By Mark Favermann
Today, our perception of the environment has become narrowed, defensive: the outside world has become worrisome, dangerous, aspirational, and changing.
After the often frustrating and even fearful months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the long lockdown, quarantine, isolation in place, the donning masks, and worrying about social distancing, we are seeing a phased opening of the economy and public areas. And that raises a number of questions. The primary focus will be on staying safe and healthy — while also establishing what a sense of place means in this new normal world.
The concept of environment has many layered as well as overlapping meanings. Among these are the natural, the man-made, the social, the cultural, the geographical, and the psychological. Today, our perception of the environment has become narrowed, defensive: the environment has become worrisome, dangerous, aspirational, and changing. COVID-19 has deeply affected our perceptions of the world around us.
Worth keeping in mind is one of the most poetic and truthful statements made by pioneering urban activist and writer Jane Jacobs: “The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”
In our “new normal,” the sidewalk ballet will become choreographed, tightly circumscribed, and much less imaginative. For reasons of public health, and even life and death, we are now being asked to act in highly restricted ways in exterior commercial spaces. Tables and chairs will be set in measured ways, the number of individuals seated together and allowed to stand will be regulated. Store aisles have become one-directional; there is limited capacity while interaction with servers is being minimized. But even this circumscribed moveable feast stands as a refreshing act of social and physical freedom, a respite from a time of illness, death, and political chaos. We have waited a long time to interact — even if it is only partially.
Over the last couple of decades or so, there has been a concentrated effort by urban designers, planners, and progressive politicians to interest communities in what has been defined as the enriching concept of placemaking. This is a multifaceted approach to the planning, design, and management of public spaces, enhancing their social and environmental value by strategically capitalizing on a local community’s assets and potential. The conventional understanding of placemaking will be curtailed in the post-virus normal.
Making a place is not the same as designing and developing a building, public plaza, or even a commercial district. It is not just a physical place: it is a process whose purpose is to authentically satisfy people. The best placemaking projects function on a number of levels, serving individuals of varying ages, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds. Here, function supersedes the benefit of form.
The intent of placemaking is to create public spaces that promote residents’ and visitors’ health, happiness, and well-being. And that grows the economies of the merchants and food vendors. Interestingly, placemaking, as both a process and a philosophy, draws on the best practices of urban design. The decision to work toward placemaking can either be official and government-led or community driven, a strategy of grassroots tactical urbanism. The best placemaking makes use of underutilized spaces to enhance the urban experience.
The arts, performing as well as visual, are often a powerful part (a subset) of the imaginative sensibility demanded by creative placemaking. Artists, arts organizations, and community development practitioners collaborate in ways to integrate arts and culture into a neighborhood’s revitalization. In this way, the arts become a tactical partner with other aspects of city-building — transportation, economics, housing, infrastructure, public safety, etc. Creative placemaking is about crafting a distinctly playful sense of place.
However, the new normal, because of COVID-19, means that a new paradigm must be incorporated into (or overlaid on) the placemaking paradign. It eliminates a number of items in placemaking’s tasty recipe for civic vitality and invigorated social and physical interaction, its efforts to strengthen communities by advancing local aspirations and goals.
To reopen the economy safely, there is a need to find more ways to keep people apart as well as to make better use of outdoor and indoor spaces. The world’s cities have been exploring approaches to setting up a more restricted environment. That’s the premise behind Design for Distancing, a planning initiative from the City of Baltimore that has brought architects, planners, and public health experts together to develop solutions to pressing problems: how do you modify city streets and sidewalks to encourage the reopening of restaurants, stores, and commercial services? The results, as least so far, have been thoughtful, but come with no frills. Among the ideas: turning sidewalks and streets into outdoor dining rooms and transforming indoor spaces into spatially arranged (and safe) stores and shops. Cozy, overcrowded, and therefore dangerous areas will be discouraged. Supporting healthy practices, many restaurants in Europe, Asia, and even North America are also installing transparent Plexiglas partitions between tables, creating gastronomic cubicles or dining pods. The notion of open seating is beginning to fade away.
Titled “Design for Distancing Ideas Guidebook,” the document is available as a free online resource filled with strategies that will bring life back to public spaces while complying with guidelines for social distancing and wearing masks appropriately. Charged with blending private enterprises into healthy and vital public spaces, a group of firms in conjunction with Johns Hopkins School of Public Health have come up with a number of thoughtful and strategic approaches. The Guidelines are meant to be shared by other communities throughout the US and the rest of the world.
Already, food and beverage venues in Massachusetts,are heeding safety regulations. Customers must practice 6-foot social distancing while waiting and visiting the restrooms. After staff members take orders and serve, patrons must remain seated. Seats and tables are not to be moved, and mingling will not be tolerated. Though face coverings are not required while seated, they must be worn whenever patrons are not seated. Tables and chairs must be cleaned and sanitized before/after use. When leaving, patrons are asked to remove their own trash and place it in receptacles. Mandated visiting time: 90 minutes. When finished, patrons are not to linger.
This is a time for establishing a quite different existence: a period of uncertainty and even anxiety, of fits and starts, of seemingly endless opening-up phases. Design tools should include plans for turning streets into places and places into destinations. There is a high, pent-up demand for this kind of liberated urban vision. Yet, for the foreseeable future, placemaking will primarily be devoted to safety. We will just have to make do with the restrictions. The results will speak to our resiliency.
An urban designer and public artist, Mark Favermann has been deeply involved in branding, enhancing, and making more accessible parts of cities, sports venues, and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is design consultant to the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and, since 2002, he has been a design consultant to the Red Sox. Writing about urbanism, architecture, design and fine arts, Mark is Associate Editor of Arts Fuse.