The warm weather finally brings some good virus news. Slowly, using the latest available data and science, the world is reopening up. Non-essential stores, like Blogger's favorite places, are being cleared to reopen for in-store shoppers, albeit with limited capacity. Any day now, the hair salons will be allowed to reopen their doors and not a moment too soon for Blogger. Now that humanity is being allowed to slowly and carefully out of the house, it is time to imagine what publice space will look like once it becomes safe to go outside again.
Try to imagine what a public space, like an entertainment district, will or does look like now that we will have to live with social distancing and face masks. Think tape on the floor spaced six feet apart, taped off benches and tables, signs that warn you not to stand there or sit here. Tape has become the new low-tech weapon in COVID-19-induced urbanism, marking out the safe zones. Helpful low-key reminders about how engaging with urban space is incrementaly becoming regulated. Embrace the tape as a "...liberating force, breathing new flexibility into urban urban infrastructure that is built to resist change. The challenge of the next chapter will be to make flexibility permanent" (nymag.com; Apr. 27, 2020; date accessed May 25, 2020).
|Tactical urbanism project idea|
|Victorian London during the Cholera epidemic|
London is no stranger to viral epidemics. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the city was gripped by epidemics of The Plague. Broad Street was the epicenter of an outbreak of cholera during the mid-nineteenth century. Since the disastrous Influenza pandemic of 1918, London remained untouched by serious epidemics. Kind of amazing considering that the population density within its city limits averages about 7,200 people per square mile (2,800 per square kilometer). Density for the Greater London Urban area is an intense 15,400 people per square mile (6,000 per square kilometer) (worldcapitalcities.com; Aug. 17, 2018; date accessed May 26, 2020). The latest data puts that figure at 250,000, or 2.8 per cent of the population. This type of density makes it a very hospitable breeding ground for viruses and yet, here we are, only this time British medical and public health professionals are armed with modern medical and digital technologies. For those who could not flee the city, they must navigate at a socially safe distant twelve square meters, public--hard for most, impossible for key workers (fosterandpartners.com; May 14, 2020).
Many of the precautionary guidelines (masks and hand sanitizer) introduced in the wake of lock downs around the world have challenged the very fiber of cities, as well as the aspirations of planners and designers. Planners and designers create public spaces to facilitate social interaction. Be that as it may, safe social distancing means no socializing beyond the confines of your house. Planners argue in favor of public transportation yet public transport presents a risk calculation: Take the bus to work and risk infection or stay home? Malls and marketplaces have reconfigured themselves online. It is too early to tell what the post-COVID-19 world will look like but it could be a force for positive change.
|Imagined map of Emeryville, California|
Recently, CityLab asked people from all over the world to create maps of their lives under lockdown. The running theme in each of the hand drawn map submitted to the online journal were "...local parks and leafy streets. The buildings seemed to almost disappear, fading away to reveal just the streets, gardens and park"(fosterandpartners.com; May 14, 2020). The pandemic has highlighted the spatial inequalities, those who have access to gardens and parks and those who do not. One way to correct the imbalance is to reclaim space from cars and return it to people. Something new? No. Read on.
|Ebenezer Howard's Garden City Map|
Imagine, if you will, your city streets transforming themselves into lush green belts? That is the kind of creative thinking behind the nineteenth century Garden City Movement "aimed to marry the health benefits of nature with urban conveniences" (Ibid). Spending time outdoors is good for the mind, body, and soul. In Japan, doctors routinely prescribe time in nature as a remedy for certain medical ailments, and the science on biophilia and its myriad mental and physical health benefits supports it. Providing urban dwellers with "greener, safer, friendlier and by extension healthier streets..." (fosterandpartners.com; May 14, 2020) would help reduce the load on an overburden healthcare system.
Two examples are Derbyshire Pocket Park and Van Gogh Walk in the United Kingdom. These small, tactical interventions in the built environment is already showing potential to make a big impact by reducing social isolation (Ibid).
