July 20, 2020

How to reinvent public spaces after COVID-19

Public Space and Land Art

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I'll admit, this title is somewhat misleading. I'm not a landscape architect or urban designer, despite my many opinions on each industry, ranging from Portage and Main to walkability to vehicle use in higher density neighbourhoods.

However, I do live in an apartment in Downtown Winnipeg without a private green space. And during the lockdown, I, like many others, depended on public and pedestrian spaces for relief.

It's hard not to think about public spaces after having been in relative isolation for weeks and using daily walks as a means to regain my mental and emotional state. Winnipeg weather did not make it easy either. It snowed, rained and carried northern wind throughout these treks. Yet, what made it more comfortable, was seeing everyone else do the exact same thing.

People used and took over residential streets for walking, cycling, or running--and it felt so right. I couldn't help but think, with poignancy, that this is what our city could be like all the time.

I've long been a proponent of "people-first places", which promotes prioritizing people over vehicles and has long-term physical, economic and environmental benefits for cities and towns. To me, the idea of more people on the street is what makes a city or town have character, have life and ultimately thrive.


Maybe COVID-19 is what our city needs to transform itself. Past pandemics have led to massive changes in city planning and infrastructure, including sewage systems, public transit, housing regulations and public parks:

"Cities have been here before. The history of urban development is deeply intertwined with plagues, and weirdly, most modern urban dwellers (your London-based author included) owe much of how they live to the pandemics of the past. Before the 19th century, cities were, well, filthy: Streets were lined with mud; rivers were thick with human and industrial sewage; and animals, and their waste, could be found scattered across town. When diseases emerged, they had ripe conditions to spread, wreaking havoc on the urban population. More than 5,000 people died during the 1793 yellow-fever epidemic in the then–American capital, Philadelphia. An 1849 cholera outbreak in London killed more than 10,000 people in three months.

Though the transmission of the disease was still widely misunderstood in the 19th century, public-health officials theorized that the unsanitary conditions of cities, and the foul odours they produced, were to blame. The more they learned, the more cities began to prioritize water sanitation and general cleanliness. By the mid-1850s, New York City had constructed a 40-mile aqueduct system and banished 20,000 pigs from the city. Similar sewer systems were installed in London and Paris. During this same period, urban planners began thinking about other ways they could improve the health of cities, which eventually led to the first public parks." (The Atlantic)

There are many examples of cities, from around the world, that have transformed spaces for pedestrian use because of COVID-19. Some have retrofitted streets into bicycle lanes and widened sidewalks, giving "people more ways to commute while also practising social distancing". Cities have also converted walkways, plazas, and parking spaces "into retail spaces so that hard-hit businesses can serve their customers more safely."

In Birmingham, England, the City Council introduced several measures encouraging healthy living activities while respecting social distancing measures as the lockdown in the United Kingdom eases up.

According to the news team at Smart Cities World, there are 14 schemes outlined for delivery in Birmingham over the coming weeks. The project bids were submitted to the Department of Transport on June 5, 2020. They include:

  • Temporary pop-up cycle lanes on seven priority cycle routes to connect into the city centre, with existing cycle infrastructure, to key employment sites and other major destinations
  • A park and pedal programme to provide park and cycle options at rail station car parks and other suitable locations. These facilities will largely link into current cycle routes, but some short temporary spurs may be required to link to these places
  • The launch of Places for People to create low traffic neighbourhoods across Birmingham, created by using bollards or planters to close roads to through-traffic and make walking and cycling safer for local journeys
  • Reallocation of road space and pavement widening in two local centres – Stirchley and Moseley – to create space for walking and social distancing. Aligned with other measures to support business spill-out activity in these areas, including the return of the Moseley Farmers' market.

As you read, some of these schemes are temporary, however, as we've seen with other cities around the world, more "people-first places" are welcomed by the general public. Coun. Waseem Zaffar, the cabinet member for transport and environment at Birmingham City Council, says he's noticed a positive trend as road traffic decreases and walking and cycling increases. "Covid-19 has had a massive impact," he says, "But we must find the opportunities from it and use lessons learned to deliver a green, sustainable recovery for our city."

Another example is Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, which had already begun focusing on transforming plazas, squares and streets "into open-air café before the start of the pandemic. Hundreds of restaurants and bars have set up shop to allow them to serve their customers from a safe distance. Moreover, the capital intends to ban most vehicles "from its Old Town to allocate more spaces to pedestrians."

I saw similar opportunities on my walks through Downtown Winnipeg and the Exchange District. It's effortless to see the abundance of public space we have that sit empty and unused, regardless of whether we were amid a pandemic or not.

I would love for the Exchange District to limit vehicle use or get rid of it entirely. However, at the same time, I know for that to happen, fundamental changes have to occur to avoid an economic downturn.

Moreover, I don't want a monkey-paw situation where the elimination of vehicles decreases day-time populations, causing the area to no longer be viable. However, if we were to remain optimistic, closing down these streets to extend the neighbourhood's restaurant patios would probably have a positive impact in the area, including more residents.

As Tony Matthews, a senior lecturer in urban and environmental planning at Australia's Griffith University, told Reuters, "New populations are likely to be needed to keep these areas buzzing and generating incomes. Some areas may need to be redesigned if they are no longer economically viable - retail districts, for example. Some office buildings may be demolished or repurposed, with the surrounding infrastructure and public space also changing in time."

The United Nations' forecast that the global population will have two-thirds of people living in urban areas by 2050. This is a 56 per cent increase from today. Imagine trying to address a pandemic for that number of people if we don't transform how we plan and design public spaces now?

It's hard to say whether the second wave of COVID-19 will be better or worse than the first, or if we encounter another virus with similar strength and transmission. However, with countries on lockdown, outdoor public paces will remain in high demand.

What do you think?