As the pandemic has worn on, the American public has adopted parks and neighborhood streets as safe spaces. This will not be a short-lived phenomenon – bikes have been repaired, running shoes purchased, and puppies adopted. People are growing accustomed to spending time in the outdoors to exercise, spend time with family, enjoy nature – and take that growing puppy for walks.
As landscape architects, we understand that engaging with nature and green space is an innate instinct for city dwellers during times of illness. While those using parks and streets today are not expecting a nature cure, they do experience a renewed comfort in these spaces.
At the same time, city and state budgets are being ravaged by COVID-19-imposed economic shutdowns. Hotel and restaurant taxes are not being collected. Sales taxes are miniscule. Property taxes will likely drop as high unemployment numbers linger. All of this is happening while governments are increasing spending on health-related costs and managing their response to the pandemic.
Parks and recreation are typically among the first government departments to have their funding cut when budgets get tight. At a time when the public will rightfully be demanding more open spaces, our parks departments will be unable to marshal the funds to maintain existing open spaces, much less deliver new parks.
I believe that this disconnect will be resolved through the rewilding of the American city. A lack of public dollars for parks will result in an unkempt, rambling, and wild style of park “design” created in an organic, vernacular character.
Like the home-made masks worn by Americans working to “flatten the curve,” our rewilded lands will create a new urban aesthetic born out of found land that is low-design and has a local do-it-yourself appeal. This new aesthetic will provide more comfort and delight than current design trends offer. The result: lively and wild.
In some ways, this transformation is already beginning with the conversion of public infrastructure to socially-distanced outdoor dining and socializing space. Cities across the country have closed streets and allowed merchants to colonize spaces once dedicated to cars. Makeshift dining terraces and outdoor bars – some stylish, others functional; all cheap, fast, and locally inspired — are transforming the streets. Parking lots have become everything from gyms to outdoor clothing boutiques. Is this the beginning of a tipping point where cities will invite communities to use the same “can-do” spirit within their parks and open spaces?
My view is that feral green agglomerations will pop up across cities and suburbs. Residents will benefit from their habitat patches, stormwater storage, carbon sequestration, and makeshift community gathering areas.
As viral hot spots continue to require work-from-home or reduced hours, workers with new found free time will spend it in the community gardens and on neighborhood exercise trails. Pandemic survivors will find solitary comfort in forest bathing rituals as they enter these spaces for a moment of stress relief and sanitary sanity. Native opossum and raccoons will colonize these spaces and thrive; children will build forts and clubhouses; and communities will co-opt them as gyms and meeting space.
The benefit of this new breed of make-shift open space starts with the sense of ownership that communities will feel for them and the functional programming and features they create. The benefit to cities expands exponentially by just getting out of nature’s way.
Lands that are released from traditional maintenance regimes will quickly begin to cleanse stormwater, sequester carbon, reduce the heat island effect, improve habitat, and become a low-tech but important part of a new infrastructure that is needed now more than ever.
Crumbling parking lots and parks released from maintenance will take time to rewild, but once that transformation occurs, cities will feel greener and like a true respite. Families will go outside to exercise and feel comforted by nature. Desk-bound office workers will take strolling meetings through visually inspiring landscapes. And our streets have taken on a new life.
The longing for wild places have been growing for some time now. Maybe the pandemic will be the catalyst for more therapeutic, nature-rich public spaces and lead to a new found interest in the healing and wellness that small natural spaces can bring.
Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, is managing principal of SWA Group’s Houston studio. He has traveled the globe over the past 30 years creating places that are culturally and ecologically resonant.
COVID-19 has brought significant complexities to cities. 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 take a hard look in the mirror and finally address systemic racism.
As the design professions investigate the way forward, many cities and communities are heading towards an uncertain future without a roadmap for addressing the pandemic and urban inequality.
In Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, a new normal has emerged through a center of protest against racial injustice, known as the Capitol Hill Occupy Protest (CHOP). The site organically formed as a result of protester standoffs with Seattle police officers in the streets, 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 are redesigning the community.
Cal Anderson Park now includes freshly dug communal gardens and campers. The nearby streets are hosting bands, documentarians, speakers, and a shared food coop, art, and volunteer aid stations.
The creation of CHOP did not involve typical community meetings, street use permits, planning, and design. But the space galvanized Seattle’s historic undercurrent of resistance to expose injustices in Seattle.
CHOP is unlikely to survive long term but still demonstrates how quickly communities are re-organizing.
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 will further exacerbate inequalities in cities like Seattle, with a particular impact on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. One question lingered: how will the design professions simultaneously cultivate pandemic-resilient cities and break down the barriers of systemic racism?
Panelists discussed both long- and short-term solutions.
One important long-term solution, which could be similar to the New Deal of the 1930s, is to make a significant and equitable investment in public infrastructure — parks, housing, healthy ecosystems, and sanitation access. Greater investment in public infrastructure can help ensure prosperity for all citizens.
