrialists were quick to develop the city into the world’s farthest inland port, and with this development came the privatization, and then pollution, of much of the city’s waterfront. Eventually economic tides turned and the port began to retract into the harbor, leaving a shoreline of scrapyards and dirty water, the perfect place to build an interstate highway—perfect according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) planners, at least.
By 1971, Interstate 35 had blasted its way through the western portion of Duluth, demolishing hundreds of homes and businesses before ending at the far edge of downtown, but the route’s planners weren’t finished yet. Plans were released showing the freeway continuing through downtown, across the east side of the city, and up the shore of the lake. While the idea of any extension of I-35 was itself controversial, the plans they released to the public created an uproar within the community that would last for decades.