“Natural disasters and health crises/epidemics serve as constant reminders of the fragility of humankind’s engineering and the importance of landscape planning and design to provide therapeutic places for people,” - Akum Maduka, How landscapes help heal our physical and mental health
In the wake of COVID-19, access to green spaces has become a necessity in our cities, especially ones with higher densities.
As landscape architects, we have always been in tune with the innate value of outdoor spaces and their impact on our physical and mental health. This is especially true amid a pandemic.
Over the last few months, many articles, blogs and social media posts have marvelled at the number of people filling up the streets and parks in cities around the world. Of course, as we’ve seen with Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto, ON, this dialogue hasn’t always been positive.
Nina-Marie Lister, the graduate program director of urban planning at Toronto’s Ryerson University, told the Canadian Press that while the scenes from Trinity Bellwoods Park were upsetting, it wasn’t all that surprising. “Where density is high, and people are primarily living in condos, they are likely to congregate in a limited number of [public] spaces.”
What it also highlights is how short-sighted we’ve been in planning and creating equitable spaces for people. In other words, “as long as public parks are one of the few options available for people to enjoy the outdoors in a densely populated city, they’re going to get crowded.”
Before this pandemic, cities and municipalities attempted to revitalize urban centres to stop urban sprawl and its impacts on the environment. They promoted collective and community living through innovative co-housing projects and active mass transportation systems. We lived within the “share everything” era, such as car-sharing, public bikes, scooters, and other urban systems to serve re-densified core areas.
However, now, this idyllic lifestyle has been turned upside down. According to Michael Kimmelman for the New York Times, pandemics can be seen as anti-urban, because they exploit our impulse to congregate. We have indeed seen some dramatic changes in how we use urban spaces over the past few months since the pandemic started, including city lockdowns, mandatory quarantining and social distancing.
Due to these measures, public spaces are not always accessible to everyone or at least the people who need them most, i.e. those who live-in high-density neighbourhoods or residential buildings without private green space. These limitations can have severe impacts on our health.
Our daily routines, for example, have been dramatically changed. But the effects of remote working options have also had an unprecedented impact on residential and commercial real estate. From physical changes in the layout of the offices and shops to restoration and improvements in the residential units to variances in the property tax, bills and legal affairs--are rapidly changing due to the pandemic.
Let’s have a look at the impact on the following sectors and how landscape architects can help property managers navigate through the changes:
Although construction was not paused in many places, the property sales market has dropped significantly in Canada since the lockdown measures started. However, protection plans on the rental market have stopped evictions, allowing tenants to fall into poverty without fear of homelessness.
Confined to our homes, the use and maintenance of shared and public spaces have become more evident. This works for all who have access or transportation to these shared spaces, although the rest relies on private balconies, courtyards, patios, and terraces for their outdoor experience. For this reason, these spaces call for innovation and thoughtful design.
Balconies that face green spaces are more logical than ones that face parking lots. Developers can make the simple move of planting trees next to apartment buildings, providing shade to lower units and creating sound and visual street barriers for higher units. Courtyards large enough to safely gather must not be overlooked, either. They provide wonderfully calm outdoor experiences which usually have amazing city sound deadening qualities.
Depending on the social level of tenants, patios can be utilized to create stronger connections or disconnections to their neighbours. Or if the patio is street level, why not open the patio to the building yard and increase their outdoor square footage tenfold? If developers are after a more unique street-to-building connection, terraces offer a high level of connectedness to the street below.
Focusing on making these spaces as enjoyable as possible is key to a happy and healthy mind.
Retail sectors, like grocery shops and supermarkets, have seen the benefits of people staying at home rather than eating out. In contrast, restaurateurs and retail owners struggle to pay rent and mortgages due to the lockdown restrictions on physical distancing and the switch to mostly online shopping, which might be life-threatening for a business that was not previously on the virtual market. Bringing retail from inside space to an outdoor one is a great move.
Even though this step is weather and climate dependant, if possible, invite customers strolling through a neighbourhood with street-front retail. The lack of walls and the addition of outdoor elements makes for a far more relaxed and happier shopping environment.
Office spaces might switch to a different layout to make employees feel safer and more comfortable. Even if this means the creation of small, low occupancy, outdoor-safe areas. As landscape architects, we can help property managers improve the quality of the shared spaces to achieve better social distancing and personal wellbeing, all at the same time.
We must also call on better design of private-public open spaces like front yards, balconies, patios and terraces. Outdoor areas which serve as extensions of the interior (balconies, patios, and terraces) cannot be redesigned from the ground up to meet new socially distant parameters. We must call to our creative minds and rethink our current spaces, such as not only operating at a lower capacity but distancing tables and dividing them through plants or other means to provide a more intimate, safer feeling situation.
Ensuring outdoor users safe is absolutely necessary when opening balconies, patios, and terraces back to the public, but by no means should we stop there. As landscape architects, we must provide creative solutions to the complex issues which face our world today.
Many countries have already implemented changes in real estate policies to lessen the burden of tenants and landlords, measures like rent and mortgage holidays, rental rebates or discounts, suspension of evictions, tax reliefs for retailers, etc.
Property managers can apply measures to help protect the tenants while keeping them safe and informed. If and when the pandemic ends, we suggest taking these ideas into account to improve the wellbeing of tenants.
The most vibrant cities are those who work to become more inclusive and integrated with the services provided. Dense urban centres are the complement between the social and financial interaction cities need to thrive.
At Nadi, we continue to support our clients in finding the best solutions to their projects, always through comprehensive approaches on urban design and planning to create communities that are resilient, efficient, respectful with the environment and safe places for all.