Designing confidence in public spaces: how cities will change post-lockdown

Plastic barriers and caution tape are not permanent solutions for a world post-coronavirus, here’s how designers envisage a future where social distancing is here to stay.

“As much as public spaces are a lifeline for those of us exiting lockdown, they’re also a space of anxiety right now,” so says creative director and producer David Michon. “They continue to be filled with symbols of crisis, caution and restriction.”

Like so many others, throughout the UK’s 12-week coronavirus lockdown Michon relied on the space and greenery of his local park. But as measures begin to ease, the relative tranquillity of the space has been marred, he tells Design Week, becoming “swaddled in caution tape” in a bid to direct the behaviour of the public.

“I thought to myself that if it’s going to take some time for us to return to unfettered reoccupation of public spaces, there’s got to be a more respectful way of treating these critically important areas in our cities and towns,” Michon says.

Michon’s experience is one shared by plenty, and raises an important issue for businesses and local authorities to consider in the return to public life – how can spaces be adapted to follow regulations, while still retaining comfort and familiarity?

Visuals for the AR app proposed for Where We Stand by dn&co

“Blank canvases”

In response to the challenge, Michon and Nicholas Bell, co-founder of the agency Ask Us For Ideas, turned to the creative community for their thoughts. The project, titled Where We Stand, tasked 15 studios from around the world to interrogate the importance of public spaces and find solutions that facilitated a safe return to them.

The responses were as diverse as the public spaces they aimed to help: Accept & Proceed proposed a “keep your distance” football league on east London’s Hackney Marshes, featuring brightly-coloured pitches that allow players to maintain distance while honouring the spirit of the game; dn&co put forward an AR app which could help address safe public assembly in the capital’s Parliament Square; and DesignStudio planned to create a series of beach tents for Sydney’s Bondi Beach, which could blend into the landscape and provide moments of solitude without taking focus away from the view.

This varied and location-specific approach is necessary, Michon says. While the temptation might be to find a solution that fits all public spaces in any given city, such a course of action would go against what he calls “the beauty of it all”.

“Really what’s so beautiful about public spaces is that they are essentially blank canvases for people to utilise for their own ends,” he says, pointing to the UK’s parks as an example, which have throughout lockdown been workout spaces, chill out spaces, social spaces, political spaces and more.

Visuals for the “keep your distance” football pitches proposed for Where We Stand by Accept & Proceed

“Coming back into spaces and functioning”

Respecting and encouraging the diversity in use of public spaces, according to project co-creator Bell, is a design challenge.

“We’re not just coming back into these spaces, but rather coming back into them and functioning,” he says. Referring to responses of Where We Stand, he says the emphasis was really on “doing” – something people will have likely missed in their own homes. “Seeing responses that encouraged action, be it protests, conversation or food truck commerce was a beautiful reminder of what we’ve been missing out on.”

Keeping in mind that people will move in and use these spaces in every way they can, Michon agrees, will be a design challenge.

“The biggest hurdle in returning to these areas then is that we do have to impose some sort of regulation to keep people safe – we have to try and encompass everything that a public space can provide, while still trying to guide behaviour,” he says.

Parklets designed by Meristem that could be used on the streets of Liverpool

Designing for the next stage of lockdown

Many town and city centres across the country will already be in the process of redesigning their spaces, with a particular focus paid to hospitality offerings. This is in preparation for the next phase of the UK government’s coronavirus exit strategy: the reopening of pubs, restaurants and hairdressers.

“Super Saturday”, as it’s been dubbed, will take place on 4 July but with social distancing measures still required, the spaces we’ve missed so dearly in lockdown will necessarily be different to what we remember. For the foreseeable future, pub, café and restaurant experiences will be more controlled, with no ordering at the bar and time-limited booking slots all part of the government’s guidance for venues to become “COVID-19 secure”.

One measure that seems to be a favourite among businesses and local councils alike is the encouraging of alfresco dining and drinking. It is, after all, less likely patrons will transfer the virus among themselves and easier to spread out seating arrangements.

One city ploughing forward with this idea is Liverpool, which announced last month that it would be launching an outdoor dining initiative to help boost custom for the city’s restaurants. The plan, which will involve a number of streets being pedestrianised completely, is being headed up by design consultancies Arup and Meristem and will see the introduction of “parklets”.

Another parklet designed by Meristem in London

“How I envisage the High Street reopening”

Parklets are, according to Meristem, a way of converting car parking spaces into seating beyond the traditional street bench. The idea comes from the US, and is surprisingly efficient in its use of space – two parallel parking bays on the street, for example, can provide enough room to seat 14 people, park eight bikes and house four trees and around 60 plants.

As Meristem director Habib Khan tells Design Week, such parklets were a potential solution to waning High Street footfall even before the coronavirus hit – now as we navigate a way out of crisis, they are more relevant than ever.

“It used to be that in order to attract business you’d need lots of nearby parking space but increasingly this isn’t the case,” he says. “Our research shows that the majority of money spent in businesses on High Streets and in cities is not from drivers anymore.”

Khan says parklets can be modified to fit the context of post-coronavirus dining. Those being constructed for Liverpool will feature clear screens, “so that people can feel more assured in their own bubble, without cutting themselves off”. Similarly, hand sanitiser and no-touch water dispensers can also be designed in.

With social distancing measures almost definitely continuing into the winter (and perhaps beyond), Khan says the team are also working on the development of canopies to shield patrons from the elements. This way, even when there is no threat posed by the coronavirus at all, city centres can remain a sought-after dining destination.

“There’s not much you can’t buy online – but the one thing you definitely can’t do is meet up with friends and have something to eat and that’s really how I envisage the high street reopening,” he says, though adding that the power rests in the hands of local authorities to approve such design solutions.

DineOut’s first kit, outside Melba’s in Harlem, New York

“Adaptable and scalable”

With the coronavirus prompting a global pandemic, the UK is not the only country having to contend with these design challenges. In New York, similar actions have been taken to ensure the health of the city’s hospitality industry, with architect and designer David Rockwell offering his own alfresco design solution.

In conversation with the NYC Hospitality Alliance, local restaurant owners and staff, he has developed DineOut, a design kit that allow for expanded outdoor dining.

“Based on their input and what we know about COVID-19, we developed a series of adaptable kits that allow for expanded outdoor dining for different locations,” Rockwell tells Design Week. The design system is built to be adaptable and scalable, he adds.

“A key component of our design is a dining pavilion – its size can adjust to accommodate different street conditions, from parking spaces to streets closed off to traffic.”

In the last week, DineOut has been approved by the New York municipality and will be rolled out elsewhere soon. Additionally, Rockwell Group will be making the design templates available to the public in the coming weeks.

“Our hope is that we can help jump-start these businesses and restore vital jobs that have been lost while creating a safe, inviting outdoor dining environment,” he ends.

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