Other solutions include the Seattle Street Sink, which was designed and installed by a team of local architects and landscape architects. The innovative system creates immediate and equitable public access to hygiene, which can help stop the spread of disease. The simple act of washing one’s hands should be available to everyone.
Public park parking lots can be used as space for temporary housing, providing a place to live that has access to natural and recreational opportunities.
With the pandemic and protest movement, the door to address injustice, inequality, and the unhealthy nature of cities has been thrown wide open, creating opportunities for imaginative actions.
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.
As a first-generation Latina, I’m a person of color who believes in the significance of Black Lives Matter and expanding diversity in the field of landscape architecture.
An individual’s journey shapes their professional life. But having a profession is not always the case for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), who live daily with implicit bias resulting from systematic racism.
The “there’s no one to hire” response doesn’t cut it anymore. The good news is you are already creative designers and planners who champion solutions every day. Now you can champion change within your workplace and industry.
Early education is the key to spreading awareness of landscape architecture. Commit to mentoring K-12 students. With the recent shift to virtual meetings, mentoring a student anywhere in the United States is possible. Collaborate with your local ASLA, AIA, and APA chapters that have established K-12 outreach programs. Ask your firm to attend high school career fairs. Volunteer for ASLA’s Virtual Career Day and openly express your support to welcome and embrace diverse voices and life experiences.
During my master of landscape architecture education at North Carolina State University, I was fortunate to have a Latino professor, Fernando Magallanes, ASLA, who I related to not only because we looked alike but also because we freely and openly expressed our Latin selves. Rodney Swink, FASLA, was also pivotal in my engagement with ASLA.
Kofi Boone, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at NC State, continues to inspire. Reading Kofi’s Black Landscapes Matter, I’ve learned about Black landscapes in North Carolina that I was not aware of — and I grew up in North Carolina.
I’m very fortunate and proud to work for a company that is committed to equity and embraces my boisterous cultural identity. For several years, they have demonstrated their ongoing support by sponsoring panel speakers, webinars, and workshops that elevate diversity in the landscape architecture community.
Use your company’s voice and platform to share the work your colleagues are doing. This is a great way for BIPOC to get a glimpse into your company culture.
Do your project renderings and photo shoots include BIPOC, people of a variety of ages, and people with disabilities? Have you considered the inclusive or exclusive message these images portray?
Aprende Español! The ASLA Activity Book en Español is a great resource to learn the fundamental vocabulary of landscape architecture. Make the effort to communicate with your Latinx colleagues and employees en Español.
As we endure the COVID-19 pandemic that is literally wiping out BIPOC, the country has exploded with protests that call for safety and socio-economic equity.
I know what it means to feel afraid for the safety of my Black loved ones because they are identified by the color of their skin, not by their contribution to society, educational aspirations, smiles, love, and joy they bring to the world.
During a protest in Austin, Texas, I was in awe and bewilderment to discover protesters had shut down Interstate 35, the same interstate that divided Austin to create a “Negro District” via the 1928 master plan and subsequently was segregated by design to create a “ghetto for African Americas.”
During the protests, as I stood there in my truth, in my brown privilege, I felt a tremendous sadness for the lack of diversity in the landscape architecture profession.
Have you ever had to consider the lack of diverse representation of your race in your office, company, or profession? And the pain and sense of injustice it causes?
Two days before I saw the footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, I headed out for a quick walk to the local gas station mini-mart. I realized I forgot my mask and returned home to grab it. On my way home, I was greeted with yet another reminder that, as a black man, my movements are constantly policed by everyone.
I was approximately 100 feet from my front door when a pick-up truck with two Latino men approached me. The driver asked me if I was lost. I responded, “No, I’m not lost. Are you lost?” He said “No, I live in the neighborhood. Do you live around here?” At this point, telegraphing my annoyance, I replied “Yeah, man, I live right there,” pointing at my house. “I’m going home because I forgot my mask.” Having successfully checked in with total strangers, I continued home.
Later that day, I mentioned the encounter to my roommate, who is also a black man. Although my retelling was dispassionate, he responded with concern. My roommate wanted us to tell our neighbors because he feared for our safety. He wanted to leverage our social capital for community protection. He wanted what everyone wants — for us to feel safe in our own home. I shrugged off his concern. To my thinking, we lived in Latinx neighborhood and had a great relationship with our immediate neighbors. We were good.
Two days later, I saw the video of Ahmaud Arbery being murdered, chased down and shot by two armed white residents of his neighborhood while out for a jog. The video shook my soul. Arbery and I were about the same age, the same skin color, and enjoyed the same activity. Since the pandemic started, my roommate and I started jogging around our neighborhood at least 3 times a week, usually by ourselves. I just turned 27 years old. Arbery will never have that opportunity because his check in with total strangers didn’t go as well as mine did.
I share this story in hopes that this will be the last time I have to recall these events. I share this story knowing it won’t be.
As landscape architects, we understand that our imagination gives shape to the future. Our creative power manifests in the world and creates change. This same imagination is necessary for the liberation of people, and our role in that liberation.
