Cities emerging from the pandemic increasingly recognize that public spaces are a critical element of resilience, not merely recreational amenities. Future public spaces must be designed to accommodate more diverse and distanced activities, and may even change function entirely during public health emergencies. The need for informal public spaces has also become apparent, and cities can benefit from identifying them as resources and integrating them into land-use plans.
Parks, sidewalks and cycling paths can be justified as investments in resilience and survivability and quickly expanded. Their provision must be viewed through the lens of social and spatial equity: in many cities, not every person or community has convenient access to these critical public goods. Planners must go beyond metrics on the mere availability or density of public spaces, and delve deeper to assess the quality of spaces, and the ability of different demographic groups to reach them.
Historic neighbourhoods that developed organically offer useful inspiration when designing for equitable access and daily convenience, and can also accommodate the dispersal of jobs away from central business districts. Efforts to develop decentralised, “complete” neighbourhoods can be a boon for adaptive reuse, public space provision, and greater variety of work settings, while public areas of civic buildings can be re-imagined as nodes of collaboration in a knowledge-based economy.
Beyond building infrastructure, maintaining lively and welcoming public spaces requires empathy, respect for the commons, and care for fellow human beings. Physical spaces in a city can only be fully and genuinely “public” if they are safe, and open to everyone, regardless of age, language, identity, sexual orientation or ability. As cities undertake revitalization efforts following the pandemic, they must strive to ensure such places are available to all.
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