Public spaces have always served as a platform for people to engage, interact, mingle and socialize. Individuals from diverse backgrounds converge at this point to share their ideas, values, and beliefs. This justifies its complex nature. The quality of public spaces in a particular city determines the overall public health—both physical and psychological.
If designed well, they support the notion of “healthier cities” over cities that only address their citizens’ financial and economic concerns. Even micro-interactions have individual and collective benefits. Public spaces are intricately woven into the urban landscape.
The amplified consequences of covid-19 are calling for reimagination and redesigning of public spaces. Having spent months together in isolation, the mental health of the majority of the population has been compromised. Their innate desire to interact with people in public spaces has reached its peak. Studies show that loneliness can cause depression, heart problems, and reduced life expectancy. Making public spaces safe for people to use is a challenging task.
Short-term solutions and initiatives are taking care of these current requirements, but day after day, public officials and public health experts are realizing the need to tailor public spaces so that they comply with the current necessities. Long-term solutions need to be devised for the population’s benefit.
In that case, how can we rethink and reimagine public spaces without delineating their primary purpose?
As public spaces are already complex, the added complex layer of the pandemic calls for a pressing need to devise empathetic strategies over strategies that meet only the technical standards. People need sensitively formulated and implemented public space design solutions that resonate with and meet their needs.
They need strategies that emphasize the positive aspects of social distancing instead of “do not sit here,” “do not touch” and X-ed out spaces and stickers. The tape has certainly made it to the list of pandemic architectural elements. But people need more than that. They need an urban landscape that sensitively ensures social distancing and resonates with the overarching social and emotional needs of its users.
Streets for People
The notion of “streets for automobiles” has to be replaced by “streets for people”. Do people belong to places or do places belong to people? Everything around us is created for us, for the people, for its users. Hence, they need to be prioritized over vehicles. Earlier, the carriageways were demarcated and the leftover spaces were designated for pedestrians. This system has evolved over the past few years to carve out pedestrian zones first and then designate carriageways.
This pandemic has reinforced the need to have access to public spaces for their overall well-being. Streets that are mostly dominated by fast-moving vehicles need to be transformed into “slow-streets” that prioritize pedestrian traffic. Equitable sharing of streets has to be ensured. The first step towards this would be to realize that streets are for the people and they need to be designed accordingly.
The feeling of loneliness is contagious, just like the virus. The marginalized population has to deal with the unfair treatment meted out to them by the people and places they come across. This makes them feel alone and left out. The pandemic has further widened the gap that they’ve already been experiencing. How can we make our public spaces inclusive so that they embrace diverse perspectives? Inclusivity strengthens community bonds and improves public health. Making them universally accessible can bring about a huge optimistic change.
Change in Shopping Patterns
The closure of malls due to being air-conditioned has inflicted loss on many businesses. It has also affected the shopping patterns of many people. As most of them have resorted to online shopping, the thought of getting everything delivered to your doorstep has remained intact. Shopping experiences in themselves are an insightful journey. People from different backgrounds have their paths crossed with each other. This experience is completely different from online shopping and relatively enriching.
The joy of being able to exercise all your senses in a market or shopping plaza is quite exhilarating. In that case, can a designated vendor zone or shopping plaza be created for people to make the most of their shopping experiences? This will positively impact the buyers as well as the sellers.
Platform for artists
Every individual tries to find their place in the public realm, a comfort zone. A small personal bubble within the larger public bubble. Some people find it comforting to be surrounded by a bunch of people while others prefer a cosy nook. Public spaces are open platforms for exhibiting art which is a depiction of an individual’s thought process, emotions, and beliefs. Public art, performance art, murals, sculptures, and memorials are a few of the probable outcomes. It helps them reach out to a larger audience and channelize the desired energy.
Encouraging and promoting artists can help people resonate with them and support each other. Public spaces can also be used to communicate significant messages through art. This way the intended message is delivered sensitively and the artists get a creative outlet.
This pandemic-induced lockdown has seen a stark rise in the adoption of pets as they provide healthy companionship. They increase opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities. Many people have succumbed to the loneliness inflicted on them by the lockdown. Stepping out of their personal bubble could be challenging and affects their physical and mental health. Pets play the role of social lubricants. They encourage comfortable levels of socialization.
Consequently, adapting urban environments for pets has become an open dialogue. Not every other individual is comfortable having pets around. Hence, a designated area might help people get together while still being in their comfort bubbles.
Every segment of the street has a unique set of characteristics, its own identity. Every identity is entitled to a unique set of solutions. Public spaces cannot be pulled out of a mold. They need to be shaped by their surroundings and intended core values. Change is inevitable but this pandemic has induced irreversible change and damage. The needs and desires of people have changed from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.
The local needs and considerations should seep into the ideas that build a public space. A template of public spaces cannot be applied across a city or even a neighbourhood. They need to be carefully curated with inputs from the community to ensure community cohesion.
Paradoxically, covid-19 has the potential to boost public health as it is catalyzing some trends that were planned for the future. It is only because of this pandemic that everyone realized the significance of public spaces. This pandemic has certainly flipped the concept of public spaces. Public spaces are for the people and the current circumstances are dictating the way they should be. We are a part of the public and we should actively participate in the creation of a healthy and cohesive public environment.
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