2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID-19 Pandemic


Parks, Piazzas & Pandemics: Promoting Safe Access to Public Places with Data Analytics

Thursday 17 September 2020  /  Series 5 (September) - Webinar 3

>>> Speakers and agenda
>>> Programme of our COVID-19 initiative

The webinar was hosted by Luisa Bravo (City Space Architecture / The Journal of Public Space), Hendrik Tieben (Chinese University of Hong Kong), co-hosted by Kevin Fan Hsu (Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore) organised in partnership with the Centre for Liveable Cities based in Singapore.


Opening Statement

Kevin Hsu, Centre for Liveable Cities

During the pandemic, many governments have ordered their populations to shelter in place and reduce outside activities. However, basic human needs such as buying groceries and engaging in physical exercise still require visits to parks, supermarkets, and malls. To promote safe access to these places, a number of entities are monitoring crowd size, analyzing mobility data, and sharing real-time information on online platforms to empower the public to make healthier choices.

COVID-19 has also provided an unprecedented opportunity to gather new data and analyze differences in how populations traverse and occupy public spaces before and after the pandemic, revealing important insights about public life in cities. With these lessons in hand, designers have begun questioning the planning of neighborhoods and streetscapes, and pondering social patterns in cities.

This online session brings together practitioners from government and academia to discuss how data and analytics can be used to support pandemic response, and will continue to play a role in making future cities safe, enjoyable, and resilient.


Insight from Speakers

Chong Lee Tan, National Parks Board (NParks), Singapore

NParks is a government agency in Singapore which oversees greenery, parks, biodiversity management and conservation, including 350 parks and gardens. With the vision of developing Singapore into a “City in Nature”, NParks hopes to restore nature back in the city for the liveability, sustainability and wellbeing of all residents.

Chong Lee unfolded the pandemic timeline of Singapore and set the context. On 7 April, Singapore’s version of the lockdown, Circuit Breaker, was imposed. All non-essential services were closed, but parks and gardens remained open with some facilities closed. 21 April saw the further tightening of the measures, which were then lifted on 1 June with the reopening of playgrounds, shelters, and fitness corners. Patrolling in parks was imposed and intensified to ensure safe distancing, particularly during weekends peaks. The Google mobility trends revealed a sharp and surprising increase in the use of parks post-lockdown, as well as an increased interest in nature reserves. Corresponding increases in visitorships were found across different nature reserves in Singapore. With such, the key challenges were to rapidly respond to and maintain safe-distancing measures in the large area of parks particularly during weekends, to attend to critical greenery and park maintenance with a reduced landscape workforce, and to provide a safe working environment for staff.

Responding to these challenges, new staff were employed to patrol the parks and nature reserves, including airline workers who were out of work during the pandemic. Over the years, with the aim of enhancing work efficiency and improving public engagement, NParks has been leveraging on digitalisation and Ops tech across its full scope of work, including tree management, community engagement, biodiversity management, industry development.

One of the prominent actions taken was to consolidate all geospatial data on a common platform to facilitate data sharing within the organisation and with other agencies and the public. These digitalisation efforts allowed NParks to respond quickly to the pandemic by developing the Safe Distance@Parks App for the public to check park visitorship level and avoid crowded areas. The app drew real-time data from NParks’ office, CCTVs on the ground, and drones, and thus supported park visitor management. The use of video analytics helped with people counting, monitoring safe distancing and car park usage.

In collaborating with GovTech, Spot the Robot was utilized as well for more challenging terrain of the parks. Data collected fed into the internal portal of Park Visitorship Assessment System and allowed staff to take actions when safe distance was not maintained, thus significantly helped reduce the need for physical deployment of staff for monitoring. In addition, a Contractor fleet management system was developed to allow live monitoring of the works on the ground via video cameras, GPS tracking and wearables. Under COVID-19, the wearables were able to monitor whether workers adhere to safe distancing rules.

Looking into the future, Chong Lee felt that COVID-19 created the impetus to quicken the process of digitalisation to reshape the workforce and create a safer working environment. He shared multiple digitalisation initiatives of NParks, one of such is the development of digital twins for all trees for virtual monitoring, enhancing the efficiency of tree management by reducing time spent on site. Remote monitoring also allows tree structural assessment under different wind speeds, pinpointing necessary physical interventions like pruning. Wireless tree tilt sensors send warning signals when there is sudden tree movement to alert staff to respond and mitigate risks in a timely manner.

