Rethinking the public realm in the wake of COVID-19

public realm
© Srdjan Randjelovic

Richard Hyams, Founder and Director of astudio, explores why we must rethink the public realm in light of COVID-19

The significance of community has been a lesson learnt from the impact of COVID-19. When the population was asked to stay inside, thousands of volunteers signed up to support the NHS, carers and the elderly. What’s more, in being restricted to leave the house no more than once per day, we migrated to community spaces, which offered a sense of normality in an otherwise un-normal world.

The pandemic has changed our demands and desires. This hasn’t gone unnoticed, with city officials around the world beginning to redesign urban spaces to benefit the public. However, finding the balance between safety and community living is crucial.

By rethinking the public realm, we can begin to build better environments that not only address immediate needs but futureproof our cities against further disruption.

The people-centric approach to urban planning

The reinvigorated sense of community brought on by COVID-19 has prompted city officials to evaluate their spaces in favour of a more people-centric approach to urban living.

This is not a new trend, however. In recent years, we have seen major cities around the word adapt spaces to prioritise pedestrians and reinvigorate a city dweller’s sense of citizenship. In 2015, for instance, Paris committed €30 million to reroute traffic away from many of its busiest landmarks, in return removing congestion from dense spaces and improving air quality.

Lockdown has expedited this trend. Recognising the public benefits of accessible community spaces, cities across the world are announcing new investment plans. From introducing temporary measures, such as the play streets in New York City and Dallas’ ‘parklets’ for socially distanced restaurant visits, to the more permanent investments, including Vicchio’s grid piazzas and Manchester’s £23 million investment to create the city’s first new public park in over 100 years, necessary changes have been made.

Designing buildings with close attention to how they interact with public spaces is also crucial. For instance, when designing astudio’s recent Ebury Bridge Estate project in the heart of Westminster, its public spaces were tested alongside the developing design of the buildings. Using environmental modelling software throughout the design facilitated improvements to the daylight quality at peak times of year, but also improved the quality and flexibility of the external space.

Designing for a more active city

Some 63% of people agree that, amid the pandemic, it is important to be active now more than ever. As well as creating safe spaces for the public to amble, planners must also establish safe active spaces.

Indeed, just last month Boris declared ‘on your bike’, causing a huge spike in demand for bikes and bike services. However, action must be taken to ensure these activities remain safe – – something urban planners are now addressing.

In Bogota, Colombia, the city has been outfitted with 80km of emergency bike lanes, while the City of London has established new street plans that prioritise greater cycle accessibility and safety.

Factoring in community in a social distant era

Owing to the unpredictability of the virus, the growing need for community space isn’t just a holistic one – it is also an economic one. Without community confidence to visit local shops and amenities, where demand has diminished, there is a greater risk of job losses. Even the larger retail and restaurant chains are struggling in this climate and restoring consumer confidence to visit these outlets now vital to their survival.

As data released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows, no industry in the UK has been hit worse by the pandemic than hospitality. Subsequently, 50% of hospitality businesses are set to make losses this year, with many already fighting to survive.

To help these businesses to recover, there is an urgent need to repurpose public spaces to accommodate restaurants, bars, pubs and the wider hospitality industry. Opening up public spaces to businesses can invigorate the economy by improving the accessibility to shops that would otherwise struggle to offer adequate social distancing.

The recent decision to pedestrianize Soho, for example, has enabled London’s hospitality hotspot to spring back to life, with repurposed outdoor space allowing revellers to dine, drink and socialise safely once again. Such projects have also cropped up internationally during the pandemic, including the “gastro safe zones” in Brno, Czech Republic and New York’s Open Streets Programme, but as well as harnessing public spaces to provide short term solutions to the pressures created by the pandemic, a recognition of the importance of access to outdoor spaces for both our mental and physical health is prompting innovative architectural firms to expand our expertise with a new landscape architecture division.

Planning for a new future

Digital innovation has enabled urban planners to better understand dense spaces, easing the design process and allowing urban planners to optimise the public realm.

Moving forward, technology designed to monitor density could be used to predict footfall and optimise navigation routing, allowing planners to balance necessary urban traffic with pedestrianised zones that would allow people to navigate the city safely.

However, it could also play a vital part in aiding new public realm design to best prioritise people and their needs. For example, astudio’s Ebury Bridge estate project, recently submitted for planning, improves the quantum and quality of external space through intelligent design, digitally powered testing and environmental modelling, as well as almost doubling the number of much-needed homes on site.

As the world slowly accepts and adapts, we are entering a new era with a strengthened focus on the environment and our physical health. City planners must now reconsider priorities, repurpose spaces, and make use of innovations to create a public realm fit for the post-COVID-19 world. If cities invest in their public spaces appropriately, the public realm will play a vital role in invigorating communities everywhere.


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