Building Public Places for a Covid World

What are architects and urban planners foreseeing as people cautiously gather? Streets “curated” for various uses and dynamic cityscapes that both advance wellness and knit communities together.

By James S. Russell

After disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Sandy, architects quickly responded with evocative ideas, transformative visions and alluring — if sometimes grandiose — solutions.

Designers’ imaginations have been no less active as the pandemic has rent the fabric of people’s lives — after all, architectural spaces are directly implicated in the spread of the virus. The architects’ response to this disaster has been less visionary, focusing on modest, tactical solutions necessarily respectful of the rigid strictures of contagion control.

Architects and other designers who have devoted efforts to creating public places that encourage gathering and sociability now say their task is to make congregating in these spaces possible again — and perhaps to achieve some community-enhancing goals in the process.

The New York Times asked several architects and landscape architects to tell us what they are brainstorming with their colleagues, and how they are dreaming outside the six-foot bubble that now guides our movements and interactions.

For example, Open Streets, the city initiative that temporarily privileges people over cars, relegates vehicles to secondary status, permitting much richer — and socially distanced — uses to proliferate, from curb-lane dining to skateboard choreography. This expansion of sidewalks has heightened the awareness that “public-space design is a critical piece of maintaining democracy and cosmopolitan city life,” observed Kate Orff, the founder of the landscape architecture firm SCAPE and the director of Columbia University’s urban design program.

Typically, she explained, “New York City collapses the boundaries between personal space and public space.” It’s one reason staying at home has been hard for so many people, Ms. Orff added. “We have always spilled out from apartments into streets in different ways.”

In the designs that follow, architects are investigating how to reduce health threats in hospitals and allow libraries to serve their vital role. They are trying to invent new kinds of architecture that work around a broken policing and justice system. And in some of their real-world projects, they show how expansive urban parks can clear our isolation-induced mental cobwebs and reweave our fractured bonds as they help us celebrate acts of cautious gathering.

Taking It to the Streets

Claire Weisz, who leads WXY, an urban design and architecture firm, applauds the newly streamlined process that has allowed streets to become more than tubes of speeding vehicles. Now curb lanes around the city host chattering but distanced diners in colorful enclosures enlivened by umbrellas, canopies and flower boxes. But she would like to see more. Diversifying space for use by different groups is long overdue, the architect said. “Shared streets need to be designed and curated so that everyone knows they have a right to use the street and feel comfortable.”

Ms. Weitz was inspired to consider opportunities on plazas and pedestrian islands when she witnessed a guitar and drum duo practicing there. “Why not mark the asphalt with street games?” she mused. “Or build a temporary picnic-style shelter on the street to host an outdoor library or study space?”

For a project to revitalize retail, commissioned by the Hudson Square Business Improvement District, she proposes erecting awnings above the sidewalk so that stationery, clothing and other stores too small to accommodate social distancing can bring their wares outside.

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