The typical Londoner spends forty-two minutes commuting, each way. This may not seem like a lot but it does add up over a year: "Over an average lifetime, a Londoner spends one full year in transit, travelling more than 225,000 kilometers in total--the equivalent of going 5.5 times around the equator" (Ibid). Pre-lockdown, 35.5 per cent of London journeys relied on public transport, 37 per cent used private motor vehicles, 25 per cent of travellers walked and only 2.5 percent cycle.
Since the lock down, London has experienced an 85-percent reduction (fosterandpartners.com; May 14, 2020) in vehicles on the road but there has been a surge in car rentals, indicating an uptick in automobile commutes by people concerned about contracting the virus on public transport. This trend threatens to undo the delicate efforts to curtail inner city air pollution from auto travel. "As pubic transport will continue to be a source of angst for travellers, the logical solution is to invest in pedestrian and cycling infrastructure" (Ibid).
Cities have taken advantage of newly vested emergency powers granted to them by state governments, have taken it upon themselves to widen bicycle lands and sidewalks. For example, Paris, France added 650 kilometers, Lima, Peru laid down an addition 300 kilometers, and New York City added an additional 64 kilometers, of new bike lanes (Ibid). More modestly, measures are being rolled out across the UK with road closures, speed restrictions, pop-up bike lanes and wider pavements. In 2016, London appointed its first Commissioner of Walking and Cycling, an indication that it is a city is moving toward a two feet and two wheels is better than four strategy .(fosterandpartners.com; May 14, 2020). The pandemic crisis has presented a unique opportunity to speed up these changes. Mayor Sadiq Khan and the Transport for London recently unveiled the London Streetscape programme, "which will rapidly transform London's street to accommodate a possible ten-fold increase in cycling and five-fold increase walking when lockdown restrictions are eased, and the government had pledged a two billion pound fund to boost active mobility (fosterandpartners.com; May 14, 2020).
The big challenge is identifying shifts in mobility patterns and methods of transportation. Designers and planners would have to defer to local authorities to identify which streets are best suited for creative reuse. Until then transportation data sets can mined to easily target streets that could be made more walkable or bicycle-friendly.
|Map of the City of London|
London's Square Mile and the City of Westminster are home to the British capital's job sits on just 1.5 per cent of its land. "There are 7.5 times as many jobs as residents in these two local authorities,... which explains the everyday commuter congestion as people flood into these centres of work" (fosterandpartners.com; May 14, 2020). Last year, the number of UK residents working from home was just five percent. Today, due to the unprecedented response to the Covid-19 crisis, that figure stands at 50 per cent. Returning workers to the office will, no doubt, be a slow and arduous process. Understandable given the benefits of working from home, no stress commute times, taking breaks when you need to, wearing pajamas all day.
|Shout out to Manchester|
Manchester, England, UK
The COVID-19 pandemic and the move to working from home has ground everything along main streets--except essential businesses--to a halt. Empty storefronts make good venues for community co-work spaces and other functions to provide a good place for sidelined workers needing a change of environment (or escape from the kids). Until the architecture catches up with the new found interest in flexible work situations, the network of small-scale co-work spaces could be the new main street flagship stores. This would go along way to reviving overlooked neighborhoods or lead to rampant gentrification.
As cities slowly return to life, the lessons of COVID-19 will greatly inform the decision making process for designers and planners. Consider the lesson of the humble roll of electrical tape, used to mark off space in six-foot increments. This has forced food stores to limit the number of customers at one time, thus making the aisles more passable and change behavior. Fewer customers at a given time also leads to more attentive customer service. Hesitation about taking public transportation and fewer cars on the road has led to greater explorations of one's own community. The great outdoors has become the great outdoors at your doorstep. Imagine that? Empty main street storefronts converted into co-work spaces? The potential is endless but what is endless is the need for more strategies that incorporate more flexibility in the way we work and the way we move from place to place