The pandemic has forced all of us to reexamine the way we live, and our relation to the places we live in. It’s a challenge every profession must address, as we face a seemingly inevitable second wave of the COVID-19 virus. And, while we all hope to be able to return to some sort of normal, perhaps we can glean some lessons from the experience of the past seven months.
We asked you, our readers and OALA members, what needs to change about the way we design spaces, in order to provide future public health resiliency, and what has changed irrevocably about the profession and the process of design, as a result of this pandemic?
Real Eguchi, Retired, Ground Advisory Panel Member:
To support public health, we need to expand our practice of designing resilient landscapes that embody localization and biodiversity. Healthy landscapes need to continue to demonstrate the importance of using local plant and other materials, while respecting ecological parameters. Speciesism and our anthropocentric hubris will clearly lead to social dysfunction with future natural disasters like climate change. Our landscape designs need to be lived-in works of art that enhance our ability to co-habitate with all species and support us physically, intellectually, and emotionally.
As we return to equity among all species and productive landscapes with enhanced local food security, we will also become more aligned with nature. In contrast to the design of our hyper-safe communities that delude us into believing we are not vulnerable to natural processes, the restoration of landscapes that support us locally will inherently promote an awareness that we are. This will give communities a foundation and agency for addressing future biological threats.
Perhaps this virus is a gift that reminds us we are all mortal and that we need to support those of us who are most vulnerable. With this awareness, we are inspired to plan and design landscapes that expand our sense of wholeness and deepen our level of ecological and emotional integration.
Jana Joyce and The MTBW Group:
Generally, it is understood that COVID-19 may not be the last global public health crisis we will experience: future potential crises will likely place the same demands on publicly accessible spaces we’ve seen this year. We examined four components of public space design for which new strategies may apply
• Movement Strategies: Movement to and through a public space has been highly impacted due to the physical distancing requirements.
• Safe Gathering Strategies: People need to have safe spaces to express gratitude, protest, or hold vigils for loved ones that have passed away. Being able to connect to our fellow humans seems to be a critical necessity during times of uncertainty. Although physical distancing needs to be accommodated, providing space for people to gather or visit is important.
• Amenity Design Strategies: We noted changes in how site amenities are being utilized. For example, benches and picnic tables, litter/recycling containers, water bottle refill stations, public washrooms, playgrounds. Thinking about how these features may exacerbate a public health situation allows us to consider design alternatives to make these features more accessible during a crisis.
• Temporary Scenario Strategies: Many temporary measures have been implemented to either restrict use of an area, or allow access to an area previously not intended for recreational use. Provisions could be made in park design to facilitate the implementation of temporary solutions.
At the planning and urban design level, we discussed the concept of spatial equity and the right for everyone to have equitable access to open space, particularly during a public health crisis. For infill areas, this becomes difficult, as the surrounding context is not a blank canvas in which to strategically allocate park space. Looking to the adjacent space network such as public streets, lanes, parking areas, school yards, and other privately-owned open spaces will be important in identifying opportunities to expand usable and available open space during an emergency. Having an ‘Emergency Response Open Space Plan’ in place for each neighbourhood would be helpful in managing the implementation of the response, educating the community, and in providing as much equitable access to space as possible.
Nick Onody, Director, MT Planners, Ltd.:
I believe (and hope) we will shift away from the highly programmed, highly designed public spaces that have become popular in the profession and sought after by city leaders in recent years. The pandemic has shown these spaces do not function when such programmatic opportunities are taken away. Instead, a shift towards larger, more ecologically focused, more flexible public spaces that can safely accommodate indeterminate programming and social distancing is clearly necessary. More ecologically-focused public spaces also have proven benefits as they relate to climate change, resiliency, human health, and an individual’s overall well-being.
In many ways, the pandemic is just one driver. The current Black Lives Matter Movement is further catalyzing a major shift in how landscape architects must approach equitable design. This is a real, top-down issue that starts with how cities, municipalities, and private organizations approach design team selection, and design applications and responses. Organizations must collectively become the voice of communities and focus on ensuring more equitable placemaking. This will also mean new approaches and methodologies to co-design that ensure inclusivity and representation from all—for example, shifting away from large town hall forums that have inherent biases, to digital and other tools brought to the people, making the process more equitable.
