Mr Michael Stott, Director of City and Place with Cistri/Urbis, shared his insights on how placemaking and tactical urbanism in the post-COVID city are relevant in the Singapore context to “Build Back Better”.
Adapted from an edition of the People & Places Partnership webinar series presented by URA.
Rethinking the role of public spaces
The health of cities, communities and neighbourhoods is directly linked to access to public open spaces within communities. COVID-19 may be the catalyst we need to rethink the role of public spaces in shaping our cities. Without the presence of people interacting, working, socialising and traveling, cities are just collections of buildings and infrastructure.
Public spaces have taken on a new life and meaning as people re-emerge from lockdown, as they become the main or only source of human interaction in local communities. As daily aspects of city life like busy trains, sharing seats or eating out are suddenly being threatened, in response, many of us are redefining our sense of place, which is grounded in the sense of being together. Our perceptions and priorities have changed as a result, and we may not even view public spaces and cities the same way after this pandemic.
A greater focus on the regeneration and renewal of our cities these past few decades has led to overlooking the importance of improving and expanding networks of public open spaces. It is these interstitial spaces that make our cities more human-scale and memorable. For future recovery, these spaces are where we need to focus efforts on.
The importance of public spaces for our physical and mental well-being has come to light in the early days of the pandemic. New patterns of use of space and innovative placemaking have emerged. People are starting to “colonise” the streets in creative ways. These moments have provided us the opportunity to reflect on the shortcomings of our local environments and brought us together as a global community.
Tactical urbanism is on the rise
Tactical urbanism is an informal process accessible to almost anyone and has been around since the 1980s. It aims to create places and encourage community development through temporary low-cost projects to improve areas in the short term, demonstrating what the long-term opportunities are.
A method of tactical urbanism on the rise globally is road closures. Road closures not only create more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly public spaces that attract greater footfall and invite people back to the neighbourhoods, but also provide new canvases for street art and murals in the city. They also encourage layered uses of streets that provide multiple benefits. For example, outdoor dining, open play areas for children and walking art galleries are able to co-exist when streets are closed and reconfigured.
Family-friendly activities at a street closure event along Maju Avenue.
Tactical urbanism gives us the means and opportunity to act quickly to reconfigure underutilised public spaces into new, much-loved places. For example, New York and Rotterdam have simplified the process of approval to allow restaurants to set up outdoor seating along the streets in front of their businesses free-of-charge to cope with physical distancing requirements, helping local businesses adapt to new safe management measures.
Our cities are full of spaces with greater potential for flexibility, experimentation and innovation. The adaptability of tactical urbanism methods and placemaking makes them suitable solutions for our cities in a post-COVID world.
Returning to normal and the road ahead
The restrictions and safety measures that have uprooted us force us to think about what the new normal will look like. Key things to consider are: How do we bring people together but keep them apart? How do we relate to each other when we come out of the pandemic? What does this mean for social norms?
Designing for Distancing was an installation that reminded visitors to the Marina Bay promenade to keep a safe distance from each other in a friendly and fun way, using colourful floor stickers and otter motifs.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary responses, and this is not a time for planners and policy makers to plan for people, but to plan with people. History has shown that great innovation, urban planning and design come from responses to major events in an effort to improve public health. COVID-19 prompts us to reimagine urban planning in cities, which has traditionally relied on the relative predictability of how people use space. It is also important to consider that going forward, people’s perception and attachment to places have changed; it will also be helpful to maintain a sense of humour and playfulness in it all.
The long-term resilience of cities and people can only be sustained if we work together to experiment and innovate. COVID-19 has been a devastating tragedy worldwide, but it is also an opportunity for us to build a stronger sense of place and create vibrant outdoor spaces that celebrate urban life.
To avoid a resurgence and to recover equitably, we need to think expansively about outdoor spaces that can fulfill everybody’s daily needs. We also need to work directly with communities most affected by the pandemic to build back better.
Let’s take this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reprioritise what matters most to us and reshape our cities for people first. If we do not act now, the things we value about our cities will be at risk. Until we work together to innovate our spaces, we may end up back at where we were. Now is the time for us to champion building back better.
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