Public spaces bind communities, they are the lungs of a city, but the current reality has nudged people to question the impact of these spaces on their health and well-being. From time to time, they have defined how cities are remembered starting from forums, public baths, and amphitheaters of Rome, to the courtyards of temple complexes in India.
Public squares that were once hubs of vibrancy and activity are now experiencing the silence of the times. The post-pandemic scenario will witness numerous changes in squares according to alterations in city life. Along with these changes, designers, architects and urban planners will also have to rethink the concepts of public spaces throughout the city. 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 a necessity to incorporate this factor in design, architecture, and policy.
The revival of public squares aims to reflect on a new creative idea of the spaces questioning people who use and live in those spaces about the associated reuse-value and problems to create new vibrant, creative, and liveable spaces to use as city squares.
The top of the busiest tourist attractions in the world is now an abandoned intersection. The silence and the emptiness developed in these times around the public spaces is difficult to adapt to. Before the pandemic made its way to the US, Times Square welcomed hundreds of thousands of people each day. Most were tourists, but some were residents passing through for work or leisure. Today, the streets are empty. The only vehicles that can see on these roads are police cruisers.
Along with the change of hustling and bustling in these squares, human behavior will also need to change as these squares adapt to the new normal.
Five pointers for reactivating public spaces in the new normal are immediate term course of actions that can follow to make public spaces operational again-
First, organized open space can be made comfortable and accessible through crowd management techniques like staggered timings, limiting the number of people at a given time, maintaining the measures of social distancing among people and extending hours for areas that have regulated access. Under these conditions, ensuring safety and security will also become significant. To that end, both low and high-technology innovations can offer solutions (such as demand management apps) to achieve the desired measures. These value-added services can be provided at nominal costs and become a source of revenue for the maintenance of these public spaces.
Second, collaboration with local health departments for daily sanitization of public spaces and adequate provision of clean public toilets and handwashing facilities is imperative. Along with that sanitization of street furniture around the public square is also an important measure that needs to be taken. For instance, taps operated by foot-pedals should explore as they can reduce the number of touchpoints in public space.
Third, more than ever, there is now a case for creating complete streets that offer space for all user groups. It can do on existing streets by repurposing residual right-of-way and bringing it into the public realm. Also, through staggered access, certain ‘last-mile’ streets can be marked for use by pedestrians and non-motorized transport only, thereby supporting the requisite physical distancing that may be required.
Fourth, a necessary step in recovery would be to increase the supply of public spaces which would result in better management through dispersed use and also have the co-benefits that result from enhancing natural infrastructure. One way this can be achieved is through shared use agreements for spaces like school playgrounds, college compounds, commercial and public building rooftop access.
Finally, while a majority of these recovery actions will need facilitation by the government, individual-level precautions and behavior change will be key in bringing back normalcy to public spaces.
During the pandemic, most people avoid leaving their homes unless it is necessary. Emptiness in the built environment has spread wildly, and we witness the consequences of the fragility of our systems. As this pandemic has given new norms for socialising, the public areas, squares and streets will also need new norms and better functioning while the world re – opens. Though this unexpected disruption is changing the dynamics, it also creates a new room to access our existing public spaces as well as rethink public-ness and the future of urban public spaces.