Cities can use public spaces as a way to address structural challenges.
The pandemic has tested cities on many levels, revealing anxieties about their size and density, forcing them to fight for resources, and raising the grim question of whether cities themselves are the problem. For those already thinking about public space and how to redesign big cities, COVID-19 has provided a sense of urgency in how to address new and structural challenges within cities.
In October, Helle Søholt, founding partner & CEO of Gehl, joined Octavi de la Varga, secretary-general of Metropolis, and Samuel Kling, fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for a #MetroTalk on rethinking public spaces considering these challenges.
The conversation stressed the role public space can play in imagining a more equitable post-pandemic city. Public spaces are often managed by municipal governments, and how these spaces are governed has bearing on many aspects of city life and development, including land use, mobility, residents’ behavior, and even food systems. Therefore, governance of public spaces involves both public and private stakeholders.
City leaders and the private sector must take an intersectional approach in reimagining public spaces, prioritizing community outreach and keeping race, gender, and equity as top priorities. Other considerations include residents’ access to healthcare, education, affordable housing, and city services, all of which must be at the forefront when conceptualizing public spaces to ensure that new projects do not make vulnerable groups even more vulnerable.
An example of this type of intersectional and multi-stakeholder approach is in rethinking post-COVID-19 patterns of city life. As Gehl’s Public Space, Public Life & COVID19 survey suggests, the ways people are using urban spaces has changed remarkably. Dense urban cores in cities such as Chicago, New York City, and London have seen a sharp drop off in activity during the pandemic because of their high concentration of retail shopping, office work, and restaurant dining—all activities hit especially hard.
According to Gehl’s research, in the city center, a longtime bastion of public life and bustling sidewalks, public spaces have seen a sharp decline in visitors. But at the same time, outlying areas experienced a “revival of the neighborhood,” with more activity than before the pandemic. One conclusion from this evidence, Søholt argues, is that neighborhood districts need more amenities in close proximity: housing, working, shopping, sports, nature, and culture altogether. If these urban cores diversify to have more services available to all residents of the city, they will become more vital and resilient to shocks like COVID-19.
To rethink the post-pandemic city to be more resilient and equitable, cities must also rethink the tools and strategies they use to plan and manage public spaces.
- First, cities need more data on how people behave in neighborhoods and how they use public space. This would allow decision-makers to be aware of what is happening and effectively respond to change.
- Second, cities must create sustainable ways to maintain the healthy choices made during the pandemic, such as choosing biking or walking over public transportation. Cities will need to have conversations with the private, public, and transportation sectors to create all-encompassing neighborhood plans that support these choices.
- Third, cities must invest in these changes. Philanthropic organizations have a role in “de-risking” certain moves to test things that cities may not have experienced before and help the public sector engage.
Lastly, cities need more engaged politicians to be successful. Politicians need the ability to use data, listen to what emerges, and use evidence to support their learnings. They must balance the needs of communities with growth and evolution, strategize and think about long-term issues like the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and ensure that racial and gender equality and inclusion are fundamental components of the planning and execution process.
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