With the increased global awareness of violent over-policing of black people by officers of the law and citizens governed by unwritten social laws, we are all being pulled into an essential and complicated discourse around race. The people demonstrating in cities across the world are taking us to task. Now is the opportunity to create a new and more just world that has never existed outside our imagination.
We know creating this new world will be hard work. I believe that most of us want to do this work. Yet I recognize there is and always has been opposition from people who benefit from the systemic discrimination against black people or from those who have the privilege to believe that the status quo is not deeply unjust. Even amid the din of protesters taking to the streets demanding justice, I hear the hushed complaints of people wanting to return to the world as it was or at least how we pretended it was. For me, the stakes are high. I have no recourse but to act because my survival depends on it.
In recent years, ASLA and the Landscape Architecture Foundation made a concerted effort to transform our discipline by making diversity a priority. However, firms have made little progress in diversifying their staff or creating cultures where diversity hiring isn’t seen as a forced obligation.
Black, Latinx, and Asian people working in majority white firms still must subscribe to and endure the predilections of white culture even when designing for diverse users. The compulsory need to change our speech, dress, hair and appearance in order to not disrupt the status quo, amounts to a suppression of our being for 40+ hours a week.
If we are to design a new, more just world, we need to start by designing a new, more just workplace. We need to do the hard work of examining our own bias and recognizing that our colleagues are not truly comfortable, yet are expected to endure the trauma of racism outside of the workplace and racial bias while at work. The first step is to have landscape architecture firms write an informed public statement against racism for the world to see.
Furthermore, I implore you to help create lasting change. No matter what your race, if you are unhappy with your firm’s response to current events or their hiring practice, let them know. Or quit. Choose to work elsewhere and share your perspective with other colleagues and perhaps the world. We must no longer be complicit in helping to advance institutional bias or apathy.
If you are a student and you want a more diverse faculty and student body, petition your school to make lasting change. Consider transferring to a university that has a more diverse curriculum, more diverse perspectives, and more diverse faculty. Surrender your education to professors and institutions who share your values.
We must change the narrative about investing in black landscape architects and other minority designers as “helping them.” Investment in diverse people and communities is investing in the future of the profession. I don’t want “help.”
I want you to recognize that our ideas have the potential to be as influential as our contributions to other aspects of culture. I want you to understand that the culture of our firms, the culture of our educational systems, and the culture of our profession is missing critical perspectives that are essential in building a better future.
White culture has become normative in our work and education. Without a deep and open-minded discussion of that problem, our work will grow stagnant, our imagination will be ill-suited to shape a better future, our creative power will die. We have no recourse but to act. Our survival depends on it.
Andrew Sargeant, ASLA, is a landscape designer and pioneer of design technology in the field of landscape architecture. He is the vice president of The Urban Studio, a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Olmsted Scholar Fellow, and a part of the ASLA’s Digital Technology PPN Leadership.
The Urban Studio: Expanding how students of color are educated and engaged around design. Our mission is “to advance design thinking for equitable + sustainable urbanism.” Please visit theurbanstudio.org and donate.
The export of American culture is one of the most influential forces in our interconnected world. From Dakar to Delhi, American pop music, movies, and artery-clogging cuisine is ubiquitous. However, one of the most damaging exports is the American suburb. When the 20th century model for housing the swelling populations of Long Island and Los Angeles translates to 21st century Kinshasa and Kuala Lumpur, the American way of life may very well be our downfall.
In our pre-pandemic ignorance, most urbanists pointed to climate change as the most dangerous impact of our cherished suburban lifestyle. To be sure, the higher greenhouse gas emissions and rise in chronic health problems associated with living in subdivisions aren’t going away, but COVID-19 has exposed another threat we’ve chosen to ignore. The next pandemic may very well result from our addiction to—and exportation of—sprawl.
Vilifying Density and Disregarding Equity
The increasing traction of the anti-density movement in the wake of the current outbreak is alarming. Headlines proclaiming how sprawl may save us and that living in cities puts citizens at higher risk for contracting the novel coronavirus are deceptive.
Recent studies have debunked these myths, finding little correlation between population density in cities and rates of COVID-19, instead attributing the spread of the virus to overcrowding due to inequity and delays in governmental responsiveness.
Mounting evidence suggests that COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through close contact in enclosed spaces. Internal population density within buildings and, more specifically, within shared rooms inside buildings is what drives this, not the compact urban form of the city. In New York, for example, COVID-19 cases are concentrated in the outer boroughs, and suburban Westchester and Rockland counties have reported nearly triple the rate per capita than those of Manhattan.
The real issue is the systemic economic inequity that forces lower income people to live in overcrowded conditions, regardless of location. Innovative approaches to urban planning, equitable housing policies, and a reversal of over a century of environmental discrimination in our cities are absolutely necessary. Vilifying the city is counterproductive.
Moving out of dense cities into the open space and social distancing afforded by the suburbs is exactly the type of knee-jerk reaction that we must avoid. Cities are not at fault.
