Post-pandemic urbanism: why it’s vital that we reclaim the sidewalk

We're cataloguing exactly how architects, designers, urban planners and city officials are undertaking the transformation of outdoor urban spaces, helping turn the city inside out in the process. We’re doing so schematically, breaking down the street into its constituent parts, from the facade to the pavement to the roadway and the point at which the street meets, or more likely becomes, the park. This is the fourth instalment of the series – read more here.

Irrespective of the variance in social-distancing guidelines in place across countries, citizens have found a common issue: pavements don’t provide enough space for pedestrians to observe the rules. Take Toronto, where analytics firm Ratio.City used open data to create a map showing that more than two-thirds of the city’s sidewalks were less than 2.5 metres wide. Respondents to a survey by Danish architecture practice Gehl, which covered 68 countries, found that over a quarter had found sidewalks too crowded to social distance.

In response, municipal governments in some of the world’s most densely populated cities have been widening sidewalks to help people pass safely. In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Streetspace plan has seen pavements temporarily extended into many high traffic areas across the capital. It’s a similar story in Milan, Washington, Bogotá and, latterly, Toronto, as well as hundreds of other urban areas.

Many see this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink a space that has, in many places, been relegated to just another part of transport infrastructure

Many see this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink a space that has, in many places, been relegated to just another part of transport infrastructure. Foster + Partners’ urban design team, writing in the firm’s in-house +Plus journal, argue that, ‘while some of the emergency measures will be scaled back as the infection curves flatten, others will remain in place for the foreseeable future’ and as such we need to ‘harness this crisis to bring about positive change in cities’. In particular, they want to see ‘the street transformed into a space for the community, a public arena rather than a through route’.

Header and above: Camille Walala's Walala Lounge installation consists of 10 brightly-hued benches that form an open-air urban living room in one of London’s most elite shopping streets.

Furniture for all

In the first instance, this will require a reevaluation of the role and quality of on-street amenities, principally street furniture. Last year’s presciently titled Inside-Out project, created by Paris-based designer Robert Stadler for the Forme Publique biennial, provides one model. The four-piece series highlights the sort of use cases modern public space should meet, providing shade, power and seating that allows for a variety of postures, ample outdoor work and eating space. French designer Camille Walala’s Walala Lounge project for London Design Festival 2019 also seemed to foreshadow our current need to democratize the streetscape. The installation consists of 10 brightly-hued benches that form an open-air urban living room in one of London’s most elite shopping streets. Here, rather than addressing function, the power of the intervention was symbolic – an invitation to sit and rest in in a city littered with ‘defensive architecture’ such as anti-homeless spikes and benches that prevent rough sleeping.

This will require a reevaluation of the role and quality of on-street amenities, principally street furniture

More direct responses to the pandemic have come from architecture and engineering firm Arup, who have helped develop a series of ‘parklets’ as part of the Liverpool Without Walls scheme. The modular system is a hybrid seat and spatial divider, which uses a mixture of Perspex and planting to define areas of separation along some of the city’s most popular commercial streets. ‘We hope the parklets become part of the independent fabric of the streets they are situated and stay providing long term benefits in reclaiming the streets for people,’ Arup associate Jonathan Mottershead told Dezeen.

Above: David Rockwell has recognized how challenging it is for NYC restaurants to extend out into the street, so he's created a kit of parts that can be tailored to a variety of hospitality scenarios.

Alongside pavement-widening schemes, many local governments are relaxing licensing laws in order to allow bars and restaurants to occupy street space

Eating out is the new eating in

One of the chief aims of Arup’s parklet concept is to help create a context for hospitality venues to inhabit public areas adjacent to their properties. Alongside pavement-widening schemes, many local governments are relaxing licensing laws in order to allow bars and restaurants to occupy street space. The first to take this step was Lithuanian capital Vilnius, where 18 of the city’s public spaces have been opened up for outdoor cafes and restaurants. London has followed suit, as have San Francisco, Las Vegas and many other hospitality-reliant cities. In New York City, which has little culture of outdoor dining, architect David Rockwell has recognized how challenging it is for restaurants to extend out into vehicle-orientated streets in a way that’s both practical and inviting to customers. In response, he’s created a blueprint based on a kit of parts – from dining booths and sanitation stations to planter benches and lighting units – that can be tailored to a variety of scenarios, both functionally and aesthetically. ‘We’ve tried to utilize designs and materials that can be adapted to reflect the diversity of streetscapes in the City,’ the architect told Bloomberg. ‘There is not one easy solution right now to the challenges faced by restaurants here. But it’s clear we need to rethink how we utilize outdoor public spaces.’

Read more reportage on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on spatial design here.

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