COVID Insights, Perspectives 04.16.2020

Next Year in the Park: Will the Public Realm ever be the Same?

By Andrew Frontini

This story was originally published in Canadian Architect. It is being republished here with their permission. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the way we move through and occupy space, and it will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. With mandated social distancing and restrictions on travel projected to be in place through the remainder of the year, it is unlikely that the way we gather and interact in public spaces will ever be the same. As the current patterns of use become habitual, new cultural practices will evolve around them, including the practice of design.  What will the architecture and urbanism of a post-pandemic society look like?

Albion Library with foodie festival outside.
Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library

The New Resilience

Between 2017 and 2019, Perkins and Will worked with The Rockefeller Foundation to develop the 100 Resilient Cities framework for Toronto and other North American cities. Climate-related stresses, social equity and economic vulnerability topped the resilience categories for most cities. While health risks were presented in the framework, the threat of contagion was not prioritized. Of course, with COVID-19 upon us, our priorities have shifted radically since then. The need to create societal resilience against a pandemic should now be a global priority. Regardless of whether and when a vaccine against the virus becomes available, the way we move through and occupy space will remain the most significant factor in the resilience of society. But humans need social interaction to survive as a species. How can we design the public spaces in our buildings and cities to be resilient to such a health crisis, so that our mental, physical and economic health can be maintained?

Rendering of Meadoway at an intersection of trails.

Social Distance and the New Modular

The streets and buildings we use today have been shaped by many generations of regulatory governance, most of which were developed as a response to other public health crises. Your bedroom has windows today because tuberculosis was the largest cause of childhood morbidity during the height of the Industrial Revolution in England. More recently, our society has come to recognize the benefits of inclusivity and access for all. In response, new contributions to the public realm are very different than those of twenty years ago—in their geometry, configuration and materiality. Building codes— driven by fire safety, rather than the proximity of one individual to another—already establish the permissible density of occupation for any space typology.

We are in the process of “trying on” a new dimensional parameter for shared space—the agreed-upon social distance minimum of two metres. In the coming months, we will likely attempt to restart the global economy and begin working together in shared space. Our first tentative forays will almost certainly see the emergence of a new approach to architecture. While the idea of a two-metre circle around every individual may now seem prosaic, as a design driver, it will be immediate and profound.

The spaces of our cities will also be subject to the same drivers. The cross-section of a typical Toronto street, with its narrow sidewalks and wide vehicular corridors, simply can’t accommodate the safe occupation of the public realm under the new social distancing requirements. There are, of course, opportunities to improvise based on the current conditions. With traffic volumes drastically reduced, it would be a relatively simple fix to designate certain streets as car-free and to finally realize urbanists’ dreams of a network of pedestrian and cycling boulevards. This simple strategy would provide multiple benefits for health, well-being and commerce, and can easily be beta-tested throughout a variety of locations.

Parks and plazas have the potential to evolve through similar low-cost, largely behaviour-driven adaptations. Before the city-wide closure of sports fields and park amenities, social distance-compliant games of basketball and volleyball were cropping up across Toronto parks, complete with new chalk-line court layouts to regulate proximity. We are inventing new games and new spatial frameworks to support them. In an ideal world, the COVID-19 virus would subside, leaving us with cultural adaptations that “stick” because they are beneficial, profitable or just plain fun.

Rendering of Meadoway at Highland Creek

The Architecture of Hygiene

The universal stay-at-home strategy is supported by unprecedented digital connectivity and an army of people delivering goods to our doorstep, continuing to operate at risk of exposure. Our fraught relationship with the public bathroom (and public amenities in general) makes it very difficult for food delivery drivers to maintain the recommended hand-washing regimen. In a recent trip to Mexico City, I was impressed by the ubiquity of clean, safe public restrooms. This infrastructure supports street vendors, buskers and other service providers who spend the whole day in the public realm. In this case—and in many European cities—the public privy is integrated into a significant public structure, such as in market halls, where washrooms have a full-time attendant. The Roman Empire built great basilicas for public hygiene. The architecture of the Ottoman Empire reached its highest point under Suleyman, an architect-ruler who elevated the act of cleansing before prayer to shape space. The procession through a traditional Japanese house starts with the removal of shoes, which conditions the occupant’s relationship with the ground plane. In Canada, we will need to reframe our relationship with public plumbing and amenities.  If we are to control the current pandemic and mitigate the impact of future ones, the architecture of hygiene will need to make a resurgence.

The Time-Share City

The central business district of every city on earth has been vacated seemingly overnight. Venturing past the Perkins and Will studio downtown at Yonge and Adelaide last week, I was shaken by the emptiness. Will we ever return to this vast spatial inventory to work and socialize? Will we ever need the attendant public realm?

But in reality, the question is not “if “but rather “when” and “how” we migrate back into spaces. At first, we may take turns and maintain much of the work-from-home patterns that we have adopted. In order to maintain social distance during this reintegration period, we will likely reduce the density of people per hour, but will distribute this occupation over more of the clock face. Weeks and days without precise boundaries have already become familiar to us. Work-from-home has taught us that “rush hour” is an unnecessary construct, and that you should work when you feel productive. This all points to a new version of the city that would be more sparsely populated at any given hour, but be alive around the clock. This version of urban life may indeed have staying power, offering a healthier, more relaxed and open-ended experience.

The Natural City – Nature Strikes Back and Comes Back

A truly remarkable aspect of the current pandemic crisis is the speed and consistency with which governments around the world acted in unison to bring public life and economic activity to a virtual standstill in a matter of weeks. There are a few reasons to believe that such unilateral action to COVID-19 may bode well for another great threat: climate change. First, we have an awareness that governments actually can mobilize to address a common need. The muscles are there, and the motivation may become quite apparent through this present crisis.  The global economy—and human activity in general—have been vastly curtailed for barely a month, and Mother Nature is already making a comeback. Carbon emissions are projected to drop by 4% compared to 2019 levels. More immediately felt is the migration of animal species back into the city, and the bold presence of urban fauna being seen by day in city parks, streets and college campuses. Could the city—occupied at a lower density—become the “natural city,” where the underutilized infrastructure of the pre-COVID-19 era is returned to natural systems that both enhance and support the urban experience?

Rendering of Meadoway at Western Gate.

Reclaiming the Public Realm

By the time the summer solstice rolls around, most of us will have widely adapted to the new norm of virtual socializing and work. Having just conducted two Passover Seders over Zoom, I can tell that sometimes this convenience outweighs the restrictions on free movement (including the drive to Toronto’s northern suburbs).

An ever-increasing variety of food, commodity and entertainment are brought into our homes through a narrow set of information and logistical conduits. In this country, we have never surrendered such complete control of our freedom of movement and propriety of information to so select a body of corporate and governmental entities. We understand that these restrictions are the only way to combat the current crisis. But how much will we have given up by the time the immediate threat retreats? Unmediated and spontaneous social interaction in public spaces is essential to a democratic society. Our parks, plazas, beaches and boardwalks have now become places we can only move through. We cannot linger, gather to play, or congregate. And while these restrictions are necessary to combat the current crisis, designers of buildings and cities must keep an eye on the future.

Right now, as architects, we need to examine how the public realm can be both safe to occupy in the short-term, resilient to a possible next wave of contagion, and supportive of the democratic ideals we hold dear. The new modular of social distancing, the architecture of hygiene, the time-share city and the natural city are just some of the possible strategies we can engage to reclaim the public realm when the time is right.