During the COVID-19 pandemic, ULI Washington along with its members continue working to enrich each other and develop materials that benefit the greater Washington region. ULI Washington’s Placemaking Initiative Council met in mid-May to conduct its final meeting of the year virtually. During the event, members considered a number of questions and broke into discussion groups. The following document outlines the context and questions posed to members, as well as a summary of discussions drafted by Placemaking co-chairs Robert Atkinson and Tanya Stern.
Places, as currently broadly defined, will have a “new normal” in the future and are going to be essential in starting to knit the social fabric together again when physical distancing mandates due to the coronavirus pandemic end in the future. We are still in the midst of this experience, so when these mandates end and how placemaking will be delivered under the “new normal” are unclear. In the meantime, this is an opportunity for PIC members to reflect on their personal and professional experiences and observations on how they and their work around placemaking have been impacted so far. This session is an informal one of conversation, sharing and reflection.
Questions to guide conversation:
- How do we think about “place” when people can’t be around each other?
- How do you experience “place” when you are going into work in person during this time of social distancing and many people are staying at home and most amenities are closed?
- How do you define “place” when “place” might be primarily your home and neighborhood if you are teleworking?
- Are there ways for people to meaningfully connect virtually and in person, without large groups?
- What happens when we get the “all clear”? What changes do you think might happen in terms of how placemaking is delivered in the future?
- Given potentially ongoing sensitivities around person proximity, how can we make places inviting for people to use them when they are able to return? How do we make places more comfortable and accessible?
SUMMARY OF NOTES FROM BREAKOUT SESSIONS:
PIC members split into smaller groups to discuss the questions above. All groups returned to the main Zoom room to share their discussions with the entire group. The following comments were collected from PIC members who participated in discussions and shared with the group.
- Placemaking is a long game activity so it’s vital to get a handle on how much of the changes that are happening now are interim or permanent.
- Health safety is going to become an integral part of design at least for some time.
- The session PIC had on designing for the hearing and visually impaired provides some guidance on how places and placemaking might evolve.
- The fact that the shutdowns began in early Spring was helpful in that we didn’t have very cold and snowy weather that restricts outdoor activities.
- If conditions continue into the year when outdoor activities are restricted by weather, what outdoor activities could be supported? Are there indoor spaces (such as gymnasiums) that can safely maintain activities with limited/scheduled attendance?
- Some places that are necessary like restrooms may either be closed or could be dangerous if not properly maintained; increase the degree to which people are tethered to home.
- We need to start planning places now to be able to adapt when the next pandemic or whatever hits. In normal times we need much less space per person but if social distancing needs to happen (and this could even be for a really bad flu season) spaces need to be designed to expand and contract and still not feel empty.
- Places may not change, but technology may be an area where lots of (longer-term) changes may occur.
- Connecting virtually for placemaking: use technology to allow new/different ways for people to participate who could not participate in person (e.g., people with disabilities) or to create new ways to connect. Use technology creatively to promote small business retail (e.g., virtual Richmond Highway Happy Hours that showcase small businesses + a local artist activity for participants).
- Do we need to rethink the design of public park infrastructure? Behaviors changing. Have smaller capacities for events? Example of using rooftops to play tennis (Paris).
- How long will social distancing behaviors last and how will that impact place?
- Thinking of changes to placemaking in different time scales. What are the short term changes to placemaking that will eventually no longer be practiced once conditions have improved? What are the short-term changes to placemaking that will continue after conditions have improved? What are the long-term changes to placemaking that must be planned for projects completed once conditions have improved?
- People want to be connected because socialization is so important but the commonly accepted rules of behavior pre-COVID aren’t holding right now. There is a spectrum of responses ranging from those who avoid contact as much as possible to those whose behavior hasn’t changed at all. Many are becoming impatient with personal restrictions.
- It is important to prevent social disengagement.
- Will the back to the city movement of the last several years reverse to at least some degree?
- Experiencing the symphony of people helps define place and the reasonably good weather has allowed for more outdoor activity.
- Initial fear of being with other people, so need to carve out spaces in public areas. Opportunities for creativity and playfulness during a gradual reopening. Need to be creative in developing temporary spaces. Maybe parking lots could be used for outdoor dining.
- The impact of 9/11 lasted for a very long time even though the event itself and the aftermath were relatively short lived. What does that say about behavior changes continuing even after we get the all clear.
- Interacting with others virtually is better than nothing but it lacks immediacy. There is value in physical proximity for certain types of work where collaboration is critical. Virtual environment can’t provide the same level of interaction.
- People adapt to new circumstances and are making behavioral changes.
- Concern about the younger generation becoming reliant on being inside all the time. Create placemaking amenities to draw them outside.
- Work has moved from being one of the principal places for socialization to something much more secondary.
- Parallel trends over past few years: 1) move to telework; 2) open office layout with tight cubicles. These trends may change.
- New “place” working from home—can take more walks, see neighbors more often, see new parts of your neighborhood.
- Multifamily unit design will need to be re-examined in light of the probability that two or more people may be working from home and need at least aural separation when both are on conference call and to provide space for files, office machines, etc. Loss of the use of common spaces puts pressure on individual units, which have gotten smaller. Residents hesitant to leave their units.
- Places where there is a taste of urban but without being so car dependent like Shirlington, Reston or Mosaic District be on the ascendency.
- Downtowns & major switch to telework during the pandemic: If employment centers in dense areas not fully occupied into the near future, how will that impact the provision of retail that rely on daytime active customer base? Not just about retail survival, but will there be changes in how much retail (or design of retail spaces) is provided if there are fewer people around during the day? Some people are going into small office locations (e.g., 4-person office) because there are fewer people with which to interact.
- Retail: the new normal might be temporary. Adaptive measures: outside is important—places are more spread out or smaller and spread out. Develop an easier process to obtain temporary public space permits to create more space for retail. Use transportation infrastructure to make more space for retail (outdoor seating); open streets concept. But how will this work during the winter? European model of outdoor winter markets where people not only shop but also gather outside for food and beverage during cold weather. What will the impact be on the design of indoor retail spaces, if this is long-lasting?