The coronavirus recovery in America's cities is going to require more than just al fresco dining. As the current resurgence of Covid-19 in several states shows, there's a broad need to reimagine public space and devise socially distanced ways to navigate the urban landscape over a longer term. In the pandemic's early days, scores of cities closed streets to vehicle traffic to make room for pedestrians and allow restaurants to claim more sidewalk space. Now that the perils of reopening indoor activities are becoming tragically clear, outdoor space will need to work even harder — hosting stores, performances, and all manner of public services.
A new effort focused on Baltimore is offering a set of solutions to public space challenges during the pandemic. The "Design for Distancing Ideas Guidebook" — a free document from the city of Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Baltimore Development Corporation, and the city's nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center — collects 10 plans for creating temporary, low-cost spaces that permit physically distant social interaction in urban environments such as streets, alleys, vacant land and parking lots. The selected concepts were drawn from a pool of 162 submissions from architecture and design firms; the plans were conceived around the needs of Baltimore's neighborhoods, but could be adapted to cities anywhere.
"This was a great opportunity to rethink how we use public spaces, how we use streets," said Keshia Pollack Porter, a professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins who consulted on the project. "Can we have spaces that are actually great opportunities for people to gather and gather safely?"
The designs go beyond the ad-hoc bollards-and-traffic-cones approach that cities have used to widen sidewalks and carve out space for pedestrians in the earlier days of the pandemic: They include modular concepts for outdoor retail, public cleansing stations, community art classes, and pop-up services like haircuts and mobile libraries. Some are no larger than a parking space; others can be scaled up to a whole retail strip. Many of the designs are built around the notion of a far more car-free streetscape. In a proposal called "Find Your Tropical Island," for example, designer Christopher Odusanya carpets streets and alleys with small circular stages where people could sew, do yoga, sell food, or sit beneath the shade of umbrellas.
Similarly, the "Organising the Street" concept, from EDSA's Craig Stoner and Terri Wu, creates a pedestrian promenade in the street with outdoor dining and curbside businesses.
"When you allow car space to dominate your streetscape, it's not providing equitable access to the neighborhoods," said Jennifer Goold, executive director of the Neighborhood Design Center, which supports community projects in low-income neighborhoods. "Images like these are a great way to start talking about who the streets are for, and why."
Another design, "The Food Court," would convert vacant lots into outdoor dining areas with tables separated by wildflowers and tall grass. The concept includes a hand-washing station and umbrella stands fixed with lights for the evenings.
These aren't just design exercises: The winning interventions, which should cost between $5,000 and $100,000 each to construct, are set to be installed in 17 neighborhoods across Baltimore, supported by a $1.5 million investment from the city during the second phase of the project. The hope, project leaders say, is that they can also help channel resources into priority districts in low-income communities. Most of the 17 neighborhoods selected, Goold said, are in neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore that have suffered from chronic disinvestment. These aren't gentrified districts that are currently full of restaurants and retailers: Oldtown, for example, has one of the highest vacant-lot densities among Baltimore's neighborhoods; it's now home to a long-vacant pedestrian mall.
The teams tasked with building out the concepts are currently taking feedback from communities. Designs that resemble those included in the guidebook but that are informed by that feedback should be completed in the next couple of weeks, with construction beginning after that. "If the districts want to try it, we'll be there to help them," Goold said. "And we'll just be mindful that these are prototypes and that we're trying something new — we'll be there to adjust as needed."
The recommendations also consider the issues of structural racism, Pollack Porter says, by involving the communities they are built for in the planning process.
"This guidebook talks about how we can have principles that prioritize communities of color and communities that have been disinvested," Pollack Porter said. "It is a tremendous opportunity to center equity and public health in how we rethink public spaces."
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement