Designer Perspectives Series

Derek Gagne shares his thoughts on creating functional
spaces for the post-pandemic public realm.

Revaluating urban communities in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic has revealed what many landscape architects have been highlighting through our work for years now; that the need for fresh air, sunshine and connectivity to nature enrich our quality of life.

EDSA has been ahead of the curve, designing projects that blend natural systems with the built environment offering a connectivity that improves both physical and mental wellbeing. We expect this heightened value to be a long-lasting outcome of a very challenging public health crisis that has gripped the world.

We are currently focused on observing new behaviors, taking note of how spaces are being used and brainstorming on what the best version of a post-pandemic public realm should look like and how it can function. Landscape architects everywhere should seize the moment by planning outdoor spaces that are as open and flexible as possible. Existing public parks, waterfronts and pedestrian malls in major cities can be retrofitted to help bring natural passive spaces back into focus. Interventions that accentuate native plant palettes, local materials and a shift to flexible programming for multiple uses will allow these spaces to flourish in light of what our communities are faced with. New public places that may be in the design process now should consider humanity’s wellbeing and reward all socio-demographic interests.

The term ‘social distance’ has become a part of our vocabulary, whether we like it or not, and it’s no surprise that the value put on private space is something that will remain a priority in much of our work moving forward. We need to be very intentional in our designs so that people feel like they have permission to reclaim streets and ensure that we plan for more solutions where bicycles and pedestrians co-mingle with public transit and vehicular flows. Indeed, the pandemic has driven many cities to launch or amp up projects to do just that with Boston, Louisville, New York, Oakland and Washington, D.C. among those that have transformed streets into ‘open public spaces’ in order to provide new destinations where people can safely socialize, exercise and dine at safe distances.

As more opportunities arise to improve infrastructure and recreational green space, landscape architects need to get involved with community projects early in order to provide site planning alternatives and design solutions. Taking a socially resilient approach – that is, engaging communities to find out what they are looking for rather than telling them what they need – will be key to implementing features that have real value and create a sense of ownership for the local community and visitors. Social and environmental resiliency need to be counterparts in moving the design conservation forward when landscape architects engage in public realm work in the future.

Flexibility andblank decentralization will be key to daily life in post-pandemic cities. People who no longer need to meet with colleagues face-to-face in office spaces, may desire access to the outdoors for many of their daily activities. Funding from cities, states and government agencies will be required in order to prioritize parks and outdoor environments that cater to urban dwellers in a post-COVID world. At EDSA, we continue to work in conjunction with nature – to not only conceive, create and transform the public realm – but to ensure that we understand what users and communities want and need. We want every space that we touch to be inclusive and advance the quality of life of the urban environments we live in, visit and enjoy tremendously.