Better Together

Reflections for pandemic times

What can we dream for the future of getting together (again)? How do we start to understand the impact of the current health crisis on our shared public spaces? Can we still find enchantment in our experience of the city?

This report highlights key ideas from 4 weeks of mediated impressions, observations and scattered readings gathered mostly from behind our solitary screens.

The document is meant as a preliminary guidebook for usand hopefully for some of our peersas we reconsider our practice as artists and designers, creating human-scale experiences in outdoor public spaces.  

It remains, like everything else in the world right now, a work in progress.

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Research Project
2020

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Part 1: State of Human Connection

Fear of contagion is not enough to repress our need to connect and converse. New rules allow safe access to essential services, but as we get used to physical distancing, our experience of outdoor spaces remains tense. 

  • Confinement rules have caused an explosion of creative online forums for socializing and showing love screen to screen, but it’s hard to truly connect in that way.
  • Outside, people navigating the newly organized public realm look more like robots than humans. What is missing are the informal social connections, vital to civic life.
  • Support and community life are finding new ways to reach those in need despite distancing.
  • New rules will only hold if they can be translated into human, city-friendly solutions.
  • Neighbourhoods with large open public spaces are safer and healthier in pandemic times.
  • The state of human connection needs care and connection.

Part 2: Urban Principles for Planning Ahead

This humanitarian crisis is urging us to make changes to how we live. Different visions of the future city are being drawn–combining the best of old, current and emerging ideas. They provide context to imagine the future of collective experiences (and we find it rather energizing).

Inspiring urban principles, or visions of a city we want to live in:

Social
Public spaces should be designed to help you know your neighbours (at least a little bit).

Equitable
Public spaces should be welcoming and accessible to all, all the time. People from different social, economic, generational and cultural backgrounds need to mingle somewhere, somehow (and it’s not going to be online).

Walkable
Suddenly it’s possible… Around the world, thousands of lanes or entire streets have been closed to car traffic in order to give more space to people: walkers, bikers and neighbours. Car space is becoming people space again.

Distributed
For cities around the globe, networks of smaller centers have proven more resilient than single large ones where everything converges. How can we find a balance between the hyperlocal and the urban communal?

Re-Naturalised
The past months have reinforced how access to nature is essential for human happiness. As it turns out, nature, unlike us, seems to be pretty happy right now. As a starting point for the “new normal,” can we leave more time and space for the mutual health of humans and nature? Nature is also a source of food and urban farming energizes public spaces.

Sustainable
Investments (of money but also ideas) in the public realm can help our planetary ecological transition. We also need to listen, and learn, from experts and scientists. Pandemics are warnings for climate action.

Resilient
This is not the last of it. Improvements made to public spaces everywhere and the amenities they provide should be imagined for the best of days and for the worst.

Part 3: Future of Collective Experiences

What opportunities lie within and beyond the new constraints? This can ultimately lead us towards a better, more collective future.

Choreographies
New safety rules in the city bring renewed awareness of our own bodies, of each other’s presence, and of the spaces between. Pedestrians are becoming dancers. Can we transform the “negative” space between us into something positive?

Sensory Excitement
No-touch rules create new opportunities to engage with each other through other senses, leading to more awareness and engagement.

Sharing Time
Our shared space is now organized meticulously to keep us apart. However, time is a factor that can unite us; by doing something at the same time in different spaces, or being in the same space at different times.

Everything Outside, Everything Mobile
Open air theatres and outdoor markets have a renewed sense of purpose with a bit more room between participants. Touring is another way to reach lots of people, and different kinds of people, one small group after the other: an entire city can share the same experience, one neighbourhood at a time.

Hybrid Spaces
The ‘front yard’ is taking on new importance as a safe place to expand one’s personal bubble. The line between public and private space is softening, leaving room for new architectural typologies and new forms of conversation to emerge.

Enchantment
A healthy city is not just a set of rules. Right now our urban environment is good at saying ‘where to stand’ and ‘what not to do’, but it should also communicate the happy things, the things that connect us on a higher level and make us care for one another, ultimately leading to stronger, more resilient communities.

Civic Engagement

This public health emergency cannot mean the end of democracy. People are finding creative ways to keep using public space as a platform for collective expression.

Now is the time to unite.
Now is the time to be especially accessible for multigenerational and diverse audiences.
Now is the time to keep our eyes open on the inequalities in our cities and act on them.
Now is the time to rethink cultural and leisure offerings to bring people outside, to mix, in the open. 

Active participation in the public realm—playful participation included—can help plant the seed for civic engagement.
Now is the time for public spaces to truly be for the public, places for care and connection.

Conclusion

We can play with the rules to keep positive places for informal social connections to thrive in the city. They are as important as other rules to keep our cities safe and healthy.

  

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