When I wrote the last iteration of our Pandemic Place series, COVID-19 case levels were through the roof and Austin hadn’t had its infrastructure tested by a deadly winter storm.
Now, almost overnight, it seems like vaccines are amply available, cases are ticking down, and a lazy, joyful summer may be on the horizon. As for me, I’ve had a patio drink at restaurants that I’ve only seen the inside of a takeout box of for a year. I’ve even indulged in a hug or two.
Of course, the after effects of the pandemic — on our psyches, our communities, and our cities — will continue to be with us for years to come. And the pandemic is still virulently circulating in the yet-to-be vaccinated across the globe.
That’s why I’ll continue to write Pandemic Place even as the pandemic may feel like it’s ramping down. It’s a crucial moment to put in place policies and plans that can cut at the root causes of the pandemic’s pain and can respond to future challenges our city will face.
And with President Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package, federal funding may be coming that can help Austin pursue innovative and inclusive building projects, like the proposal to bury I-35 and cap it with public green space.
While it seems counter-intuitive after a year spent largely inside, a recent report by Gehl in partnership with Miami’s Knight Foundation determined that public spaces thrived during the pandemic.
“With respect to this pandemic, what we’ve seen is that public spaces were not nice to have, they were absolutely essential,” asserted Lilley Weinberg, the Knight Foundation’s senior director of National and Community Initiatives.
Using visitation metrics, fiscal reports, social media geotags, and interviews with staff and users, the report, titled “Adaptive Public Space: Places for People in the Pandemic and Beyond,” dug into seven public spaces across the country. It found that they over-performed expectations during the pandemic — and that the spaces became a place to address larger political and social issues.
I spoke with Weinberg about how public spaces continued to function as community anchors during the pandemic and how they can become cornerstones of city strategies to rebuild their physical and social infrastructure.
Design Isn’t Just Window Dressing
The report found that spaces that had quality design sustained regular activity even during the pandemic. With an array of public spaces studied — from the adaptive reuse of a waterfront pier, to a classic neighborhood park, to a 57 acre site adjoining a vacant reservoir — in a range of cities, the design tactics and styles varied too.
But across the board, design that responded to local context and resident needs created appealing and usable spaces for a variety of activities. Tactics included beach furniture and barbecues for families and groups to enjoy at Summit Lake in Akron, basketball hoops and public art at a neighborhood park, and a defined facade for flexible space for pop-up retail in San Jose.
And as some residents saw their footprint shrink over the last year, parks that were embedded in neighborhoods became even more important. Philadelphia’s Centennial Commons and Detroit’s Ella Fitzgerald Park, which both serve specific neighborhoods, had the most frequent visits of all the spaces in the report, with over half of users visiting at least once a week.
As much as the look, feel, and programming of a space mattered — people mattered the most.
“What we saw overwhelmingly was that if a space is community led, if they have engagement embedded as part of their work through the entire lifecycle from design to programming to governance, those spaces were much more resilient during COVID-19 or just her much more resilient in general,” elaborated Weinberg.
Such projects moved beyond the “build it and they will come” approach, where a designer, often not local to the community and city agency or institution, conceptualizes and designs a project and brings residents in to give feedback once plans are nearly complete. By then, it can be too late to meaningfully engage with resident needs.
With these public spaces, residents of all ages were able to weigh in throughout the timeline of the project. For example, as Detroit planned for the Ella Fitzgerald Park project, the city hosted a variety of local pop-ups alongside more conventional neighborhood meetings. In one, a bike repair station for kids, they learned through the popularity of the pop-up that there was a demand for bike repair programs, which had not been mentioned in a conventional meeting that could be integrated into the park’s programming plans.
Once the park opened, the connections that were built in the process translated into strong affinity for the park. Some 96% of survey respondents felt positively about the park since its and 89% of respondents in the neighborhood feel the area has changed for the better since the park’s opening.
Reinvigorating Public Life
The Knight Foundation report found that not only were outdoor public spaces popular during the pandemic, they also served as spaces where communities could gather safely to have civic-oriented conversations and express themselves during an extremely challenging time.
Said Weinber: “Community members having access to high quality public spaces is about health, trust, attachment within [a] community, and about having a place that that can address the issues that community members care about.”
Spaces in the portfolio studied saw Black Lives Matter murals pop up, conversations about health and community safety, and events that helped build community ties during 2020.
Public spaces are a conduit for community infrastructure — and they can be spaces where people in community can orient themselves to respond to challenges facing them. They are the site of public life.
The late Austin-based post-modernist Charles Moore posited that “you have to pay for the public life,” suggesting that the popularity and success of commercial spaces had near totally eclipsed a collectively funded public realm.
But across the country, philanthropists, municipalities, and citizens are reinvigorating the public realm through projects like these. As we return to a more robust public life as the pandemic wanes, I hope that we can advocate for spaces that connect people to each other, promote individual and community autonomy, and begin to chip away at inequities in the built environment.