The impact of COVID-19 on public space: A review of the emerging questions

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on public spaces. This journal article identifies 17 emergent questions about people’s changing relationship with public space, and resultant urban design and planning adaptions. Drawing on existing research evidence and best practice examples from around the world, some early potential answers are provided.

Date added 17 August 2021
Last updated 17 August 2021

Accessible, walkable, and attractive recreational space is central to ensuring a place’s vitality and viability. However, the nature of how people are using and perceiving public space has fundamentally transformed during the COVID-19 pandemic, with new challenges arising for those who design, manage, and consume them. This journal article, written by Honey-Rosés et al. (2020), identifies 17 emergent questions around people’s changing relationship with public space, and resultant urban design and planning adaptions. It draws on existing research evidence and best practice examples from around the world, to provide some early potential answers. The authors consider whether the transformations being witnessed are short-term, or will also likely continue into the future. The article, therefore, looks ahead to what public space might look like once some of the current restrictions are eased, places begin to move through to the recovery stage of the IPM’s COVID-19 Recovery Framework, and increasing numbers of people begin to use public spaces once again. This resource, therefore, will help those involved in designing and/or managing public spaces to begin planning ahead for future recovery now, to ensure places are safe, liveable, and enjoyable once people begin returning to high streets and town centres.

Some key questions emerging

Will streets be redesigned?

Cities around the world - from Milan to Vancouver - are already taking measures to redesign streets to accommodate more walkers and cyclists. With potential extensions to the current social distancing requirements, and growing demand for home deliveries of things like food, the authors question if such redesigning of public space might need to continue into the future to meet the changing demands of its users.

Will health and green be designed into cities?

With evidence of more people walking and cycling since the pandemic, the article suggests those designing public spaces will need to consider how health and green can be better designed into the places of the future to ensure their liveability. The provision of accessible and safe greenspace in local neighbourhoods will be increasingly important to ensure people can enjoy nature and the outdoors closer to home. Is there the potential to make unused spaces greener (e.g. conversion of city rooftops into gardens)?

Will temporary transformations become permanent?

We are seeing evidence of places around the world becoming temporarily transformed through tactical urbanism interventions reallocating car space to pedestrians and cyclists. The article argues these temporary placemaking interventions are testing grounds for potentially more permanent solutions, with the monitoring of their impact on things like user perceptions, behaviours, and air quality needed to inform more long-term urban design plans. 

Will we change what we do in public?

As the authors claim, shopping and socialising are two main activities that people have historically accessed or moved through public spaces to engage in. However, the pandemic has presented challenges for both of these pastimes, with many shops currently closed and social distancing measures hindering more spontaneous social interactions from emerging. Place leaders and urban designers, therefore, will need to think about what new uses people will have for public space going forwards (e.g. exercise), and how they can be (re)designed accordingly.