Living with the virus means designing innovative public spaces of the future

Sponsored: Knight Foundation research finds that technology, flexible programming, and putting residents at the center of work are keys to successful and equitable public spaces.

Although there has been much uncertainty over the past two years, one constant has been the importance of high quality public spaces in cities. A recent Knight Foundation The study, led by international design group Gehl, looked at seven public spaces in four cities during the pandemic, to determine what made them thrive. In addition to the unique tactics deployed by local teams, the study found that a key ingredient of successful public spaces was putting community members at the center of the work, which enabled spaces to be developed and activated. in a way that met the diverse needs of residents. Following the lead of the community, these cities have created vibrant and resilient parks, green spaces and urban amenities that reflect the diversity of their users and make more residents feel invited.

The findings of this study become even more important with the new near-term opportunities for cities to leverage federal funds from the U.S. bailout and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This once-in-a-lifetime influx of resources can be used to promote the revitalization of inclusive and safe outdoor spaces that will increase exposure to the arts, prepare for future generational shifts, and prioritize equity to engage marginalized populations. And in doing so, activating these spaces will provide residents with the sense of connection to their communities that they have sought throughout the pandemic.

As we look to the future of public spaces, Knight is investing in technology that can power public spaces. Knight’s new investment includes $250,000 for the High Line Network, a High Line program that supports a group of 37 infrastructure reuse projects that transform underused public spaces into more equitable and vibrant urban landscapes. The Underline, a member of the High Line network, will receive up to $800,000 to extend high-speed internet connectivity across the entire 10-mile public park, trails and arts destination under Miami’s Metrorail.

“Knight’s support will allow our members to get the most out of their technology planning,” said Asima Jansveld, Managing Director of The High Line Network. “The Knight Accelerator hopes to give public space organizations a chance to unlock even more funding while putting them in a better position to adapt to the challenges of the future.”

The popularity of community-led public spaces

The good news is that when urban public spaces are created with a design that meets the needs of local people – and when these same people also take control of their design and programming – the use of these spaces has remained stable. or even increased. during the pandemic. Of the parks studied in the Knight study, several have experienced an increase in foot traffic. In particular, the Detroit Riverfront and Philadelphia’s Cherry Street Pier both saw their use triple from November 2019 to November 2020. This suggests that community-led design creates a significant opportunity for planners to respond to an increased desire for public space at the ‘to come up.

To work effectively, community-led design must be a process that extends beyond initial development and construction to day-to-day programming and governance. This enables effective adaptive use in response to recurring (such as seasonal weather changes) and unexpected (such as COVID-19) changes. The increased use of Cherry Street Pier, for example, was largely due to community project leaders shifting away from holding large events during the pandemic to scheduling outdoor artist events and markets. crafts designed to support financially threatened local businesses.

Before the pandemic, one organization, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, took this idea of ​​community-led programming several steps further. They have created a truly scalable and adaptive space by forming a community advisory team that regularly sends visitors into the park to inform programming and design decisions. Alternatively, the Discovery Center in Philadelphia allocates a number of board seats to community leaders.

So what kinds of spaces does community-led design create? What can they teach cities about what is needed to keep or bring back space-conscious residents?

Successful public spaces are those that maintain flexibility

If the past year and a half has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t predict the future. COVID-19 came quickly and stubbornly lingered. In this age of variants and endemicity, the “new normal” so many anticipated may never truly “normalize”.

Urban public spaces are one of the few gathering places where groups of people can feel safe with fewer restrictions. And as such, they assumed a new primacy of public service – used for parties one day, performances another, educational programs the next. So our revitalized public spaces must be adaptable to how people want to use them from moment to moment and year to year.

This adaptability begins with making these spaces accessible to the community through conscious placement and design. Currently, cities are struggling with a surplus of dropouts ground which, fallen into disuse, can create a public danger. By reconfiguring this public land into adaptable spaces within the community, you create a convenient activity center for everyday use that fits into the rhythms of the neighborhood. Enabling space adjacent to public parks, according to the Knight report, is also driving increased usage.

Just as important as the location is the design of the space itself. Builders should create multifunctional parks, going beyond children’s playgrounds or single-use but comprehensive performance platforms to instead create community spaces that incorporate areas for sitting, cooking and playing, between other core common activities.

The results of the study support exactly this type of multimodal approach. Centennial Commons in Philadelphia and Ella Fitzgerald Park in Detroit had the highest use of the parks surveyed, and their inclusion of widely applicable features such as picnic benches and barbecue grills were cited by users as a popular draw.

Community-driven adaptability, as catalysts for diversity and equity in public spaces

Community-led public space design and adaptability drive home an important point: if you want residents to use your space, make it relevant to local people. This means focusing diversity and equity issues. Urban populations are increasingly diverse, even more than what we see across the country as a whole. If cities redesign their public spaces, but don’t design them for meaningful use by local residents, they could end up discouraging engagement, rather than encouraging it.

A successful engagement can be accomplished in many ways. Recent reports have highlighted the fact that public spaces can generate equity when properly designed or redesigned. The Knight Report found that the communities that were most successful in broad engagement started with pilot programs for their spaces and then implemented community feedback into the end result.

It is clear that public spaces that work well for local people are equitable, culturally relevant and flexible enough to meet the daily needs of all citizens. The continuation of these characteristics will result in public spaces that are more fully and systematically used. But ultimately, each city is unique. This means planners must fully embrace community design, follow individual preferences, and listen to the needs of their unique populations. If cities want residents to use their space, they must invest to meet the expectations of their residents.

James Finley is a writer living in the DC area.

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