Sensors are also used to monitor parks remotely, sending signals for necessary maintenance of bins, toilets and lighting. Real-time tracking of grass cutting activities reduces the time required for on-site inspections. The fire risks maps updated daily allow identification of risk areas and deployment of targeted interventions. The forest fire monitoring system reduces a large number of staff required for patrolling natural reserves as it is capable of detecting smoke and fires and sends alerts upon detection. Videos and cameras installed in parks allow the monitoring and study of biodiversity with interesting sightings.

All these initiatives enhance productivity and reduce reliance on manual labour. Currently, NParks is working on a landscape sector transformation plan with industry leaders to create a more resilient workforce and a future-ready industry, a need heightened by the pandemic.

Reflecting upon the challenging pandemic experience, Chong Lee felt proud of people’s collaborative spirit and was assured of the “digital to the core” approach NParks initiated six years ago. Versatility and practicality of the systems, an adaptive management approach, and continuous deployment of digitalisation and Ops tech are key to preparing for future challenges. 


Zhongwen Huang, Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Digital Planning Lab, Singapore

Zhongwen started off by pinpointing the key of cities today: resilience to respond to shock, and the ability to rally stakeholders together. Singapore is a city-state, requiring comprehensive planning for a good quality living environment within the limited land and sea space. The planning philosophy lies in developing in a sustainable manner, balancing the aspects of economic, social, environment, land and sea resources. With the uncertain pace and extent of macro changes and its impacts, it is essential to incorporate greater flexibility and resilience in planning, as reflected clearly by COVID-19. URA’s digital transformation over the past 8 years has proven the power of technology and the importance to harness it for data-informed and productive decisions, integrated and synergistic planning approach, and to support industry productivity gain and value creation with shared insights. 

SPACEOUT is a portal where members of the public can easily find out the crowd levels of public spaces such as markets, malls, post offices, and has played a significant role in ensuring safe distancing and making informed decisions throughout the pandemic. Singapore implemented safe distancing measures for retail areas in late March, limiting the occupancy and crowd level. This created long queues and malls found it difficult to manage and turn down the crowds. The malls also had to count people manually but kept the information private. It is therefore value-adding to bring originally fragmented crowd level data onto the same portal so that different stakeholders can make informed decisions and relieve malls’ pressure.

The implementation started with large retail mall chains: the URA team first understood what malls were doing independently and found a way that’s easy for frontline staff to exercise counting and send data to the portal. Data usage was also a major concern that the team had to address and agree on storage, handling, purpose, and publicising issues. Many malls approached URA once the portal was launched in April, subsequently post offices, stadiums, supermarkets, and Sentosa also joined. Technical solutions kept evolving but the portal remains the same, with the principle of making it accessible for everyone and easy to use. It is a web-map application that does not require app installation with information available at a glance, and the highly modular set up allows changes and progression.

With user feedback, the team made dynamic improvements by providing additional information like opening hours and multi-languages, being colour blindness friendly, offering less crowded options analysis, and later added district layer with Sentosa and carparks figures.

Zhongwen shared some of the key takeaways from the project, including the importance of bridging information gaps and data fragmentation to make informed choices, to create aligned interests and demonstrate feasibility and value, and most importantly, to prioritize user-centric design that allows continuous and fast improvements. 


Jo-Ting Huang-Lachmann, Climate Service Center Germany (GERICS), INNOVA project, Germany

Jo-Ting focused on the topic of engaging and enabling the public for co-creating climate services and shared experiences of several projects. Heatwaves took place occasionally in Germany, so Hamburg’s government made a social media call and asked citizens about their favourite spot to work or chill during the heatwave, mapping input from citizens on an open-access map. Another pre-COVID city-led initiative encouraged cycling to work, to organise cycling activities among colleagues, with the use of a mobile app to track carbon emissions reductions.

Jo-Ting is currently working on INNOVA, an innovation project for climate service provision in five cities, which decided on its focus and topics. Kaohsiung chose urban planning and agriculture, Valencia picked water scarcity and management, Nigmeghan focused on flooding and urban planning, Kiel Bay worked on coast management, and French West Indies zoomed into agriculture.

The most important underlying principle is to employ a participatory approach, where all stakeholders are engaged in the process and their input treated equally. Through conversations, they expressed views on how climate factors affected them and the corresponding need for certain kinds of climate data. These inputs were compiled into group modelling to show causal relationships and to invite users to identify the desired formats and output of the climate data. Next, the team used open climate data to tailor-design climate information according to users’ needs. Throughout this process, a platform was created for all users to engage and be empowered to create their own data.

