By Kristi M. Park, ASLA
Along with the significant complexities COVID-19 is bringing to cities, civil unrest and protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd and countless black lives have filled our streets and public open spaces. Community leaders and designers, who are already scrambling to solve immediate public pandemic-related health issues, must also take a hard look in the mirror at the long-overdue need to address systemic racism.
As the design professions investigate the way forward, many cities and communities are heading towards an uncertain future without a road map for addressing the post-pandemic future and urban inequality.
In Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, a new normal has emerged through a center of protest, known as the Capitol Hill Occupy Protest (CHOP). The site organically formed as a result of standoffs with Seattle police officers in the streets to protest against embedded racism, even while the pandemic has closed most of the city.
In an unexpected twist, the City of Seattle closed the police station and essentially gave the streets to the protesters. Nearly six blocks of city streets and Cal Anderson Park, a large Olmsted-designed park, have been occupied by hundreds of people who seem to be redesigning the community.
Cal Anderson Park now includes freshly dug communal gardens and campers. The nearby streets are hosting bands, documentaries, speakers, a shared food-coop, art, and volunteer aid stations. The creation of CHOP did not involve typical community meetings, street-use permits, design, planning, or any regulations. But the space galvanized Seattle’s historic undercurrent of resistance to expose vulnerabilities in the social structures of Seattle.
CHOP’s long-term existence is unlikely but demonstrates how quickly communities are re-organizing to create a new reality in a world shaped by racial injustice and the pandemic.
In April — prior to Mr. Floyd’s murder and the spontaneous creation of places like CHOP — seven University of Washington (UW) College of Built Environments Ph.D. students engaged community leaders, educators, urban planners, and landscape architects in a discussion on their predictions for a post-pandemic urban future. This conversation resulted in the Pandemic Urbanism Symposium held in May.
One panel discussed the importance of public space in the context of the pandemic and within the framework of equity, justice, and resilience. The panel was opened by UW faculty members Jeff Hou, ASLA, moderated by Catherine De Almeida, and featured four panelists: Jesús Aguirre, superintendent of Seattle Parks and Recreation; Cary Moon, citizen activist; Brice Maryman, FASLA, a principal landscape architect with MIG; and Cary Simmons, program director at the Trust for Public Land.
Of primary concern to all panelists was equitable access to public spaces from a social, economic, racial, and ethnic perspective. The pandemic, which has resulted in widespread unemployment, will further exacerbate economic inequalities in cities like Seattle, with a particular impact on vulnerable populations, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. One question lingered: how will the design profession simultaneously cultivate pandemic-resilient cities and break down the barriers of systemic racism?
Panelists discussed both long- and short-term solutions. One long-term solution, which is similar to many ideas from the New Deal in the 1930s, is to expand public infrastructure, with a focus on equitable access, for housing, healthy ecosystems, and sanitation access. Greater investment in public infrastructure can help ensure prosperity for all citizens.
A few other solutions discussed:
An innovative approach called the Seattle Street Sink, designed and installed by a team of local architects and landscape architects, creates immediate public access to hygiene, which can help stop the spread of disease. Arguably, this short-term solution can also foster more equitable access to the simple act of washing one’s hands, which should be readily available to everyone.
Seattle has permanently closed 20 miles of streets to vehicular traffic. Street closures provide safe recreational opportunities while meeting the long-term need of offering ample access for safe recreational opportunities.
Public park parking lots can be used as space for housing, providing both a safe place to live and access to natural and recreational opportunities.
The pandemic, with its disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities, coupled now with widespread protests against systemic racism, highlights longstanding barriers and challenges. But the door to address injustice, inequality, and the unhealthy nature of cities has been thrown wide open, creating opportunities for immediate action as well as long-term, imaginative solutions.
Can the design community cross the threshold to lead society to a more just and resilient future? If the many discussions at the Pandemic Urbanism Symposium are any indication, it looks as if the answer will undoubtedly be, yes, which begs the question: how fast?
Kristi M. Park, ASLA, is a lecturer at University of Washington, an adjunct faculty member at Western Washington University, and principal of BioDesign Studio. Additional contributors include Jeff Hou, ASLA, and Erin Irby, Student ASLA.