by James Heroux
John Brinkerhoff Jackson wrote that “Ruins provide the incentive for restoration.”
Each significant shift in human events throughout the years has generated a re-structuring of the way we live. Industrialization changed our society in the 19th century, resulting in the provision of parks and open space for townspeople to relieve the stresses of city life; two World Wars and the mechanization of travel changed how we travel through and view the landscape; the events of 9/11 made us rethink how we design our buildings and surrounding landscape to incorporate safety systems with a visual and artistic sensibility; and climate change continues to influence the way we plan and design along our waterfronts. The way we perceive the world has changed more in the past two months than it has in the past four generations. Our society has experienced pandemics before, but for most of today’s generation, that past is recorded in the written word, not in living memory. In times like these, it is rare that we can reflect on our changing world in real time. Today’s pandemic, affecting every country on earth, will undoubtedly change the way we design and construct our built world moving forward.
Landscape architects are trained to observe details, look for the changing and spatial patterns of society, recognize the shortcomings of the built world, and transform it into a functioning public and private realm. Just as the rising seas, the warming of the earth, and the mass migration of plants and animals is changing the world we live in and how it will be used in the future, landscape architects recognize that owing to today’s pandemic, the creation and refinement of parks, gardens, streetscapes and roof spaces will be more important than ever.
To date, the environment is benefitting the most from this pandemic and over the last several weeks, the world has observed many changes in the landscape. Social distancing practices have led to decreased transportation which has benefited our air quality as well as our way of life. Our overstressed road systems are being used less frequently and streets have been closed to allow more space for individuals to run, bike, and stroll at least six feet apart. Our parks, waterways, and trails have found a heightened appreciation among families who are now living, working, and learning under the same roof. A new appreciation for what it means to spend family time together and exercise in fresh air, rather than the confines of an indoor health facility, has turned slow leisurely green spaces into a festive gathering – even if the flavor of that festivity is measured by a pandemic.
Existing in this “living lab” has allowed us to witness in real-time how wonderful our cities and towns could be if we had more accessible outdoor space. At this point in time, these changes are temporary, but we as designers should strive to make permanent changes in our society and the way we live to not only prepare for future pandemics, but to improve the environment around us. Outdoor spaces in our cities and towns could be redesigned to bring people together while also allowing for separation. We could convert roads into promenades, intersections into gathering spaces, and residual spaces reserved for vehicles into multi-purpose areas. Street widths could be reduced and sidewalks expanded to both allow room for social distancing and to activate the streetscape through the incorporation of furnishings, artwork, games, plantings, and activities. This would benefit pedestrians and could potentially increase economic activity through neighboring businesses. Instead of sifting through tight voids between people on sidewalks, individuals would have the space to enjoy the light, air, and built and natural world around us.
Rooftop footprints with “farms” of mechanical equipment and “forests” of vents and pipe stacks could be converted into vegetable gardens for food and outdoor gathering spaces. As we know, roof decks offer building occupants visual and environmental diversity and are proven to deliver beneficial impacts on psychological well-being. In addition, they increase social interaction and a sense of community by offering residents a place to relax and take part in events without the confines of being inside.
What will the landscape of a post pandemic world look like? Architects will remake the interior of buildings to manage work and social spaces and will work with landscape architects to create seamless transitions; codes will likely change to regulate the way programs are populated; workplaces will reimagine their spaces, resulting in a restructuring of the office and the factory; healthcare facilities will be redesigned to include new systems to manage patients, staff and family; and the design of retirement facilities will be completely reborn with an unprecedented evolution of their function. The common denominator for each of these building types is that there will be a shift in the landscape beyond the building walls. The importance of green space and light and the unified integration of the indoors and the outdoors will be more important than ever.
The outdoor realm was not meant to be without people. Events of the past are what shape our future. Landscape Architects will design spaces to adapt to this pandemic and these spaces will be refined and redefined in the generations to follow. This was not the first pandemic, and it will not be the last. With the growing population and the expanded convenience of travel, the need to design for the future is more important than ever before. Great duress usually results in a stronger nation, person, and society, and the design profession will look different as we search for positive inspiration while we mourn the world we left behind.
James Heroux is principal at Copley Wolff Design Group.