The Search for Public Spaces in the City
I was fascinated by the foresight of Lewis Mumford's "The Natural History of Urbanization" during my days at Planning & Architecture School. Almost 70 years after the article was published, the urban planning and design direction has stayed unaltered until now, 2020.
Lewis Mumford states in his article "The Natural History of Urbanization," 1956:
The blind forces of urbanization, flowing along the lines of least resistance, show no aptitude for creating an urban and industrial pattern that will be stable, self-sustaining, and self-renewing. On the contrary, as congestion thickens and expansion widens, both the urban and the rural landscape undergo defacement and degradation, while unprofitable investments in the remedies for congestion, such as more superhighways and more distant reservoirs of water, increase the economic burden and serve only to promote more of the blight and disorder they seek to palliate.
Image by Comfreak from Pixabay
The urban landscape has changed dramatically in 2020 since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The adoption of shelter-in-place and remote working model is having a profound impact on how we live, commute and communicate, reshaping communities, and cities in entirely new ways. The urban spaces are transforming like never before in modern history with empty office spaces, sprawling vacant parking spaces, relatively sparse drivers on the streets, and freeways. We may be able to evaluate the impact of this trend only years from now.
While the last few months have been apocalyptic in many ways, but there is a wave of design professionals around the world coming together to create a better livable space for communities. These designers are like silent social warriors organizing themselves virtually and collaborating on creating inclusive, safe, resilient, sustainable, and walkable public spaces and streets.
Various organizations are at the forefront of bringing about change like the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), American Institute of Architects (AIA), American Planning Association (APA), Project For Public Spaces (PPS) to name a few.
Initiatives like "Tactical Urbanism," a process of making small, temporary adjustments to a street or other public space to encourage economic activity, attract people, and make the area safer are gaining popularity. The City of Los Angeles has introduced the "Slow Streets" a new program allowing residents to gain access to more space for recreation activities in their neighborhoods while protecting Angelenos from overcrowding on sidewalks and promoting social distancing. LADOT (Los Angeles Department of Transporation) is also supporting LA Al Fresco to provide L.A. restaurants with outdoor dining options to restaurants impacted by COVID-19.
LADOT transforms small residential streets in park-poor neighborhoods for play.
Outdoor dining along the road in San Francisco - Image: SFChronicle.com
Organizations like Green Schoolyards America is working on generating design templates for repurposing outdoor spaces and reimagine Pre K-12 schools to reopen safely and equitably during the pandemic.
Many of the design professionals reading this article will already be aware of the added value these urban planning changes bring to people's lives. But these initiatives can gather further momentum and establish a culture change in society through community awareness, education, and participation.
In the past few months, I have been part of various discussions and interacted with inspiring professionals striving to bring about significant changes to our cities and places. Let us spread the word beyond the design professionals' circles to the broader community for the long-term success of the urban planning initiatives. Providing the tools and voice to the people who are not usually part of the decision-making process will help create spaces that are sensitive to the community's needs.
The awareness of these initiatives may empower the people to speak up to the Community Leaders, City Council Members, and the Government to make change possible for their community, neighborhood, and City.
Reusing parking spaces as outdoor dining area, Rancho Cucamonga
Listed below are links to some of the organizations working towards creating a sustainable, inclusive, livable cities and places for the people. Please send an email to email@example.com to expand the list of organizations working on similar initiatives or reach out to us if we can help with any actions. Let us give the power back to the people to participate in the design dialogues and bring about the desired change for the community.
"In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity." – Sun Tzu