As we ‘come up for air’, what might the post COVID-19 public spaces look like?

In 2020, we have learnt to quickly adapt our public spaces to a concept known as social distancing. This has been accomplished with the simplest of tools, requiring no construction and bypassing all laws and regulations of spatial usage normally imposed by governance. Tape, whether it is masking tape, duct tape, electrical tape, or the odd sticker here and there; the most adhesive materials used in our daily lives have been employed to do the one thing they aren’t meant for: separation.

An absolute abandonment of public spaces, social distancing, and the idea that we cannot physically gather is a collective shock to our species’ instinctual need to be together – to be social. 

The landscaping industry – which is reliant on the public to utilise what we design and construct – has been moved to a different sphere in the general mindset. Where park benches and seating have been designed to inherently make people gather, they now pose a risk to everyone. Playgrounds have been abandoned, parks became overrun by squirrels and the only time human activity was seen in these spaces was when joggers, cyclists, dogs, and nuclear family were permitted to – and then absence.

Public space is no longer considered a pause spot. Where you should relax and catch up, public space has become a visual consumable; something to be savoured as quickly as possible while navigating the most socially isolating route from A to B.

But our loss is nature’s gain

Animals that tend to avoid cities have found refuge in our public parks, Capibaras roam the streets in South America and goats have taken over a city in Whales. There is almost a collective sigh of relief from our natural systems. The halt on production has seen rivers run cleaner than ever in our lifetime, skies clear up, carbon emission levels have dropped by as much as 6% in some countries, and sound pollution has gone down significantly.

All this from a collective retreat from the outside world by one species.

Ecologically engineered solutions

With this reprieve of human activity, our public spaces lend themselves to a ‘look but don’t touch’ approach, which allows natural systems to regain their former glory. Canalised rivers can be opened up. Design can reform itself to prioritise nature and human safety.

We can allow the resurgence of the natural into the built environment with ecologically engineered solutions that will safeguard our cities from floods and other phenomena while allowing these systems to still function properly.

Spaces: remodeled

From a design perspective, this has changed the way we think of using space. In our lives before-COVID-19, we would try and make sure we could allow as many people as possible into a space to enjoy it, placing park benches in large numbers or making sure we can seat many people in an area and allow for maximum occupancy.

In the public sphere, we can see a shift to spatial allowance. 

Distance between pedestrians, seating and gathering space. Sidewalks and walkways may increase in width, with roads reducing. Due to the recent adaptations of the workplace, most middle-class families can easily perform their work from the comfort of their home, meaning fewer cars on the road to commute and less road needed.

In the private sphere, the emphasis can be on utilising the green space around us for ourselves and our families in a controlled environment. 

There has already been a large increase in personal gardening and food production, especially considering the limitations in accessing public parks, nature reserves and other outdoor facilities that expose us to nature.

These assumptions are based on the premise that the vaccine for COVID-19 is not discovered soon.

As it stands in this time of uncertainty it is perhaps best practice to always hope for the best and plan for the worst. Therefore when it comes to the landscape industry, we should ensure our spaces always allow for responsible social distancing while integrating movement in and around green spaces.

Illustrations by Luc van der Walt at  |  luc.truecolours@gmail.com

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Mark Mac Hattie is a Landscape Designer and blogger for Contours Design Studio.
N.D. Landscape Design, B.Tech Landscape Design 

Master’s of Landscape Architecture

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