Habitat Fragmentation and Biodiversity Loss
In fact, cities are the answer if we plan them carefully. Among the many human activities that cause habitat loss, urban development produces some of the greatest local extinction rates and has a more permanent impact. For example, habitat lost due to farming and logging can be restored, whereas urbanized areas not only persist but continue to expand.
The Atlas for the End of the World, conceived by Richard Weller, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the best sources for documenting our collective risk. Mapping 391 of the planet’s terrestrial eco-regions, this research identified 423 cities with a population of over 300,000 inhabitants situated within 36 biodiversity hotspots. Using data modelling from the Seto Lab at Yale University, the Atlas predicts that 383 of these cities—about 90 percent —will likely continue to expand into previously undisturbed habitats.
When we assault the wild places that harbor so much biodiversity in the pursuit of development, we disregard a significant aspect of this biodiversity—the unseen domain of undocumented viruses and pathogens.
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmitted to us through contact with animals. The initial emergence of many of these zoonotic diseases have been tracked to the parts of the world with the greatest biodiversity, both in the traditional and man-made sense. Traditional locations include tropical rainforests where biodiversity naturally occurs. Human-influenced conditions include places like bushmeat markets in Africa or the wet markets of Asia, where we are mixing trapped exotic animals with humans, often in astonishingly unsanitary conditions.
However, degraded habitats of any kind can create conditions for viruses to cross over, whether in Accra or Austin. The disruption of habitat to support our suburban lifestyle is bringing us closer to species with which we have rarely had contact. By infringing on these ecosystems, we reduce the natural barriers between humans and host species, creating ideal conditions for diseases to spread. These microbes are not naturally human pathogens. They become human pathogens because we offer them that opportunity.
This is already evident in the fragmented forests of many American suburbs where development patterns have altered the natural cycle of the pathogen that causes Lyme disease. When humans live in close proximity to these disrupted ecosystems, they are more likely to get bitten by a tick carrying the Lyme bacteria. When biodiversity is reduced, these diluted systems allow for species like rodents and bats—some of the most likely to promote the transmission of pathogens—to thrive.
This essentially means that the more habitats we disturb, the more danger we are in by tapping into various virus reservoirs. COVID-19 is not the first disease to cross over from animal to human populations, but it is likely a harbinger of more mass pandemics and further disruptions to the global economy. The more densely we build, the more land we can conserve for nature to thrive, potentially reducing our risk of another pandemic from a novel virus.
Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary
In the United States, over 50 percent of the population lives in suburbs, covering more land than the combined total of national and state parks. Our urbanization is ubiquitous and endangers more species than any other human activity.
In 1979, Portland, Oregon offered a pioneering solution with the creation of an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). Devised by a 3-county, 24-city regional planning authority, the intent was to protect agricultural lands, encourage urban density, and limit unchecked sprawl.
Forty years into this experiment, Portland’s experience is a mixed bag of successes and missed opportunities. Investment in public transit and urban parks has certainly bolstered the city’s reputation as a leader in urban innovation, sustainability, and livability, with statistics to support its efforts.
On the other hand, two of Oregon’s fastest growing cities are situated just beyond the boundary’s jurisdiction, underscoring the limitations of the strategy. Again, inequity rears its ugly head, with higher prices within the UGB caused, in part, by an inability to deregulate Portland’s low density neighborhoods. This has driven much of the regional population further afield to find affordable housing in the form of suburban sprawl beyond the UGB’s dominion and into even more remote areas.
Another consideration that was overlooked when the original plan was established was the adequate protection of remnant habitat within the UGB. This lack of a regional plan for biodiversity protection has underscored the need for a more ecologically-focused, science-based approach to inform planning decisions.
Brisbane’s Bird Population
Unfortunately, anticipating outcomes of urbanization on species diversity is not as pervasive in urban planning agencies around the world as it should be. A lack of detailed modeling specific to individual regions and cities with clear recommendations for how to minimize ecological devastation is absent from planning policy around the world.
However, researchers in Brisbane, Australia have attempted to quantify which development style—concentrated urban intensity or suburban sprawl—has a greater ecological consequences. By measuring species distribution, the study predicted the effect on bird populations when adding nearly 85,000 new dwelling units in the city. Their results demonstrated that urban growth of any type reduces bird distributions overall, but compact development substantially slows these reductions.
Sensitive species particularly benefited from compact development because remnant habitats remained intact, with predominantly non-native species thriving in sprawling development conditions. These results suggest that cities with denser footprints—even if their suburbs offer abundant open space—would experience a steep decline in biodiversity.
This is a common outcome found in similar studies around the world that exhibit a comparable decline in the species richness of multiple taxa along the rural-urban gradient. Although biodiversity is lowest within the urban core, the trade-off of preserving as much remnant natural habitat as possible almost always results in greater regional biodiversity.
