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Re-imagining public spaces and designing liveable communities in a COVID-19 world

Re-imagining public spaces and designing liveable communities in a COVID-19 world

How do we reimagine public spaces – such as parks, streets, beaches, schools, libraries, and other areas of communities – in a way that they will be liveable for people in a COVID-19 world? What are the issues around equal access and rights to public and social spaces as we begin to live in this new reality? What are the unique challenges and opportunities that cities face in designing healthy communities?

This was the topic of the webinar that Professor Ute Lehrer took part in June, hosted by St. Francis’ University’s Coady International Institute, N.S., that brought together experts and drew hundreds of attendees from around the globe. An urban planner and researcher, Lehrer studies architecture and urban design, public spaces and amenities, gentrification and redevelopment, as well as high-rise living. In her work, she takes a critical approach and argues that public space is not only a physical manifestation of rules and norms, but first and foremost, public space is socially constructed, it is created and performed through social practices.

Focusing her discussion of public space on two separate events – the overcrowding of Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto and the worldwide response to the killing of George Floyd –, Lehrer noted that “we can’t look at public space the same way as we did before. Both events had consequences that are directly linked to the notion of public space”.

“What we know for sure is that public space is lacking in neighborhoods of marginalized people. And when we talk in the Covid-19 time about public space, we ask for more and better access to parks and bicycle lanes, which are all laudable goals. Yet, when we look at the fine print, we quickly need to realize that we continuously speak about those places that are already privileged. If Covid-19 has taught us one thing, it is that those neighbourhoods where there is a concentration of poverty, also have the highest numbers of illnesses and of death,” she observes.

Transformation of public space: Extension of restaurant into the street (Photo: Ute Lehrer)

“Those events lead us directly back to one of the origins of our profession: taking care of health in our cities. This is why it is of utmost important to focus on improving public amenities especially for those who are disenfranchised and underprivileged in our society and those who are actively kept at the margins as they bear the brunt of the pandemic. This means the neighbourhoods and territories of black Canadians, Indigenous peoples and immigrants,” Lehrer elaborates.

With the new rule of physical distance between people who don’t share the same household, the concept of public space is also undergoing transformation. This presents an opportunity to make public space more inclusive, instead of leaving it to lawmakers, politicians and the police to use even more surveillance technologies.

“I hope that planners are ready to engage in the negotiation process around public space in a far more radical and progressive way,” Lehrer imagines. This would include defunding the police and redistributing the monies to social services, housing and so on.  “Considering the inequalities in access to public space that the pandemic has revealed, combined with how public space is used for protest for justice and equality (as the marches and protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement around the world revealed), we who are involved in urban planning need to ensure that public spaces are areas where democracy occurs and continue to function” she demands.

Indeed, public spaces bind people together, but when the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people physically apart, what then are the implications for post-lockdown planning approaches? In this regard, Lehrer notes that “ we need to consider how we can collectively create spaces that are healthy, environmentally sustainable while also promoting equality and integration of all people, regardless of race or class.”

Given the question about progressive and radical planning, where does that leave us now? Ute Lehrer responds that “planners of today are trained to be aware of the differences in their constituencies.” She emphasizes that “there is no such thing as THE public. There are multiple publics and they come with multiple ways of social practices. Public spaces are created, negotiated, contested and reinvented in multiple ways.”

Lehrer has degrees in urban planning, art and architectural history, sociology and economic and social history from University of Zurich and UCLA. She has been involved in comparative urban research on Zurich, Frankfurt, Berlin, Los Angeles and Toronto, investigating new urban forms and other megaprojects. Her most recent book (edited with Richard Harris) looks at the Suburban Land Question (2018). She was the PI and a co-applicant in several SSHRC-funded research projects, including Global Suburbanisms.