What counts as a public space? Theoretically, any space that can be accessed by anyone can be referred to as a public space. Streets, parks, public squares, beaches, plazas, and sidewalks are a few common examples. But what if people are barred from accessing these spaces, is it fair to address them as ‘public spaces’? They have always been looked at as transitional spaces between private spaces and treated as ancillary spaces. We always realize the significance of a person or a thing once it leaves the nest. This narrative runs through people realizing the importance of public spaces during the pandemic. Public spaces play a diverse yet vital role in the everyday lives of people.
According to scientific experts, good air quality is imperative to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Sufficient natural air circulation in closed spaces and the discontinuance of air conditioners ensure moderate indoor air quality. Leaning on public spaces is the most feasible option, especially parks and recreational spaces. An ambient view, rustling leaves, chirping birds, and a crisp gush of air up the nostrils, is all one needs after an exasperating day at work. It is a jovial escape for mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Scientific studies have reported a decline in the atmospheric levels of NO2 and CO owing to the lockdown measures.
While many public spaces remained stranded during the lockdown, others were adopted by the people to suit their current needs. Popular transitional public spaces like subways and sidewalks underwent a role reversal. A high footfall with bodies brushing against each other and constant babbling was unprecedently replaced by bodies separated by two meters at all times and muffled voices behind masks. Gym equipment and benches remained empty as people used open spaces to spread out and do their workouts. Spillover spaces experienced more footfall than functional spaces.
Individual health certainly holds the highest priority. However, collective resilience and well-being is a direct determinant of individual health. People realized this when they were pulled away from the public spaces. Disappointingly, they were told to bar activities that were particularly meant to take place in public spaces.
People reminisced about the most trivial aspects of public spaces, from walking into a cloud of smoke to inhaling the fragrance of alluring flowers, all things good and bad. Letting your legs leverage the liberty of choosing any direction and walking into any store. From putting up with the commotion generated by a multitude of people and objects to hearing sounds of nature. The joy of jumping into puddles, sitting on the sidewalk to get a panoramic view of the streetscape, greeting people with a gentle smile, and a range of other activities. We all have the right to a healthy, uplifting public life. The adrenaline rush that arises after witnessing religious or matrimonial processions, silent candle marches, or violent protests.
The unprecedented consequences of coronavirus have deprived us of a shared purpose. Public spaces make us feel an abundance of emotions. Astonishingly, we didn’t realize the degree of impact that this fountain of emotions could have on us till coronavirus took over. The astounding silence in the streets and otherwise bustling public spaces has brought on a gloomy feeling. Feeling lonely despite being surrounded by so many people is the most dominant feeling. The street light is not casting its warmth on vehicles or people but on an empty tar road that bears no life.
People had been reduced to robots who come out onto the streets only to run errands. They were ripped off of the power to exercise their senses. They were permitted to only see and hear. Smelling, tasting, and touching were prohibited. Who had anticipated this big a loss?
On the contrary, a large group of people was exhilarated at the thought of not leaving their house. They didn’t want to step out at all. Another segment of the population ventured out to purchase their essentials only. According to the Gehl study, from the 2000 respondents hailing from 40 U.S. states, 68 countries, and every continent, almost 35% of respondents stayed at home and only stepped out for groceries.
People are leaning on public spaces for social, cultural, environmental, and economic resilience. The alarming shift in behavioural and mobility patterns has inflated footfall in some areas while shrinking it in others. This is leading to a major imbalance in public spaces and threatening the safety of people. Is this the time to gear up and make changes that are more accommodating of the swelling global population while maintaining a safe distance at all times? Should we adapt to our public spaces or will they adapt to our current needs arising from the ongoing crisis?
One thing that we have learned the hard way is that we have developed a deeper understanding of human connections. For once, all the superficial layers have been stripped away to bring every individual to a leveled platform. Public spaces are just inanimate but what we make of them and what they bring out in us is what matters the most. Urban designers, planners, and strategists have spent years trying to work on projects that foster community bonds, but it took a pandemic to fulfill this purpose. Once ‘normality’ returns, this bond should not change. It is not just about realizing the inherent value of public spaces but also absorbing the positive impact that they can have on individuals and communities. On a positive note, now that people have realized the significance of public spaces, they will engage in, contribute and support projects that boost public health.
As the Jan Gel community has it, “we see glimpses of how this global pandemic could have a silver lining for public space and life the world over – one where public spaces and streets are truly thought of as shared public space, where nature is prioritized and where the right to breathe clean air and feel connected to our communities is at the center of everything we plan in the future”.
Gehl. 2021. Public Space and Public Life are more important than ever – Gehl. [online] Available at: <https://gehlpeople.com/blog/public-space-and-public-life-are-more-important-than-ever/> [Accessed 10 August 2021].
Gehl. 2021. Public Space plays vital role in pandemic – Gehl. [online] Available at: <https://gehlpeople.com/blog/public-space-plays-vital-role-in-pandemic/> [Accessed 10 August 2021].
Sharifi, A. and Khavarian-Garmsir, A., 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic: Impacts on cities and major lessons for urban planning, design, and management.