Insight from "Reframing the Role of Public Space during and after the COVID-19 Pandemic"
7 May, 2020

The webinar was initiated and hosted by Luisa Bravo (City Space Architecture/Journal of Public Space) and Hendrik Tieben (Chinese University of Hong Kong) as the first event of the project: “2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID19 Pandemic”. For the first session they invited four speakers to present perspectives from different parts of the world (Seattle, New York, Guayaquil, and Cairo) following the spread of the pandemic. In addition, they invited Jose Chong from the Global Public Space Programme of UN Habitat, for a global perspective on the current issues arising from the pandemic for public space. 

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Jeff Hou
Director, Urban Commons Lab, University of Washington, USA

The community has shown its resilience during the pandemic. Storefronts have become canvas for local artists, a truly coordinated neighbourhood effort with local donations of supplies and materials. As Jeff notes, this is “one of few bright spots in terms of community resilience and the transformation of the public realm, our streets have never been so colourful and interesting.” Community-based organisations and individuals organised themselves to help those in need, especially senior citizens under the stay-at-home order and local businesses that were hit. Students, albeit without access to school facilities, created production lines to fabricate personal protection equipment for healthcare workers, 552 units fabricated and shipped to New Orleans, Brooklyn, Atlanta, and Seattle.

Efforts like this created a form of public space when the actual physical space is no longer available or accessible, and that to me was perhaps the most powerful thing that I’ve witnessed during the current pandemic, one that I think challenged the common assumptions of how public realm and public space function.

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Setha Low
Director, Public Space Research Group, Center for Human Environments at the Graduate Center of City University of New York, USA

Setha acutely pointed out how distribution of COVID cases were lower in wealthier neighborhoods like Manhattan, Park Slope, Carol Gardens in Brooklyn as compared to outer boroughs where more people of color, lower income individuals, African-Americans and Latinos live, reflecting the inequality of access to health care. Some wealthier New Yorkers who own second homes also decided to escape smaller towns’ vacation homes and suburbs, leading neighbouring states to impose roadblocks and self-quarantine measures. COVID has become an issue of social injustice and racism within New York City, an “us versus them” issue. Many have overlooked people who cannot shelter in place, such as essential workers (mostly African-Americans and Latino) who still have to go to work and use the subways, and are labelled as dangerous. Homeless slept in subways since they were scared of the density of shelters during COVID, they were ‘swept out of subway stations’. New York is opening up 7 miles of streets and aiming at 100 miles, but it is unclear whether the streets opening are evenly distributed, as bigger public spaces in the city are situated in wealthy neighbourhoods.

Without third places and public spaces where people come into regular contact with others outside their circle thinking can metastasize from prudent public health advice to paranoia and prejudice. Coronavirus not only challenges our physical, mental and economic health, but social justice principles and social health.

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Luis Alfonso Saltos Espinoza
Observatorio Ciudadano por el Derecho a la Ciudad y Espacios Públicos de Guayaquil, Ecuador

Guayaquil is the city with most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in South America, yet there is a lack of hospitals and resources. Luis Alfonso started a Twitter campaign with hashtag #FallecidosCovid19Ec to map undocumented deaths that took place at homes. Narrow sidewalks of 1-1.5 metres have become places where people put the bodies of the deceased because of the lack of space, cemeteries and people to recover the bodies, and also places to line up, this means no space to exercise proper social distance. 

 

This pandemic has created opportunities for collectives to fight for changes municipality ought to make. In Guayaquil, the discussion in urban planners and collectives right now is to re-understand the urban scale, to adopt the concept of neighbourhood rather than city. With 45% of the population that work informally, informality and urban mobility have to be part of the designs. There is a need for a new urban design that involves city participation and public space that’s more comfortable for the people. 

Urban planning has to adopt or change according to the necessities and coordinate what happened after COVID-19. Mobility is now an urban necessity.

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Mona Helmy
Associate Professor, Department of Architecture, Faculty of Engineering, The British University in Egypt (BUE), Egypt

Governments in the Middle East first coped with COVID-19 via sanitization of public spaces, followed by shutdown of public spaces like waterfront, and curfews at night or even 24 hours. Shopping mall is an important typology of indoor public spaces in the Gulf region and beyond, it is a place for gathering and activities but not only shopping, and malls were also closed during the pandemic. Some could not bear this and started going out for non-emergency issues like shopping, recreations, socializing. Mona questioned the possibility of and social adaptability of distance gathering and raised several provocative questions towards the end of her presentation: Will public spaces remain with the same characteristics after the COVID-19 Pandemic? Will it be (re)designed to consider physical distancing? Will it have other innovative approaches for safe gathering? Can it be replaced with privatized public spaces? What will be the socio-spatial implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

The Middle East area perceives this pandemic as physical distancing but not social distancing.

Jose Chong
Global Public Space Programme, Planning Finance and Economy Section
Urban Practices Branch, Global Solutions Division, UN-Habitat, United Nations Human Settlements Programme

Jose pinpointed how the virus is spreading in cities, with 95% of total cases took place in urban areas. Yet, physical distancing and sanitation are impossible for certain parts of the population, those living in informal settlements (1 billion), overcrowded and inadequate housing (1.8 billion), and 2.4 billion who lack access to safe water and sanitation. We have to remember that there are three crises happening at the same time. Thus, UN-Habitat has developed three tracks of responses: health, humanitarian, and socio-economic to support governments in informal settlement, provide accurate data for decision-making, and motivate the economy.

Short-term interventions:

  • Recognize public spaces as an important asset during crises and for livelihoods for low-income populations. Make an inventory of public spaces and facilities.

  • Repurpose land allocated to streets to allow physical distancing and non-motorized mobility and activities. 

  • Maintain multi-functional and flexible public open spaces that can adapt to urgent demands.

  • Public facilities can provided essential services required for marginalized communities 

 

Medium and long-term interventions:

  • Ensure equitable distribution of public spaces across the city and at neighbourhood scale. 

  • Plan for self-sufficient neighborhood, e.g. Paris’s 15-minute city concept

  • Pay attention to urban design, furniture materials, management and maintenance

  • Utilize open space for recovery of public life and well-being through community engagement, placemaking, and participatory processes.

 

Now is a paradigm shift on city building, an opportunity to collaborate to re-think how cities should be. It is a chance to reposition health at the center of urban development that promotes integrated and collaborative response from governments and communities.

Public space is a threat to urban health, but has also proven to be a critical infrastructure for operation and well-being.