New London Architecture

Soapbox: Public realm – the Covid-19 antidote

Friday 26 June 2020

Richard Hyams

Richard Hyams

Director, Astudio

Inner city public realm is facing new pressures following the impact of Covid-19 — crowded city centres, narrow walkways, and packed transport contribute to health and safety concerns. By redesigning our public spaces, and striking a balance between offering community and safety, we can begin to address fears and return to a new normality. 

People-centred design
 
We have been moving towards more people-centred design for some time, notably in the form of green cities that seek to reduce emissions and promote sustainability. COVID-19 is likely to accelerate this trend. We are already beginning to see signs of the reclamation of city centres from vehicles, with cities such as Auckland, Cologne and Denver temporarily closing roads to increase space for pedestrians and cyclists.
 
With COVID-19, we are likely to see a further trend towards more permanent solutions such as car-free zones. The Mayor of London and Transport for London, for example, have announced plans to make parts of the capital traffic-free. Despite concerns such measures could impact economic activity, this would help to address overcrowding and, in turn, improve public safety and health.
 
Technology offers another solution. Sensors and facial recognition, for example, could be used to monitor population density, with information presented to citizens via app-based heat maps, allowing for safer navigation of the public realm.
 
Repurposing public spaces
 
With 30,000 hospitality businesses under significant pressure, it is evident that we urgently need to repopulate public spaces and allow business to resume.
 
Repurposing the public realm would offer a temporary solution by allowing indoor spaces to venture outside. In Soho, London, a proposal is being considered that would see the area temporarily pedestrianised to allow businesses to expand seating areas into the streets. With indoor capacity significantly reduced, this would provide the local economy with a vital boost as it begins its recovery.
 
Opening up green spaces
 
Green space has been found to offer both physical and mental health benefits. Amid a pandemic, they can provide vital space to exercise and socialise safely. Yet, in densely populated cities, there is typically too little.  London, for example, offers just 200 kilometres of publicly accessible green space.
 
With health now a priority, the pandemic has prompted calls for places like London to be reimagined as garden cities. In areas that lack available space, rooftop gardens, building greening and temporary extensions could provide an immediate boost. 

However, architects and city planners should also consider how demand for land uses will change and repurpose spaces accordingly. With 71% of businesses planning to permanently adopt flexible working, much of our sprawling rail lines may become obsolete, for example. New York City’s High Line, a 1.5-mile elevated park, offers a fantastic example of how these spaces could be repurposed.
 
Returning to public spaces
 
Allowing us to socialise and reawakening the economy, reopening our public spaces is vital to recovering from the damage COVID-19 has caused. We must think carefully about how best to do this without causing further spikes, but with the right design, strategy and safety considerations, we can create a public realm that improves quality of life and our environment as we recover from COVID-19.
 



Richard Hyams

Richard Hyams

Director, Astudio



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