Will COVID19 change the design of public spaces?

As economies re-open, it is clear that we are going to have to come up with new ways of interacting and creating public spaces that will allow critical elements of the economy to function. We also need to embrace the idea of temporary, low cost pop-up spaces that are safe and functional. This re-think will involve a re-claiming of public spaces and  new approaches on how we occupy spaces within our city. 

 The City of Baltimore has been proactive in this regard, and mobilised the design community to come up with implementable designs to address the need for activated spaces in a time of social distancing. 

The Design for Distancing Ideas Guidebook — a free document from the city of Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Baltimore Development Corporation, and the city’s nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center — collects 10 plans for creating temporary, low-cost spaces that permit physically distant social interaction in urban environments such as streets, alleys, vacant land and parking lots.

Simply, we need to reimagine urban living for an era defined by social distancing, and implement inclusive strategies that enable and empower people to work and play in reclaimed spaces, in inclusive new ways that enrich our urban environment whilst maintaning the health and safety of all.

Are we up for challenge? Ironically, yes!

As a country that engages with informality on a daily basis, these cost effective pop-up interventions proposed in the guidebook below will be familiar to us. Throughout South Africa, in our cities, townships and informal settlements we see examples of creative and ingenious “pop-ups” using inexpensive materials, activating space where people trade and play. 

Will we now see a change in how we view “informality” as cities across the globe potentially embrace new designs for public spaces that need to be temporary, responsive and fluid.

Will this be the moment we recognise design- informality as credible, necessary and as a dynamic economic driver with significant social value? Will the “informal” pop-ups become the new normal? Could we see an opening up of our cities to more inclusive activitity in open spaces? 

As writes in How to Design a Post-Pandemic City

“Now that the perils of reopening indoor activities are becoming tragically clear, outdoor space will need to work even harder — hosting stores, performances, and all manner of public services.”

He goes on to write “The designs go beyond the ad-hoc bollards-and-traffic-cones approach that cities have used to widen sidewalks and carve out space for pedestrians in the earlier days of the pandemic: They include modular concepts for outdoor retail, public cleansing stations, community art classes, and pop-up services like haircuts and mobile libraries.

Some are are no larger than a parking space; others can be scaled up to a whole retail strip. Many of the designs are built around the notion of a far more car-free streetscape. In a proposal called “Find Your Tropical Island,” for example, designer Christopher Odusanya carpets streets and alleys with small circular stages where people could sew, do yoga, sell food, or sit beneath the shade of umbrellas.”

What stood out was the collaboration between the City of Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Baltimore Development Corporation, and the city’s nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center. 

In order to achieve this re-imagining, we need political will, alignment, economic support (the winning interventions, which should cost between $5,000 and $100,000 each to construct, are set to be installed in 17 neighborhoods across Baltimore, supported by a $1.5 million investment from the city during the second phase of the project) and collaboration,  community participation and principled investment (

As Keshia Pollack Porter, a professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins,  states in the article “This was a great opportunity to rethink how we use public spaces, how we use streets” 


Download the Guidebook 

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