[Series] The future of public spaces

Taping the streets is not the solution for social distancing in public spaces, says Malavika Krishnan. We need more creative ways of safely using campus spaces after lockdown.

Malavika Krishnan: “We need to start thinking of solutions where flexibility is the norm.” (Photo: Marjolein van der Veldt)

This series, over the course of the last 10 months, has explored some of the most striking architecture and urban planning examples on the TU Delft campus. But the current crisis has shown that despite TU Delft having a good amount of quality public spaces, most of it remains inaccessible. As I bid goodbye to this series, I wish to highlight the need to start rethinking ways in which we can adapt for future uncertainties in a much better way.

Historically, there are many examples where a catastrophe has led to a shift in the way we use and design public spaces. For example, Frederick Law Olmsted’s designs for the Central Park in New York and the Emerald Necklace parks in Boston were influenced by the 19th century malaria epidemic to increase ventilation in cities. Similarly, the cholera epidemic around 1800 led to the grandest sewer systems across Europe. However, this doesn’t mean that the current crisis can completely alter all of our physical spaces and experiences. Most of the change in the way our processes and functions are organised will be dictated by human activity control.

At present, TU Delft has opted to move most activities online as a coping measure for the time being. However, a future with complete virtualisation of campus life would not be an ideal solution for various reasons. To begin with, immersing in a new culture and interacting with people from various backgrounds is an integral part of the learning experience that international campuses like TU Delft offer. Face to face operations are an essential component of the entire campus value proposition. Therefore, redesigning campus spaces to achieve this is a complex task, considering the current situation.

What needs a drastic change is our way of life

The short-term solutions start with ‘plenty of tape’. We have seen that many of our cities have started adopting tape measures as a form of low-tech urbanism to cope with the pandemic. Designating areas of use in compliance with social distancing can be an effective starting point to mitigate the current crisis. For the longest time, the common notion was that a well-designed urban infrastructure is something that can withstand and resist change. However, recently we have observed that breathing flexibility into our urban structures can be a liberating force. This means that we need to start thinking of solutions where flexibility is the norm. However, thinking long term strategies with flexibility of use is really challenging.

What needs a drastic change is our way of life – slower pace, less dense and more open spaces. Many designers have come up with solutions that promote a more ‘local’ lifestyle like the ‘Hyperlocal Micro Market’ by a Dutch urban design studio. Or by organising urban infrastructure around social distancing principles like the ‘Parc de la distance’ by an Austrian design firm for a crowd-free public park. But as interesting as these ideas are, they also bring forth the question of practicality in terms of financing a complete do-over of our public spaces. 

So, an optimal design would have to involve complex trade-offs between continuing social interactions without compromising on financial restrictions. We need to find an optimal balance in delivering traditional services but at the same time managing risks effectively to ensure the safety and well-being of students and staff. This would mean adopting several changes such as an optimal redesign of hallways and classes in the allotment of usable space, arranging options for a set number of students per time, an optimal redesign of student housing and dining options that regulate the flow of people and use of space etc. And most importantly, a safe transition that guarantees minimal intrusive enforcement but that ensures compliance in the best interest of all.

As the campus prepares to re-open post lockdown, we can hope that the authorities will develop creative ways in which we can use our public spaces safely. It is important to invest in long-term solutions that can ensure maximum flexibility not just to survive this pandemic but to create opportunities to cope with future uncertainties. Public spaces are a crucial piece in this puzzle, and we need to rethink better ways to design and use them to contribute to a healthier and future-proof campus.

Malavika Krishnan (25) is a second year Delft MSc Urbanism student from Kochi, India. An architect by profession and a writer by passion, she loves everything to do with art and design and the way they shape the human experience. This is the last episode in a series on urbanism in which she tries to change the way you perceive the TU Delft campus.

Malavika Krishnan / Freelance architecture writer

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