Helsinki’s Biodiversity Database
One of Europe’s fasted growing cities, Helsinki faces similar pressures for new housing and traffic connections as many other major metropolises. However, in Helsinki, geotechnical and topographic constraints, coupled with its 20th century expansion along two railway lines rather than a web of highways, created the base for its finger-like urban and landscape structure. Today, one-third of Helsinki’s land area is open space, 63 percent of which is contiguous urban forest.
In 2001, Finland established an open source National Biodiversity Database that compiles multiple data sets ranging from detailed environmental studies to observations of citizen scientists. This extraordinary access to information has allowed the city to measure numerous data points within various conservation area boundaries, including statistics related to the protection of individual sites and species.
Measured by several taxonomies, including vascular plants, birds, fungi, and pollinators, Helsinki has an unusually high biodiversity when compared to neighboring municipalities or to other temperate European cities and towns. Vascular plant species, for example, average over 350 species per square kilometer, as compared to Berlin and Vienna’s average of about 200 species. By embracing biodiversity within the structure of the city, not only is the importance of regional biodiversity codified into the general master plan, it is also embedded into the civic discourse of its citizens.
When it comes to where the next virus might emerge, Wuhan isn’t really that different from Washington, D.C. If the American model of over-indulgent suburban sprawl is the benchmark for individual success, we all lose.
Now is the moment to put the health of the planet before American values of heaven on a half-acre. Land use policies in the United States have just as profound an impact on the rest of the world as any movie out of Hollywood.
If we shift American values toward embracing denser, cleaner, and more efficient cities that drive ecological conservation—instead of promoting sprawl as a panacea for our current predicament—that may very well be our greatest export to humanity.
Michael Grove, ASLA, is the chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki, a global design firm with offices in Boston and Shanghai.
Since the earliest human settlements, the retail experience has evolved to meet the needs of the public. This evolution has taken us from rural markets to towns, cities, suburban shopping malls, big box mega stores, and, more recently, the Internet. But what will retail shopping look like once COVID-19 lockdowns are over and people return to the wild for their shopping experiences?
When all the dust settles, the post-lockdown era should provide a boost to downtown areas, in part due to newly unemployed but highly skilled restaurant and retail workers opening new businesses in downtowns where rent prices will trend downward.
The pandemic has left millions of highly skilled workers from the retail and food and beverage industries unemployed and eager to work. Many of these people are highly motivated to start their own businesses, creating an unparalleled pool of talent and potential entrepreneurial interest.
In a recent Forbes article, Bernhard Schroeder wrote: “27 million working-age Americans, nearly 14 percent, are starting or running new businesses. And Millennials and Gen-Z are driving higher interest in entrepreneurship as 51 percent of the working population now believes that there are actually good opportunities to start companies.”
Traditionally, fear of failure has held people back from starting a business, but with so many having their jobs swept away due to the pandemic, that fear is gone for many people, who realize they no longer want to rely on an employer for the rest of their careers, and instead want to take on the challenge of leading their own companies.
Downtown shopping districts will capture traffic from fading malls
Malls will struggle in the era of COVID-19. Being inside an enclosed bubble will not be the ideal situation for most shoppers for the foreseeable future. Morning Consult reports that 24 percent of U.S. consumers fear shopping in malls for at least the next six months due to the COVID-19 threat.
As an article about a newly reopened mall in Atlanta explains, the experience won’t be very welcoming in the near term. Play areas are roped off, water fountains covered, and stores are limiting the number of shoppers due to social distancing. Add in the inconvenience factor, and it’s clear why so many malls are facing a reckoning in the coming years.
As regional malls continue losing consumers due to changing shopping habits and fears of COVID-19, an excellent opportunity presents itself for villages, towns, and cities to regain their dominance as thriving centers for retail and entertainment.
Some factors to consider:
As Millennials and Empty Nesters seek to live, work, and shop in urban centers, medium-sized cities (100,000 to 200,000 population) are especially likely to benefit from this trend.
Small towns (10,000 to 20,000 people) located near large urban centers are also appealing to start-up retailers and restaurants that want to take advantage of their proximity to large, well-heeled populations and small towns’ affordable commercial storefronts.
New walkable town centers — planned with authentic urbanism and a variety of hospitality, employment and residential land use — can also ride the wave of Millennials, young families, and Empty Nesters who seek an exciting place to hang out.
Main Streets are already innovating
Main Streets have been reinventing themselves in a positive way during the past few decades, making them a more attractive alternative for retail shopping in the era of COVID-19.
These innovations include:
Updated master plans that undo blight caused by 1970s urban renewal plans.
Implementation of Downtown Development Districts, which offer marketing, promotions, special events, street cleaning, landscaping, flowers and private-sector levels of management.
Effective parking management, and construction of new parking lots and garages.
Investment in beautiful new streetscapes, public art, and street furnishings.
Reduction of crime, increased safety.
U.S. Main Street programs, which offers guidance to revitalize downtowns, and returns $36 for each $1 invested.
For Millennials, who seek more social experiences as opposed to the enclosed mall experience of their youth, Main Street experiences in their towns and cities are the perfect fit for their lifestyle.
