When the Covid-19 pandemic set in this spring, familiar scenes from cities around the world changed seemingly overnight.
New York’s Times Square and Mexico City’s Zocalo sat eerily empty. Paris’s quintessential cafes closed up, and Tokyo’s nightlife went dark. Images of ghostly city centres and neighbourhood streets flooded the news and social media as people were suddenly forced to reconsider their relationship to public spaces.
Eventually people did begin to venture outside again, and in some parts of the world a new normal seems to be taking shape already. Still, the ongoing challenge of social distancing means common spaces such as parks, plazas, markets and restaurants are all experimenting with ideas that keep people safe as they search for some semblance of city life as it used to be.
Often this is a challenge to be met with smart design that communicates the ways that rules, expectations, or even purposes of a space have changed. As streets get reimagined, restaurants spill out their front doors, and signs tell people how to behave everywhere they go, here are some simple and effective initiatives helping people navigate public spaces in a changed world that can serve as models for city leaders just about anywhere.
Vicchio, Italy: Grids on the ground
As cities locked down, the ground became a canvas for social distancing guidelines. Tape, chalk, stickers and stencils offered quick, low-tech ways to communicate what a safe distance looks anywhere and everywhere.
In the town of Vicchio, Italy, Piazza Giotto was transformed with a gridded layout of white squares painted on the cobblestones, each of them 1.8 metres apart. Named StoDistante (Italian for "I'm keeping my distance"), the installation was designed by the Italian architecture firm Caret Studio.
Part artwork, part spatial intervention, StoDistance sets a great precedent for humble, no-nonsense architecture that understands the value of aesthetics without compromising effectiveness.
Dallas, Texas: Parking that isn’t for cars
In the sudden scramble to find more space for people, an old urbanist mantra gained mainstream traction: Take it away from cars. What’s even more surprising is that this is happening in a city as dependent on cars as Dallas, Texas.
In early May, the nonprofit organisation Better Block turned a parking space into a “parklet”, a tiny temporary park in the city’s Arts Bishop District. Occupying an empty parking space, the parklet — a simple, timber-clad deck with a built-in bench — allows the restaurant that maintains it to provide outdoor seating without taking over the sidewalk. The result is a stylish and functional use of public space akin to the popular street-side terrasses of Montreal. The City of Dallas has since launched a temporary parklet program to assist local businesses aiming to do the same thing to assist their economic recovery. Crucially, parklets aren’t just about restaurant seating: They’ve been used for myriad other functions, including microplaygrounds, an outdoor art show, a bike rack, and even an outdoor library.
Bogotá, Colombia: Make way for cycling
Pop-up bike lanes have become a favoured tool for getting people to reconsider their streets. From Washington, DC, to Paris, to Sydney, road space is being reallocated to support growing cycling populations and promote a safer ecosystem for a healthy and sustainable mode of transportation.
Bogotá was a clear leader in this movement. The Colombian capital was one of the first cities to introduce pop-up infrastructure, and it has turned to that tool again in this emergency. Since the pandemic began, Bogotá has added 80 kilometres of emergency bike lanes, bringing the city’s cycle network to over 600 kilometres. In the country's effort to fight the pandemic, as well as to improve the air quality of a city often choked by pollution, these temporary bike lanes will become permanent — and speed limits will be lowered citywide. It’s a fitting adaptation for a city shaped by Ciclovía, the government-run program that turns 120 kilometers of streets in a bicycle superhighway every Sunday, from 7 am to 2 pm.
Atlanta, Georgia: Sinks that everyone can access
People experiencing homelessness have been especially vulnerable through the Covid-19 crisis. Many public health recommendations – sheltering in place, avoiding others, and washing your hands with soap – haven’t been easy options for people living on the streets.
Atlanta-based Love Beyond Walls, the US nonprofit organization that launched the country’s first museum representing homelessness, has set out to help communities install mobile handwashing stations in their neighbourhoods. Together with Lavamaex, a California-based nonprofit, the pair has launched a #LoveSinksIn campaign, which has already reached 30 cities, including New Orleans, Baltimore, Detroit, and Columbus, Ohio.
"Social distancing doesn’t mean social disregard," the campaign declares. Woodruff Park, in Downtown Atlanta, was one of the first public spaces to receive portable sinks. (In a bid to help its large homeless population find a job or search for social services, the park also became a free Wi-Fi hotspot in 2018.)
London, England: Murals with a subtle nudge
Another city-making principle that’s proving its worth in the pandemic: A little paint goes a long way. In London, a self-organized group of women called Tactical Urbanistas have taken it upon themselves to reclaim the streets with quick and colourful interventions.
To help enforce social distancing and inject an element of play into the public realm, the team painted colourful murals on sidewalks that appear to be crawling up brick walls and swallowing benches. Playful though they may seem, these patterns, which look like mini topographical maps pulled out of a children's book, have a layer of functionality, too. The black dots at the center of each blob are 2 metres apart — ideal for a socially distant chat with friends and neighbours.
Brno, Czech Republic: The 'Gastro Safe Zone'
In the Czech Republic, local firm HUA HUA Architects has developed a space grid initiative that reconciles the public realm with al fresco dining. The Gastro Safe Zone initiative, which launched in March, aims to transform city squares into safe and defined zones for outdoor dining — a bit like a regulated, open-air food court.
Every zone is surrounded by a circle of tape, with a non-movable, one-piece dining set in the middle, akin to a metal picnic table. The first prototype has already been installed in the streets of Brno, where a confirmed pilot program will soon convert the city’s public squares into "gastro safe zones". The architects have also launched a furniture brand named Stoolky, which offers dining sets in different colors and a varying number of seats. After Covid-19, the furniture can be reused in parks, playgrounds or as street furniture.
New York City, New York: Touch-free play streets
Play streets are a long-standing tradition in New York City, where communities close their streets to traffic so people can safely play in them. But the pandemic has put them at risk.
Street Lab, a nonprofit organization that creates programs for public spaces across New York City, is launching a new program to support safe, hands-free play for children in high-need neighbourhoods. Titled PLAY NYC, the program rolled out its first installation on an open street in the Red Hook neighbourhood, and will focus on areas where youth programs have been particularly lacking.
The street furniture set-up, designed in collaboration with industrial designer Hannah Berkin-Harper, includes a range of colourful barriers and custom-designed benches that are hand-deployable and easy to disinfect. The socially distanced zones will serve as a safe backdrop for story hours, street games, physical activities like obstacle courses, and learning experiences.
Elissaveta M. Brandon is a writer based in New York City.