The Public Realm – Post Pandemic Park Life

Introduction

During the pandemic restrictions, each of us has had, and continue to have, influence our own personal experiences about the neighborhoods, communities, and cities where we live and work. Living in one of the eastern residential neighborhoods that ring Pittsburgh’s university and cultural center, I have come to cherish the tenets of New Urbanism that embrace the ideals of the traditionally rich and diverse urban fabric. During the lockdown, I have grown to love and appreciate all that my neighborhood has to offer. I am fortunate to live in a great neighborhood that is walkable and safe with access to local services, cultural amenities, as well as parks and natural areas.


A New Urbanist tenet: Houses fronting a network of parks to enhance livability


In my neighborhood, Point Breeze, we can walk along two vibrant main streets, and through a variety of parks, one of which is Frick Park, a 450-acre nineteenth-century historic icon. During the pandemic, we have seen increased activation in the public realm with more people on the streets and in our parks. We have seen our parks and streets become the focus of our physical and mental health and wellbeing. This has created conflicts between users looking for different experiences. In response, civic and community leaders have tried ideas such as pedestrianizing streets for recreation, instituting one-way pathway loops, outlining social distancing circles in the landscape, creating pop up parks, providing additional space for safe social distancing and dining, and other such interventions, some temporary and some permanent. Now, as winter approaches, we must think anew as to how to extend public life to support local retail and food and beverage establishments in a colder environment.

Multimodal street


These new challenges should push us to a new level of thinking about how we design our neighborhoods, towns, and cities. To some, streets and parks are at times overwhelmed with users desiring more time outside their homes. Many long for a balcony or a small patch of green space for escape. Remote workers need a private space to work. Restaurants struggle with how to create outdoor space. Vehicular traffic is reduced, mass transit is struggling with decreased ridership, and alternate modes of transportation are accelerating – especially the use of bicycles. As architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and policy-makers, how do we face these challenges to enhance the public realm so it becomes an even more integral part of the urban fabric?

Curbside dining and pop-up park


Our Opportunity


The urban designer Jan Gehl said it best in a recent Monocle 24 Interview in The Urbanist Segment 445suggesting that we need to take a long-term view. Throughout history, our connection to our cities and our urban fabric has endured and survived wars, pandemics, epidemics, and weather-related catastrophes. To quote Jan, “I strongly believe in homo sapiens as social animals who love people and community, so after a short scare, we will be back to business as usual.”


Gaming and socialization in parks


The pandemic forced us to stay closer to home, but also allowed us to further explore our cities. What we value are the intimate places that provide comfort, stimulate our senses, and reinforce our social aspirations. With a thoughtful tweaking of our New Urbanist tenets, we can enhance the public realm and elevate it to a new focal point of ideation and conversation.


Some ideas to consider:


  • Capitalize on reduced vehicular traffic to pedestrianize streets and consider making them part of the park system by designating certain streets as park corridors that link our neighborhoods broader, contextual natural systems. Parks can be a framework to define the town plan.

  • Design streets to accommodate more shared and alternative modes of transportation and possibly more spaces for the uptick in deliveries we have seen over the past year.

Transit Hub

  • Build upon the trends in park design over the last decade: moveable furnishings, temporary activities, cultural animation, pop-up amenities, and informal and more flexible spaces in size and scale to equally accommodate individuals, small groups, and eventually safe, larger gatherings. Design for more flexible spaces to allow for the continuation of the stand-in outdoor classrooms for children, yoga classes, small support group gatherings, arts in the park, music, and other creative uses.

Flexible and moveable furnishings

  • Enhance trail and sidewalk networks to accommodate more people. As the shared economy advances, more modes of transportation will need to be accommodated. Electric bikes and scooters will present new challenges and conflicts.

  • Embrace the idea of “extended seasons” in street and park designs to enhance use in the colder months. Shelters to protect public users, in different size groups, from inclement weather are essential.

Multipurpose pavilion

  • Think beyond the prescribed New Urbanist principles and integrate a connected framework of Parks of Three Scales: Address Parks, Neighborhood Parks, and larger Natural Parks. These will link the community to broader natural systems with a seamless connection – from your yard to your street, to your park, and to nature.

  • Redefine or amend the Transect. With parks as a framework from the T-1 Natural Zone, though the T-2 Rural Zone into the more developed Zones where we find our more scripted park addresses. Bring natural systems into the town.

  • Reinforce accessibility to the food supply and ensure that the framework of embraces urban farms to boost local food supply.


Summary

An invitation to enjoy nature


We must find more gracious, simple, and flexible solutions that will stand the test of time. We are now required to think both in the short-term as well as the long-term. Life and vibrancy in our urban areas will come back. We need to integrate the knowledge of the pandemic’s impact on our health and how safety and sanitation must inform our designs.


Parks are a pillar of a city’s or town’s self-identity. Over the last year, they have proven their worth as essential living spaces and places to escape. The appeal of urban living – its vibrancy, social stimulation, and sense of place is not going anywhere. Building on the rich tradition of New Urbanism, along with brainstorming about parks and public spaces as a framework, our neighborhoods, towns, and cities can once again be the catalyst for innovation and enhance our cherished democratic principles of equity, justice, and diversity.


All photos are the property of LaQuantra Bonci and are presented here with permission. All rights reserved.


Resources

Design for Distancing Ideas Guidebook an initiative by the City of Baltimore, Baltimore Development Corporation, the Neighborhood Design Center, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

designfordistancing@ndc-md.org


The Fifteen Minute City

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-11-12/paris-s-15-minute-city-could-be-coming-to-an-urban-area-near-you#:~:text=The%2015%2DMinute%20City%E2%80%94No,minutes%20of%20their%20front%20doors


Neighborhoods Now (a collaboration between the Urban Design Forum and the Van Alen Institute that connects neighborhoods hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic with design firms to collaborate on reopening strategies):

https://www.vanalen.org/projects/neighborhoods-now/


About the Author: Frederick R. Bonci, RLA, ASLA, CLARB

Frederick is a Founding Partner of LaQuatra Bonci Associates in Pittsburgh, PA, a landscape architecture, urban design, and town planning firm. Founded in 1984, the firm’s portfolio spans a wide range of project types including urban infill neighborhoods, new towns, park and open spaces, university campuses, and cultural institutions all of which integrate the highest level of sustainable design practices.