While the larger portion of their income will go to experiences such as European travel or outdoor adventures, closer-to-home visits to a local brewpub or coffee shop in their town center make perfect sense.
Main Streets will provide new homes for mall stores
As malls close and online shopping grows, existing mall retailers will seek new locations near their former mall stores. In many instances, these venues include smaller downtown cores, which traditionally offer lower rents and, now, the safety of an open-air shopping experience.
The writing is on the wall for mall store operators, all of which leads to an economically-friendly, Main Street setting:
Malls depend on department stores to attract almost 50 percent of their shoppers and cannot operate without them, which is problematic for many reasons.
Many mall retailers have lease options allowing them to break their leases and leave the mall should key department stores close.
Department stores are losing market share, from a peak of 50 percent of all retail sales in the 1950s to 5 percent today.
Since the heyday of malls in 1992, department store sales have dropped from $230 billion to $140 billion and many department stores are close to bankruptcy.
Over 50 percent of regional malls are forecast to close by 2025 (Credit Suisse).
Retail and Office Space Will Move to Town Centers
The online shopping boom has made nearly obsolete many of the conventional large power center retailers offering products such as books, electronics, office supplies, sporting goods, and toys. The end result is the expected closing of millions of square feet of retail space.
Often, these centers cover typically 20-50 acres of prime real estate, which presents an opportunity. They can be converted into mixed-use town centers with medium density residential and commercial occupants.
The same can be said of suburban office parks, as even centers in blue-chip locations are facing high vacancies and declining rents as many major corporations are moving into city centers to attract top talent. Millennials find the suburban office parks boring, preferring to live and work in downtowns. These large office parks have an abundance of land and parking that can be retrofitted into walkable mixed-use town centers.
Challenges and opportunities for downtown shopping districts
When a national brand relocates from a mall environment to a town or city, they may initially receive a cold shoulder from city leaders and the community, who fear popular brands will end up killing their beloved Main Street’s unique charm.
Looking back at history, though, this thinking is inaccurate, as downtown shopping districts were filled with leading retailers and large department stores during their 1950s heyday. For long-term sustainability, a downtown should always offer the goods and services desired by its residents and workers, which may include popular brand names.
Zoning is another key battle. Cities must offer flexible form-based zoning to allow for medium-to-high densities of residential and commercial to be developed as walkable neighborhoods and business districts. Development standards should focus on requiring quality design and materials, rather than arbitrary minimal units per acre densities, minimal parking ratios, or suburban building setbacks.
Parking needs to be reconfigured to allow shoppers to pickup goods curbside.
Downtowns and open-air town centers are seen as safer from the pandemic than enclosed malls, because they offer:
Less-enclosed spaces, with more fresh air and direct sunlight.
The ability to walk on other side of street or block.
No elevators or escalators.
Fewer doors to enter.
Curbside pick-up of goods.
People enjoy visiting towns and cities to socialize and experience parks, urban life, including storefronts.
They visit to have an experience they cannot get through online shopping. And while visiting downtowns for entertainment and fun, many will walk by store fronts and be tempted to make impulse purchases from Main Street retailers.
Towns and small city landlords typically offer much cheaper rents than suburban malls, often more than 50 percent less, and also offer flexible lease terms: no minimum hours and less rigorous storefront and merchandising standards than mall leases. This type of accommodation will be more attractive to new entrepreneurs created from this pandemic.
The savings also are appealing to national retailers facing declining sales and mall leases that are too expensive.
How downtown Main Streets can ensure success
As we look to the future, and the economic recovery that will come once a vaccine is created and herd immunity is established, all signs point to the re-emergence of Main Street as the place people will want to do their retail shopping.
A new generation of entrepreneurs will be eager to start a new chapter in their life, and the suburban shopping centers are not going to attract them.
Well-designed town centers, with the type of social interaction sought by Millennials, young families, and Empty Nesters will be the new home for the boom in the years to come.
A few best practices for downtowns to apply:
Create a marketing strategy for a post-pandemic campaign.
Beautify the public realm through landscape, lighting, parking lots-garages, signage, streetscape, and storefront improvements.
Explore temporary commercial street closures to allow for open air dining and shopping spaces.
Modify zoning to allow first floor office and service business.
Require store fronts to maintain large clear glazing, sign bands, operating doors, and ceiling heights to allow for future retail or restaurant use.
Remove or reduce minimum retail and restaurant parking requirements in downtowns and new mixed-use developments.
Include generous 10-minute parking spaces to accommodate curbside pickups for restaurants and retailers.
Devise market-based business recruitment plans and resources to identify and attract new retailers and restaurants into the downtown.
Seek a balance of local, regional, and national retailers.
Apply flexible zoning to promote medium-density and high-density multi-family residential.
Implement market based master plans, form-based codes, and zoning flexibility to allow for retrofitting of underutilized shopping centers and office parks.
