The very definition of ‘public space’ is constantly evolving. Whereas historically it tended to largely mean streets, squares and parks, it could now be considered to include transport hubs, the shared (non-branded shop) retail space in shopping centres, as well as privately owned public space (such as Paternoster Square, Liverpool One etc). The private-public space in particular is growing rapidly within our cities and its use is controlled by private companies and individuals, not by local or national. The focus of this particular report is on impacts and opportunities within the simpler definition of outdoor public spaces – but we will return to consider the broader, more complicated understanding of ‘public spaces’ in due course.
Globally, people have replaced in-person visits to town centres, sports and entertainment venues, public libraries and other mixed-use environments with virtual meetings and home workouts. Yet it is now clear that virtual is not a long-term replacement for real human interaction and that humans don’t cope well with isolation. The current crisis has reinforced the vital role that public places play in bringing people together and promoting wellbeing.
It has highlighted the challenge of making our public spaces both safe and vibrant. In this chapter, we discuss these challenges and the opportunities to address them.
In this article we will focus on three main areas:
- Right now – the current situation and impact on public spaces during lockdown. How can technology help correct the unequal access to natural spaces? How are public spaces being reconfigured to manage flows of people while minimising contact.
- What next? – the transitional restart for issues relating to public spaces in the post-lockdown, pre-vaccine period. How can the reallocation of public spaces help sustain businesses and neighbourhoods while distancing needs to be maintained? Can we introduce more flexibility into the planning system to help with this?
- Beyond recovery – a look further into the future of public spaces. What does the migration to online business models mean for public realm? How can we sustain and scale some of the changes made as a result of the crisis?