Adapting Our Streets – Now is the time

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If you’re in Victoria, some long-awaited good news! The Victorian Government has announced welcome initiatives to promote streetlife and alfresco dining by reconfiguring streets as we emerge from COVID-19 restrictions.

We know from cities around the world that great public spaces are integral to living with COVID-19 in a just and mutually sustaining way. Here are some thoughts on how we do it.

Firstly, there is now a clear need for Councils, community groups and businesses to move quickly with the aid of good design principles, developing ways of working that can support “distancing with warmth and vibrancy”, rather than social distancing, in our public realm. 

This means a great opportunity to, as American designer Roger Trinick suggested, “find lost spaces” that are all around us and bring them to life (Tranick, 1986). We can do this through a twin approach of testing interventions through tactical urbanism and developing a local place adaptation framework.

What Might An Adaptive Design Framework Look Like?

Councils, communities and businesses that move quickly to learn lessons from interventions and embed principles of good design at a local level are likely to see more life on the street, which is good news for local business, particularly hospitality.

A place adaptation framework can allow for clear expectations to be set around:

  • What types of land might be used for al fresco dining and events
  • Decision-making processes and the review/monitoring of interventions
  • Design elements that make for welcoming places for people in our public realm, while incorporating local character.
  • How interventions might be trialled and if necessary amended, in line with the principles of tactical urbanism.

Each place, each street and each community will be unique in their needs. However principles of good design and practice can be set as a way of unlocking possibilities and an understanding of how a public realm can allow for “distancing with warmth and vibrancy”.

Here are some fundamental principles I suggest starting with:

  1. Maintain or increase footpath width.

As a general rule, footpath width needs to be maintained for safe pedestrian movement and spatial distancing. Often, footpaths in our cities are less than 2m wide, which can make distancing difficult.

This is not to say that existing permits for footpath dining or displays in areas with wider footpaths should not be honoured. Nor is it to say that expensive engineering works are needed – far from it. It is to say that retaining pedestrian space is vital for safe walking, including to and through retail strips. This is not only essential for health and wellbeing; but also allows for social interaction and window-browsing that is vital in generating trade.

2. Focus on edges

Thoughtful, inviting edges are vital in the success of pop-up spaces such as parklets. Welcoming edges can foster a sense of life; particularly in parklets or interventions designed on unused carparking spaces.  Using planter boxes along edges and even between dining tables can provide a visual softness while preserving sight lines that connect us with the street life in our surroundings.   Locally produced art installations could also demarcate space with a sense of warmth and character.

3. Review Your Seating Design

Have you ever noticed how people often like to sit on the edges of rooms facing inward?  This effect, known as thigmotaxis, means bench seats facing inwards from the edges of pop-up spaces can create a sense of shelter and intensity. This design for edges could be particularly useful around cafes or bars where people might sit more casually. 

Elsewhere, bench seats positioned at right angles mean that two people can have a conversation easily while maintaining appropriate spatial distance.  These subtle design tricks are important in creating the opportunity for distancing with warmth.

4. Test and trial in car parks or roadways

Streets are for people: In this time of spatial distancing this message has never been more important.  Tactical urbanism approaches give us the ability to test out interventions in car parks, or on roadways where space allows. Testing out interventions for a period allows for evaluation, before potential scaling up should pop-up spaces be working. 

Doing this over spring, for example, might also allow for sturdier shade infrastructure to be arranged before summer should interventions prove successful – umbrellas in bright colours can convey a sense of playfulness and visibility.

For Councils, this means facilitating short-term trials, possibly in partnership with businesses, and having clear conversations around how successful an intervention is and the potential to scale up if a space is effective.

5. Engage with community

Bringing life to our streets is a collective endeavour. Having conversations with businesses, pedestrians and community groups is important in designing, testing, monitoring and potentially scaling up pop-up al fresco spaces. Developing generative partnerships, street-by-street, place-by-place, is vital.

A robust engagement process and a place-management approach within Councils to support these initiatives means issues can be addressed seamlessly, expectations can be made clear and a spirit of shared stewardship of pop-up spaces can be developed.

6. Just add character!

Pop-up spaces are a great way to tell local stories and infuse the public realm with identity. As many of us have stayed closer to home during Covid-restrictions, we have seen lots of artworks emerge by fences, chalk art on footpaths, book libraries and wonderful moments of warmth and expression.

What if we carried this warmth and creativity onward into more streets? Infusing pop-up spaces with whimsy and life could be great way of supporting local artists and instilling an even stronger localised spirit of place. This is fundamental to street life and encouraging people to stop and linger.

If the above ideas resonate with you, now is a great time to go and get started!  Find a space of opportunity and start work!  There are lots of great people doing this kind of work already that can support you.

If you or your community is interested in developing a place adaptation approach, don’t hesitate to get in touch via matt@sageleafplace.com, or check out www.sageleaf.place.

References:

Tranick, R (1986) Finding Lost Space: Theories of Urban Design, John Wiley & Sons, New York.

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