Robert Gibbs, FASLA, is president of the Gibbs Planning Group, which has advised and planned commercial areas in some 500 town centers and historic cities in the U.S. and abroad. Gibbs is a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, a lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, author of Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development, and co-author of eight books.
These tweets appeared on the Regional Transit Authority (RTA), New Orleans, and NOLA Ready Twitter feeds:
“The following routes will suspend service beginning March 29th: 2- Riverfront Streetcar, 5-Marigny-Bywater, 11-Magazine, 15-Freret, 45-Lakeview, 48-Canal-City Park Streetcar, 51-St. Bernard/St. Anthony, 60-Hayne, 65-Read-Crowder Express, 90-Carrollton, 101-Algiers Point, 106-Auror. Starting tomorrow, April 19, the 39-Tulane will suspend overnight service between 12:00 am to 4:00 am. There is a delay on 62 – Morrison Express. Apr 21 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 114 – General DeGaulle-Sullen. Apr 20 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 28 – M.L.King. #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 65 – Read-Crowder Express. Apr 19 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 57 – Franklin.”
These messages bring to light the nightmare of those who depend on transit in order to maintain a steady job. They are facing a double crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are some of us who have easy access to work, because we do it from home at our laptops, but most aren’t so lucky. Many citizens must ride the bus or take other mass transit to earn a basic living. These are often the essential and frontline workers, those working in grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals, supplying important city services such as trash collection and utility maintenance, and even bus drivers.
Many of these people are already located in Transit Deserts — areas with high transit demand and limited or no access. With bus services cut, people are crowded on to fewer buses. The current situation — which is not only limiting but also eliminating transit service — is exaggerating the existing transportation inequities in already underserved areas. The COVID-19 crisis is exposing how particular segments of our society are more at risk due to historical and structural inequality in many areas, including housing and employment but certainly transportation access.
The current responses to the pandemic also reveal ways to address transit access and some of the inequities this crisis has exposed. I have noticed more people walking and biking in parks and along streets. With the reduction of travel by automobile, this means fewer cars on the road and reduced carbon emissions, creating several health benefits, including cleaner air.
Importantly, the current situation also strengthens the argument that given certain conditions, increased numbers of people will readily give up car travel if they had alternatives or had to, or at least use them less, even in a place as automobile dependent as Texas, where I am making these observations.
It is most likely that once more people are again traveling to work, there still will be a need for social distancing, presenting a major concern for traveling on buses and other forms of mass transit.
Social distancing, brought on by the pandemic crisis, may be key to a solution for increasing transit in a catalytic fashion. If fewer people can be on a bus, then there must be more buses on each route just to maintain the base level of public financed mobility. More buses on a line means greater frequency and less wait time. Less wait time is proven to be a factor in increasing ridership.
When asked why they didn’t take the bus, given it took them straight to work, the majority responded that they didn’t want to wait at the bus stop. I then asked: if the bus came frequently would they take it? The reply was overwhelmingly yes, even if it meant transferring to another frequent line. This is true in most dense urban areas.
Most people are even willing to endure a longer ride time, if the wait time at the point of access is reduced. It can be reduced with frequently arriving buses that also prevent the overcrowding that usually happens, thus allowing people to maintain a safe distance apart. In my view, it is a win win, particularly if the medical cost of maintaining social distances is added on to the funding source for more public transit.
The severity of the Coronavirus pandemic means that things won’t ever get back to “normal.” For those who care about the environment and those in it, it is a time to rethink how we live and move about the urban landscape.
We can create mobility solutions that are equitable, environmentally sound, and protect our health. Of course, it only starts with putting more buses on the line. There is now an opportunity for creative thinking.
Maybe we can invest in on-demand vans, or “VIA” type services, which is a pay-on-demand van service that runs on a fixed route; and other smaller multi-passenger vehicles that are publicly subsidized and capture residents in neighborhoods and connect to frequent larger vehicles on major routes.
There is now an opportunity when people are appreciating the opportunity to take a walk and ride a bike and be healthy, adjusting to not being in cars so much of the time, appreciating clean air and the ability to just breath, and willing to make sacrifices for their neighbors, community, and country.
During times like these, those of us who are moved by problem solving must think outside of the limits of traditional transportation and step up to the challenges of creating an equitable society where there is mobility choice — and everyone has equal access to work, play, and the pursuit of life.
The close friendships people make during the intensity of design school often last a lifetime. My studio bestie was a funny, talented guy named Merrick Zirtzman. We were like twins, except that he contracted AIDS and I didn’t. We ate garlic cloves together and tried to stay safe. But he died within two years of our graduation, along with about 700,000 other Americans who lost their lives to AIDS.
Subsequent research determined that HIV originated in chimpanzees in West Africa, showing that it became a human disease because humans ate chimpanzees. According to Michael Lai at the University of Southern California and his team of disease detectives, the chimps got it by eating monkeys that hosted a similar virus (red-capped mangabeys and greater spot-nosed monkeys, to be exact). This sounds like a version of saying you are what you eat: a food web in an ecosystem of viruses, hosts, predators, and habitat.
