The need to adapt public spaces to safety measures has stimulated many cities to start new initiatives and make policies which could potentially redefine roles and balances in the uses of public spaces. A great opportunity we shouldn’t lose. A big change that should be accompanied by more discussion.
The end of the lockdown and the start of phase two brought public life in the spotlight. To restart many activities the adaptation and reframing of public spaces is key to provide an infrastructure capable to enable safe physical distancing. Experiments are being launched all over the world: City of Milan gained a lot of visibility with its urban adaptation plan, but similar things are taking place in New Zealand (where the central state will finance intervention in cities), in the rest of Europe (Madrid, Brussels, just to name a few cases), in the United States. As they choose to redefine the relationship between the different mobility systems, these initiatives propose new ways to distribute the space of the road and to (apparently) radically rethink the uses of urban grounds.
From an urban planner or an urban designer’s perspective, this is critical and exciting at the same time. Rethinking the limits and the uses of public spaces is unfortunately not always possible (and certainly not everywhere). On the other hand, many agree on the fact that this is a great opportunity to define new priorities and imagine, with a little ambition, more virtuous futures and new balances. What emerges at the moment is great enthusiasm, and a little confusion, with a reduced ability to distinguish and value the different typologies and scales of public spaces (neighborhood spaces, large public infrastructures, parks and gardens are different things and policies should treat them as such). The risk of promoting a one-for-all set of solutions is very high at the moment, with a reduction in diversity, contextuality and effectiveness of solutions, according to the different contexts and societies.
The conditions of use and exploitation of public spaces has a lot to do with economy and economic balances – as opportunities of exchange and movement need to be granted to people for certain activities to happen. Pedestrian streets occupied by tables and chairs, drive-ins, and drive-though services, are recurring images in these days, as the need for economic activities to gain outdoor space is becoming more and more debated – often forgetting about the critical issue of privatizing something that is public, letting some interest prevail among others.
As we go through newspapers declarations, and more in general the evolution of the “public discourse on space”, these initial attempts to redefine our public spaces disclose some critical “weak points” that require further discussion.