A scene from a park or an active street on an ordinary day before the Covid-19 pandemic would have featured an assortment of activities. Be it pedestrians exchanging pleasantries on footpaths, children waiting for their turn to play on the swing in a public park or a theatre group performing a street play in the city plaza. In addition to the completely outdoor spaces, public infrastructures like theatres, indoor shopping complexes, railway and metro stations, and much more complete the public life. They play a major role in making the city a home for its dwellers.
Change is the only Constant
In his book, ‘Life Between Buildings’, Jan Gehl writes, “The character of the life between buildings changes with changes in the social situation, but the essential principles and quality criteria to be used when working for human quality in the public realm have proven to be remarkably constant”.
Just like all the other aspects of architecture, public spaces have been and will always keep changing with changing scenarios. The pandemic is a major global crisis and will have a lasting effect too. However, its unpredictability, the sudden lockdowns, and the gradual return to normalcy make us question the future character of the public spaces. Would people continue to use them? How would it incorporate new protocols like social distancing? Can some basic interventions help revive the public spaces in the city?
The Necessary Public Spaces and Safety
For smooth functioning of lifestyle, it is a basic requirement that public spaces provide for safety in functions like running errands, personal health routines, and subtle leisures. In such times, visits to neighborhood streets, grocery markets, etc become vital to maintaining physical and mental health for most. A Gehl Global Survey on the usage of public spaces during the pandemic gives interesting insights on their current usage. 65 percent of the people surveyed have been using public spaces rather thankfully, and the other 35 percent are avoiding going outdoors due to a general scare, safety issues with nearby spaces, age factors, etc. (Src: https://gehlpeople.com/blog/public-space-plays-vital-role-in-pandemic/)
The recent turn of events in the USA, HongKong, and Israel, has also outlined the need for public infrastructure which can allow for larger gatherings and demonstrations while maintaining safety through social distancing at the same time. This makes sure that the scare never comes in the way of maintaining the spirit of democracy and freedom.
The Social-Distancing Protocol and Innovation in Design
The social distancing protocol primarily involves maintaining a distance of a minimum of 6 feet between 2 people, avoiding unnecessary physical contact, and covering or shielding the face. Across the globe, many public spaces like restaurants, plazas, and parks; and many activities like picnics, clubbing, and cinema viewing have been altered with the help of designed demarcations and products. A few of the many innovations can be listed as follows:
1. Burger King in Germany introduced massive crowns, to ensure adequate distance among its customers.
2. Parc de la Distance is a public garden proposed in Vienna by Studio Precht. The visitors would be able to enjoy a 600 m long walk amidst the natural maze, within the bounds of social distancing rules.
3. A bar in Maryland is ensuring social distancing by introducing bumper tables supported by wheels, which can be worn by the diners. This innovative solution has been designed by Revolution Event Design and Production; a company based out of Baltimore.
4. Here Comes the Sun Picnic blanket, is an open-source design by Paul Cocksedge. The picnic blanket demarcates positions for sitting within the required distances.
5. In addition to these specific innovations, many authorities have been demarcating public spaces like beaches and gardens with ropes or tapes to make it convenient for the public to follow the protocol
Are homes the new plazas?
One of the cartoons of ‘An Ideal Home’ series by William Heath Robinson became viral on social media after the lockdown was imposed in most of the world. Titled ‘Sports without Broad Acres’ and drawn in 1933, the cartoon illustrates the possibility of modifying homes and especially balconies into spaces of public interaction and activity.
Since the pandemic forced most people to stay indoors, homes often became places of social interaction and entertainment. Windows and balconies especially became mediums to conduct various activities, be it Zumba classes through balconies in a senior citizen residence in Blainville, or delightful music sessions in the Italian balconies.
Pandemic and City Life
The post-pandemic scenario will witness numerous changes according to alterations in city life. With these changes in the concepts of public interaction, leisure activities, or just being out of the house, the notions of public spaces are sure to change. It thus becomes important to incorporate this factor in design, architecture, and policy.