A key question came up in the Kaohsiung urban redevelopment project with the pandemic: How to design future buildings and infrastructure in the post-COVID-19 era? Applying the same engagement method with architects, private sectors and citizens, the city government gathered feedback including increased indoor air circulation, more outdoor open space, 15min bike/walk distance to necessary infrastructure in decentralized forms instead of huge malls, resilient and climate-proof infrastructure.

The team suggested combining the data and climate issues with on-going smart city initiatives, and collected opinions from people regarding their perceptions of smart cities. It boiled down to placing people as the basics as they want transparency and are eager to participate. Jo-ting concluded by emphasizing the project’s goal: the importance to enable and empower users to move up the ladder of climate data, from the stage of problem awareness to data knowledge, and finally to solve their problems utilizing the data.


Damiano Cerrone, Demos Helsinki, Finland

Damiano argued that the current situation is not so unprecedented, if we reference the 10-year yield of the S&P 500, we were at the peak and now are at the 7th urban transformation. After each crisis, there is always a new city typology, and the approach should be a new regenerative city that is able to regenerate in space, activities and values. Damiano proposed four steps:

Step 1 - Change the way we think of change. We need to be less reactive and to embrace change, build a thriving and regenerative system.

Step 2 - Social imagination. The Untitled festival is a project that encourages social imaginations to think about the desired future, which leads to experimentation. Retention is critical to convince the government that it is possible to keep the initiatives and experiments during and after COVID, which then leads to the desired future.

Step 3 - Build a new story. Change the current narrative where the public sector plans, the private sectors build and operate, and the people participate and consume, into a regenerative story where people co-operate and learn, plan and make the decisions, with the help of the 4th sector to pool resources, and the private sectors to build and co-operate.

Step 4 - Build a new city. 4 pillars are key to building the new regenerative cities: transforming governance by placing people first, transmobility - combining communication and transit technologies to bring people and places together in the age of immobility, retrofitting the built environment to go beyond carbon neutral, and creating data commons.

Damiano raised the question of the place for urban data in these processes and suggested 3 phases. First, utilize data and artificial intelligence to discover questions and correlations, secondly, engage people to build and understand causations and insights, and finally, the step of foresight, to imagine and strategize for the future. 



David Grahame Shane, Columbia University GSAPP (Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation), United States

David was intrigued by the question of how the information relates to cities when currently layers of data empowered by sensors and robots overlay our cities and interact with the built forms we inherit, especially when we progress into regenerative cities. The idea of “data as a common”, bottom-up initiatives and public engagement gradually phased out old city forms and created new augmented forms. It was interesting how the data extracted from the existing city was turned into algorithms, mobile applications, and made into the augmented city with an established feedback loop.

Even more fascinating was that the municipalities and the government in Singapore were taking the lead to employ these technologies to ensure safe spacing and cooperated with the public to evolve over time, a huge contrast to New York where David is based. Similar feedback loops and engagement forms were showcased in Jo-ting’s presentation. Data forms an international and informational basis for cross-city analysis. The challenge is to take all the extracted data into apps and find a way to communicate with practitioners like architects and urban designers to build cities and buildings into the future.

The idea of the digital twins of trees amazed David and led to the imagination of the possibility and scalability of twinning our physical communities with the feedback mechanism and a global network. Finally, David agreed with Damiano that data visualization is essential, affecting how people read, manipulate and feed into the systems, formulating a parallel world in our mind and a new sphere of public space that is unimaginable decades ago. 


Roundtable discussion

Kevin: Can you share more about data gathering and input? How do you balance between the right level of transparency and the protection of privacy?

Zhongwen: “Together” is an important concept in this field; no one has a monopoly on the data of the city in reality. Coming to data visualization, cartography is one of the evergreen tools as the principles remain very relevant and true. Over the last decade, narratives like data is the new oil and air emerged but Zhongwen felt that data as a resource is not cost-free, especially the overlooked cost and investment of data preparation, collection, and of bringing data together. Such realization of cost is important to address the question of how do we make people want to come together to invest.

Applying such thinking to SPACEOUT, URA recognized that it would cost the malls to gather data from the outset. The strong foundation built with the retail industry and malls let URA understand clearly the data they possessed and the corresponding concerns of the stakeholders. URA also tapped into the long-term relationships built via place managers and activated the entire governmental network across disciplines to move much quicker in the implementation process. While the engagement first started with industry players, once the portal was launched, interesting feedback from the public came in, including concerns raised by the Association of Visually Handicapped that helped improve the visualization and map screen reader. The crux was to be pragmatic, finding how to address stakeholders’ interests and concerns, and how to add value accordingly.


