One of the unexpected effects of the coronavirus and its lockdowns was the popularity of parks. People suddenly rediscovered green swaths of city and small pockets of grass formerly left to dog-walkers and dads playing football with their kids. The bins overflowed, picnic blankets carpeted every surface and parks became ad hoc beer gardens, party spaces and front rooms.
Public space was back. But not the public space that has been designed, promoted and eulogised for decades by urbanists and planners, not the café terraces, not the leftover gaps between towers designated as public space and not the city’s squares and piazzas.
Reflecting on the first lockdown, architect David Chipperfield said in September: “It was the parks that were full not the spaces predicated on retail which we’ve been building. They have failed us.”
Liza Fior, founder of Muf, an architecture practice that specialises in public and social space said: “There is this idea that architecture and space is only legitimate if people are spending money [in them]. But people need more than restaurants.”
In March and April, the streets in London, New York and other big cities were suddenly full of café tables and chairs, pavements were temporarily widened and streets pedestrianised. All good for business and the affluent diners but what about everyone else?
Ms Fior points to the need for what she calls “on-the-way spaces”, not
destinations but places to rest or chat in between.
“What small adjustments might we be able to make to change things? In the way churches used to have open porches which were covered public spaces. We don’t need to look at rebuilding the city but rather taking the opportunity to revisit our building stock, finding interesting possibilities rather than trying to build new Covid-proof spaces.”
As an example, she points to a building Muf is working on, the once much-maligned Brixton Rec in south London. Designed by socialist architect George Finch of the Greater London Council in 1970 but not completed till 1985, it is an eccentric building with lots of leftover space, both inside and out, including covered but undefined external areas. “It was listed not just because of its architecture but for the way it turns the building into a social condenser,” says Ms Fior. “We are working to restore the original intent, the shopfronts. Putting in new workshops, working on the street and lighting, allowing it to breathe and to be used as a public space again.”
She also refers to another building in south London, the car park in Peckham brilliantly repurposed with the Bold Tendencies art gallery and the Multi-Story Orchestra below it, which have revivified a piece of infrastructure as high- quality arts space for the community with very little new building. Its breezy, open floors also turn out to be perfect for the age of Covid.
Richard Sennett, an urbanist, academic and author, also points to the need to adapt spaces so they are more flexible. “The problem with lockdowns,” he suggests, “is that we are depopulating the public realm and forcing people back into exactly the kinds of spaces they’re likely to get infected in.”
He highlights how social distancing has affected urban centres. “We are stripping away the social life of cities,” he says. “In my work with the UN, everything has been about making cities denser to make them more efficient, more liveable and sustainable. I worry that the pandemic will have passed in a few months but we may succeed in dismantling all our progress and just building suburbs again. Which are a disaster.”
So what does he suggest? “I’m very impressed with the mayor of Paris’s programme for 15-minute cities,” he says referring to Anne Hidalgo’s project of densification across the city, the aim of which is that everyone should be able to walk or cycle to everything they need within 15 minutes.
“If we can redistribute knots of everything through the city that would be something. To reduce travel times, air pollution, car use.”
Paris’s programme is deceptively radical. It envisages handing over some public spaces to children, reducing car parking, introducing green spaces and small-scale urban agriculture, investing in local businesses and creating socially mixed communities, a response to the perception that Paris is a fried egg of a city with a dense wealthy centre and a vast ring of poor housing and underserved neighbourhoods.
It privileges quality of life but it also feels like a plan for a semi-locked-down city in which people adhere more to their own areas.
With people spending more time in green spaces during lockdown, maybe parks are the areas to focus on in future.
“The funding of parks isn’t statutory for councils,” says Ms Fior. “Could we ringfence their funding?”
With local authorities struggling with lower budgets and the challenges of the pandemic the last things they are looking at are parks and planning. Making park maintenance statutory might be a start. Parks and recreation used to be a bit of a joke. Now, perhaps, we understand that even the smallest and scruffiest patch of green might be at the heart of a better life.
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