Andrew Macpherson, Division Manager, Parks Planning & Operations, City of London:
The pandemic has demonstrated the inherent value we, as professionals, place on parks and natural areas as a common value. It’s not just that all other places for the public to go were closed: parks were shown to be places of critical importance to people’s social, physical, and mental health. What’s changed is that these facts are now being touted publicly by others, like Medical Officers of Health. Even with “distancing,” parks are the busiest they have ever been—some overcapacity. We’ve had to adjust these lands to accommodate more users. Trails were made one-way. Pavilions, spray pads, and playgrounds were closed and, in some cases, reopened for reduced numbers. Park driveways were closed to cars.
Perhaps some of these temporary measures will continue—there is a lot of pressure to permanently close road lanes for cyclists. Other public spaces like main street boulevards are now coming back to life with the opening of patios, with larger ones competing for space in closed road lanes. Even if we return to “normal,” some of these positive, temporary changes to urban spaces may stick, and the space available for the work we do will grow. Either way, we need more flexibility in the function of our spaces to permit multiple uses, or non-use, while designing desirable places in our cities.
Walter Kehm, Senior Principal, LANDinc:
This current malaise must be seen in context of other epidemics we have faced and will continue to face. We have only to look at the demise of elm, chestnut, ash, lodgepole pine, and the evolving threats to oak, beech, maple, and hemlock, to witness virtual extinction of species in our lifetime.
• My experience after observing Tommy Thompson Park for over 35 years, relating now to the current nature/culture conditions, reveal the following:
• The urban wild principles that structure the master plan have allowed for a diversity of vegetative spaces to evolve with varying landscape niche spaces and qualities.
• Many small natural wild spaces create self-regulating conditions for dispersing people—no need for round circles.
• Natural succession has evolved into ever-changing plant, bird, fish, and mammal communities. Ecological centres of organization become self-regulating and enduring.
• The large land and water areas of the park allow for a variety of habitats to evolve and provide sufficient space for isolation and contemplation.
In contrast, we have too many small parks, or large parks that are primarily grass fields, that encourage human concentration. The nature/culture balance has been lost in the urban planning policies of cities and towns, with cultural requirements taking precedent over ecological systems. The resultant loss of diversity enhances epidemics and fosters the absence of landscapes which possess utility, commodity, and delight.
Leslie Norris, MLA, University of Toronto:
Working in Stockholm, Sweden, COVID has illuminated design aspects here that are reflective of a more egalitarian, community-minded approach, which facilitates the creation of a robust, resilient public realm. Two lessons to apply to Ontario for a more resilient public realm are:
Lesson 1: Returning to basic tenets from my biology background, corridors that connect habitat patches—in this scenario, parks—elevate the value of these individual patches, allowing for safe movement of individuals between them. In Stockholm, this connection exists as a ubiquitous network of bike and walking paths, and in many areas very wide sidewalks, that allow for the expansion of the private realm into the public realm, with minimal competition for space between the two. This allows the intricately intertwined public and private realms to interact and thrive outdoors together with increased safety, and creates large public swaths throughout the city, rather than tenuous tendrils of connection between heavily-used park patches. Within these corridors, smaller public spaces are imperative, as these allow individuals with limited mobility to seek refuge close to their residence.
Lesson 2: Quality public space cannot be a privilege for those with means, while existing as an afterthought for those without. Envisioning public space as a fundamental component for positive public health outcomes, especially in a crisis, allows more value to be placed on the many services provided by it, but it must be treated as a necessity for all residents. Public space in Stockholm consists of a rich array of parks, squares, pedestrian streets, and forest patches, both in the downtown core, as well as extending out towards the city periphery. Rather than shoehorning public space into leftover remnant spaces, post-development, public space is cohesively embedded in neighbourhoods.