Jo-Ting: The idea of cost-effectiveness of data is exactly why Jo-Ting promotes user-oriented data. Right now we do it another way: we collect and store chunks of data without concerning the users, have invested a lot on infrastructures and only come to the users towards the end of the process, who might find the data or product completely unusable and require the process to start all over again. We should instead first ask the users what are the data they need, and what are the formats they would like to see. This is particularly important for city governments who have a limited budget.

Jo-Ting also shared that many citizens like farmers think that complex climate data is very far from them; they are fearful and resistant to climate data. This is why personal conversations and interviews are important to relate the topics to them and let them understand that they are experts as well and their experiences matter. To conclude, Jo-Ting felt that the key questions we have to ask ourselves are: What is the purpose of collecting data? Are we engaging the users to define the problems? 


Kevin: How are human efforts combined with data in the efforts? What is the role of parks building resilience in the city and how does this transform public space in the future?

Chong Lee: Data and physical presence on the ground have to work hand in hand. Data helps extend the reach and monitoring, enhance situation awareness and allow predictive actions, all these contribute to how people on the ground make judgements and engage with the public.

Parks and gardens have never been closed during circuit breakers, reflecting that policymakers understand the importance of having these open spaces as outlets to relax and exercise.

The vision of building a city of nature reflects the belief of the role of nature in building a resilient and regenerative city. Nature-based solutions help build climate change and ecological resilience,  and the pandemic experience further affirms the belief in nature’s role. Responding to how data can change planning in the future, Chong Lee shared that the digital twin would go live in a few months. While we have built BEAM models for buildings, there have not been similar efforts for the natural landscape. With this new digital model, designs can be first modelled and carried out virtually and collect feedback before implementation, this would be a fundamental change in the way NParks is planned and managed.


Kevin: In countries with high poverty rates and extended urban slums, how do you manage and collect data? How do we make sure citizens can have equal access to the same types of amenities and services?

What about privacy? Governments might not always want the best for the people, what are the political stakes?

Chong Lee: Parks are great social levellers and equalizers, a space for everyone. Data privacy cannot be an afterthought but has to be dealt with and considered before deploying the technology. For instance, the CCTVs deployed are not doing facial identification and the public is ensured that such function does not exist and no personal information will be collected, the tools are only used for people counting. 


Zhongwen: Privacy is a significant issue that cannot be ignored, and it boils down to a good governance framework to ensure trusted arrangements. In addition to looking at what is possible with data and technology, we should also look at the limitations, biases, and be mindful of possible ethical considerations. Looking at this issue from angles of public policy, urban planning and management, with growing demands from stakeholders, there is a need to be targeted and precise in where to invest limited public resources for greater social benefits.

While ensuring the safeguards of privacy and other concerns, harnessing the data could unlock meaningful and deeper insights in understanding the needs of people and businesses, so that the government can better respond and invest in the right services and infrastructure. It is an inclusive process that is not affected by digital and data literacy. The use of data and technology is useful for empowering and involving people better, to enable everyone to see a bigger and common picture and understand different options. Recently, the Ministry of Health in Singapore is working with seniors to understand their needs across different neighbourhoods and thus is able to decide where to invest public resources to put in new care centres and introduce age-friendly schemes and services. 


Final remarks from panellists on cities, data and people in the future, and the hopes for life in the new normal.

Damiano hopes that there will be an equal amount of effort put in intangible values as they are not things we can measure.

Jo-Ting would like to see more data be collected and driven by people, more open access data for future generations to learn and shape data outcomes in a bottom-up manner for themselves.

Chong Lee would like to see cities and institutions continue to collaborate, share data, and strengthen data technology for better-informed decisions, and to strengthen engagement with citizens and improve our lives.

Zhongwen felt that at this age of AI and technology, the way we plan would evolve but the fundamentals of why we plan should remain the same - create a good quality of life for our people and future generations. “The fundamental question is not how can we make civic life more efficient with technology, but the question should rather be how can we use technology to make civic life more meaningful.”

David was excited about how we can use digital models, the issues of spacing and density, automation and robots, rural and urban relationships, definitions of cities and communities, and how the global village is becoming virtual and how this big shift will affect the way we live.

Kevin hopes that we continue conversations like this one, spurred on by the circumstances of adapting to the pandemic to reimagine our cities—and that connection and collaboration across borders can be strengthened in the new normal.


Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash