Putting resilience at the heart of post-pandemic placemaking

This blog is the third of a four-part series exploring  how a growing focus on resilience will impact different areas of  place branding, from reputation management to leadership and more.

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3

We’re still feeling out what the future will look like for our cities and our nations. It’s fair to say, though, that looking at our public spaces will be key. Public spaces have historically been re-shaped in the aftermath of disaster, whether that’s the creation of the wide, open Victorian Embankment after the Cholera pandemic in London, or the establishment of Tokyo’s disaster parks that can be repurposed into survival shelters during an earthquake.

“The future of the city is the future of us. It’s who we are,” declared Jonathan Woetzel, Managing Director at McKinsey Global Institute. “We are the species who lives in cities – there’s no possibility in divorcing ourselves from our desire to interact with each other in a frequent and intensive way.”

The question, then, is what changes do we need to make to bring people back to the city? And how do we do this safely, equitably, and in a way that makes us more resilient to future shocks?

Rethinking our ideas of public space

The pandemic has emptied our city streets of people, but it seems unlikely that there will be any serious economic recovery without welcoming residents, visitors, and businesses back to our city centres. However, there are two key areas that need addressing:

  1. How and where we allocate space for businesses and residents
  2. The disparity between the space-poor and the space-rich

The first, at least, should be easier to address. There is value in grouping like-minded businesses in a single place. Areas like Silicon Valley created competition and drove rapid innovation. But they also substantially increased land costs in the area, and as an ecosystem, they are extremely vulnerable. As white-collar businesses transitioned to working from home, the network of SMEs who made their livelihood in and around these offices began to collapse in on itself. Even the bigger chains have felt the strain: Pret A Manger which was once ubiquitous with a working lunch in London has announced the permanent  closure of over 35 stores throughout the capital.

Tokyo is an excellent example of how mixed-use development can drive thriving communities. A process termed machizukuri  (‘town planning’) empowers residents to work with urban designers to improve their neighbourhoods, and develop community belonging and a new neighbourhood identity within a local area.

This neighbourhood centric approach helps to ensure that businesses and residential spaces are closely interwoven and that key amenities are within easy reach of every household. Paris is attempting something similar with their proposed 15-minute city strategy. However, we need to make sure that our placemaking approaches also help to bridge the divide between the space-poor and the space-rich.

“In a word, density good, crowding bad,” explained Jonathan Woetzel. “We have to have a better sense for personal space, but a lot of that has to come from reimagining the contract of what’s an acceptable amount of personal space for everybody – whether it’s in an elevator or in our living area. We can do better.”

Looking hyperlocal: Sweden’s Street Moves

“The definition of home is changing,” explained Tara Gbolade, architect and co-founder of Gbolade Design Studio. “It’s beyond our individual homes and rear gardens – [it’s] the streets in front of us, the communities and neighbours that we’ve spent years living next to but never spoken to.”

For years, streets have been a means to get people from A to B. More recently, they’ve been ways to get cars from A to B, and pedestrians and cyclists have been left out of the equation. However, they also offer an untapped potential to bring the community together and elevate the quality of life offerings in an area.

We referenced briefly the neighbourhood centric placemaking approaches of Paris and Tokyo, but Sweden is proposing to take it one step further with their ‘one-minute city’ project. The hyperlocal Street Moves programme will operate at the level of a single street. The strategy elevates residents to co-architects of their streets, inviting them to evolve streets into community spaces.

Currently being trialled in Stockholm, the initiative sees wooden units being inserted into parking lots. Described by the designer as ‘like a Lego system,’ each unit can easily and quickly be tailored to the needs of the area – whether that’s more seating, more bicycle units or anything in between.

“The most important things about these prototypes we’ve made is that they could all be the wrong thing,” stated Kieran Long, director of Arkdes, one of the organisations behind Street Moves. Instead, each unit allows them “to have a conversation about the future of streets with passers-by, people in the area, with school kids who hang out on them, people with electric bikes and scooters and so on.”

While the project has been in development for several years, the actual implementation has begun fairly recently. Despite this, the Stockholm units have generated positive reactions, with several other Swedish cities interested in trialling the system. ArkDes have also claimed a 400% increase in movement on the streets around each unit. But most importantly, it puts the locals at the forefront of shaping the changes to their own streets and fosters a sense of community and quality of life that will help to make the area more mentally and emotionally resilient to future shocks.

Reprioritising locals in the city

The pandemic rapidly exposed the areas that were overly dependent on tourism. Areas of New York, of Amsterdam, of Venice, all continue to be untouched even as the city’s began to revive. This isn’t unique to these cities, but as some of the most dominant tourist destinations, the contrast was stark. Residents have been pushed out of certain areas by an onslaught of tourism, and so there was no incentive for them to return post-lockdown.

Research suggests that as many as 280 of the shops in the centre of Amsterdam were specifically targeting tourists. Amsterdam had already passed legislation forbidding new tourist-focussed businesses from setting up in the city centre to help counter this, but the pandemic reinforced the risk that this causes to an area.

Across the continent in Barcelona, an ambitious project looks to transform one of Barcelona’s most tourism-dominated streets into a cultural hub that will offer value for residents as well as tourists. “The crisis has exposed the weakness of a model based on one economic sector, tourism,” said  Jordi Rabassa, the councillor for Ciutat Vella, the oldest and most-visited part of the city. “La Rambla is the centre of this economic monoculture, and we’re working towards bringing local people back to the city’s most emblematic street.”

The overwhelming prioritisation of residents pushed locals away from La Rambla, but Barcelona’s goal is to invite residents back to the street with a comprehensive focus on culture. Creating a space that encourages residents and visitors to co-exist will promote greater economic resilience by decreasing the reliance on tourism dollars.

Putting inclusion at the heart of recovery

It is essential that any recovery strategy drives recovery for all residents. Placemaking initiatives can bring a community together, revitalise a local economy, and drive new developments in the area. But they can also outprice the local community or fail to address the needs and concerns of marginalised groups.

A CityLab article last year ran with the headline “‘Safe  Streets’ Are Not Safe For Black Lives’ which warned that ‘slow streets’ could “deepen inequity and mistrust in communities that have been disenfranchised and underserved for generations” and “seemed to ignore the inequities that cause [COVID-19] to be several times more deadly to Black people in the US.”

Community engagement is key in ensuring that your strategies meet the needs of all your community groups, but only if you’re actively reaching out to the marginalised members of your place to empower them to speak up. Likewise, you have to ensure that your foundations are solid. While the increased investment in bike lanes has been lauded by the media, Melody L Hoffman states that long-term empirical studies suggest that  bike lanes aren’t necessarily accessible for all: “By governments focusing on bicycle infrastructure that will please an already privileged demographic, many marginalised cyclists will inevitably remain in the margins. The popularity of cycling can influence the construction of beautiful paths and trails, but it can also be a signifier of gentrification.”

Ultimately, it’s essential that – as with everything – any post-pandemic placemaking strategies put inclusivity at the core. A carefully planned placemaking strategy can go a long way to increasing the resilience of an area, but if it doesn’t support everyone equally, then it continues to leave us open to the same vulnerabilities that have made COVID-19 so devastating for marginalised communities. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Related reading:

How do you create a resilient place reputation

From resilient leadership to leadership for resilience

Eight crucial success factors for places looking to work smarter

Four findings from the 2021 place branding survey

The politics of space, culture, and placemaking for post-COVID placemaking

'Hear, here': the sound of place branding

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