What can COVID-19 show us about our public spaces?

by | Apr 30, 2020

COVID-19 has already changed many aspects of our daily lives from work, leisure, socialising and our commute. The heightened awareness of routines, other people as well as our local surroundings is a unique opportunity for public space planners and managers to explore our relationship with public spaces. This is especially relevant for local councils who directly manage or plan for a variety of public spaces including beaches, parks, foreshore land, sports grounds, bike path networks and local street fronts. What can we learn? What are the opportunities? And what will people take away from this experience?

What has happened?

Public health ordered closures and restrictions have reduced the orbit of many people to their local neighbourhood, if not their own home. This has caused all sorts of interesting disruptions to normal patterns of use of public spaces. It has also put pressure on local councils to manage closures or attempt to retain access for different public spaces.

The lockdown has shown us what some of our public spaces are like without the ‘public’, with empty streets, playgrounds, parks and transit hubs. This is a rare opportunity to see ‘the bones’ of spaces when they’re not being used. It highlights that people ‘make’ public spaces and that on the other side of this pandemic, placemaking will be important to restore confidence in spaces being used.

The design, size and type of public space matter

When people are restricted to their local area the design, ratios and accessibility of public space, particularly recreational space, becomes apparent. Add in a 1.5m personal bubble and change the permitted activities and suddenly the available space looks quite different.

Current intensified use in some local areas can show where planned allocation of space and design has resulted in relatively high or low liveability and how adaptable our public spaces are to changes in circumstance and need. Maybe some are too prescriptive in their activities. Others maybe too limited in size or have contact pinch points which means that they’re now off-limits.

The mix of types of public spaces in an area is important and can be seen in the public spaces people gravitate towards at this time. Natural areas and ‘unstructured and unprescribed’ spaces are valued at times like this. This is in contrast to specific exercise areas such as sports grounds and playgrounds which are closed under current restrictions.

Importance of physical exercise

With exercise being one of the few public activities allowed under the current social distancing rules, cycling has seen a spike in popularity, as has walking. This is anecdotally evident in the local communities in which we live. There are lots of young families cycling together for exercise and people walking around neighbourhoods.

This increased pedestrian and cycle use is highlighting where vehicle access has been prioritised in the allocation of space or the network is deficient. It also shows how the use of spaces is responding to reduced vehicle traffic. Streets are becoming far more ‘calm’ to cater for the increased cycle and walking activities.

Looking forward when we design public spaces in the future, enhancing pedestrian and cycling facilities will help continue to favour this new way of life. Some monitoring and data gathering now could help guide councils’ strategies such as Pedestrian Access and Mobility Plans.

Evolving the way we use traditional open space

This pandemic has also enhanced and accelerated some existing trends in public space and some changes might be here to stay. For example:

  • Urban Farming – Even before the increased focus on local self-sufficiency, many cities and towns are looking to include edible plantings in public spaces. This includes fruit trees as well as integrating vertical, kerbside and community gardens into designs.
  • Main street shops – Many shops forced to close may never return – especially in combination with the current crisis reinforcing the switch to online retailing. Main streets may need to rethink how they use the retail spaces and the public space that connects them.
  • Markets and mobile food vendors – An order from the State Government currently allows mobile food vendors to operate anywhere as long as they have the permission of the landowner. Similar measures of increased kerbside dining permissions to enable appropriate social distancing have given communities a taste of how things could be. This along with the resurgent popularity and local nature of markets could change how we use some public spaces.

Opportunities for transition and evaluation in the lockdown

Councils can use the disruption and changed traffic to trial or transition use of connections. Footpath widening, reallocation of lanes to buses or cyclists or traffic exclusion such as being undertaken in Centennial parkland could establish a new normal that would have been otherwise disruptive.

On a local level, this could include councils trialling ‘tactical urbanism’ techniques such as pilots and pop-up interim treatment to make it safer and easier for people to get around the neighbourhood. Or it may be installing public art to brighten up a lacklustre public area.

The potential fear of public spaces in the future-

Even when the pandemic is over, people may fear public spaces or change how they interact with them. This anti-urban sentiment may affect governments placemaking strategies for public spaces. Strategies may need to refocus on providing ‘clean’ areas, so people interact as a community.

A step towards this can be seen in spaces where accessible design has been applied. Not only valuable for those with mobility issues, but it can also reduce pinch points for the general public. For example, wide paths with good grades and surfaces can mean no stairs with handrails or tight passing points reducing shared contact.

What will the legacy be?

The current situation is a time-limited opportunity of having an engaged public restricted to and thinking about their local area and noticing how they use public spaces. For the public spaces that councils’ manage or plan for, it is worth taking note of what the current situation has highlighted about your local public spaces.

It is uncertain which new habits will last or if expectations on design and availability of public spaces will change. However, some of these outcomes are within the control of local councils and provide an opportunity for a new perspective on public spaces.

If you would like more information, or to discuss further, please contact Steve 

Steve Thompson Director Planning and Strategy

Steve Thompson

Director - Planning and Strategy

T   0419 700 401

E   steve@localeconsulting.com.au

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