When I wrote and spoke about the research connecting biodiversity to infectious diseases in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was one of very few in our field who would broach the subject. At the time, if HIV/AIDS hadn’t roared through your friends, a pandemic seemed unlikely. Worrying about it seemed paranoid. After all, people said, contemporary medicine has made so many advances!
The last time I spoke about biodiversity and its role in suppressing pandemics was at the Large Parks conference at Harvard University in 2004. After that, my work centered on adapting to climate change, and there was so much other science to talk about. Eventually, pandemics dropped out of my slide set.
Every year, the World Economic Forum organizes a gathering of the global 1% in Davos, Switzerland, and produces a document to communicate the anxieties of money managers, called the Global Risk Report. In 2019, the Global Risk Report had a special section on health risks, titled “Going Viral.” It noted that there has been an increase in the frequency of new infectious disease outbreaks over the last few decades. There were more than 12,000 outbreaks between 1980 and 2013. But in June 2018, there were outbreaks in six of the eight categories of the especially dangerous priority diseases tracked by the World Health Organization (WHO).
For the first time, WHO included “Disease X” in its 2018 list of priority diseases to promote research on new zoonotic diseases that had not yet passed to humans. People who track diseases were expecting new ones, because the number of animal-to-human outbreaks has increased dramatically. The UN Environment Program also stated that a new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months now, and that 75 percent of those come from wild or domesticated animals.
The 2019 Davos Risk Report noted five main reasons for this alarming trend:
First, huge increases in the volume of inter-continental travel make it possible for a virus from an isolated village to infect major cities within days.
Second, an increasing percentage of the world’s growing population lives in dense urban districts.
Third, people are cutting the forests that provide habitat for animals like bats and primates that carry diseases, which humans can catch.
Fourth, climate change may accelerate disease transmission by extending the range of some key animal vectors, like mosquitos, but in other complex ways as well.
And fifth, poverty drives a lot of people to hunt bushmeat or to raise undernourished domestic animals.
Also, desperate refugees trying to escape wars or climate stressors often live in dense, unhygienic conditions created by societies who want to keep them out, producing hotspots of infectious diseases. The 2019 Risk Report concluded that “globalization has made the world more vulnerable to societal and economic impacts from infectious-disease outbreaks.”
Remember, this isn’t ecologists talking, this is the 1%, the people who spent the last 400 years profiting from the removal of “barriers” to global markets and building a world of white privilege through racism, armed colonization, and enslaved labor. Not to put too fine a point on it.
Ecologists who write about the links between biodiversity and disease typically emphasize the need to limit human impacts on animals that harbor the greatest number of viruses that can spillover to humans: waterfowl, primates, and bats.
Even sociologists who focus on poverty and development, like Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, slammed Wilson’s proposal. They saw it as a trade-off: protect biodiversity at the expense of the rural poor, who would then be arrested as poachers in their own traditional lands.
But social inequality will not be erased if biodiversity losses continue. Less biodiversity means more disease pandemics and more poverty. I think we can all see that now.
In the 21st century, globalized economic growth has reached the end of its rope. Economies can’t continue to expand without creating new pandemic risks, as more people press up against the habitat of more wildlife or raise domestic animals in unhealthy conditions. We’re now part of one big, highly connected planetary ecosystem that’s going to bite us back hard if we step on it the wrong way.
A lot of news stories are ascribing intention to viruses as if they make plans. While that creates a compelling bad guy, they’re not actually living things. We’re the sentient beings here.
New planetary health concepts advocated by many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide the framework we need to see through metaphors about viruses invading our country with evil intentions, and the associated imagery of a refugee invasion from some place we imagine to be far away, disconnected from us. In fact, the U.S. is a global hotspot of emerging animal-to-human diseases.
What does this mean for landscape architecture, as a discipline that shapes urban and regional planning?
The challenge is to use our projects and our advocacy to fight for biodiversity (if only for our own survival), genuinely reduce economic inequality, and promote a culture that celebrates rather than denies the inherent limits to growth that come with sharing a single planet.
As Kate Jones, Chair of Ecology at University College London, has noted, pandemics are now “a hidden cost of human economic development…We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”
Landscape architects and planners can take on this work in three important ways:
First, we caneducate clients about the role that native habitat plays in preventing disease outbreaks. Here in California, recent research has revealed that our low rate of Lyme disease can be attributed to our remaining biodiversity. Both mountain lions and western fence lizards play key roles in limiting Lyme disease. Lions keep the deer population low, especially near urban areas where they kill fifty percent more deer per year, perhaps because they are interrupted in the act of eating their kill more often by humans. Our native lizard has proteins in its blood that seem to “turn off” the infection in ticks that bite the lizards, creating a less dangerous tick population that doesn’t host the Lyme bacteria. None of this would work if there were no lion or lizard habitat, no lions, and no lizards.
We can work to genuinely promote social equality. Step one is to stop pretending that development investments, or even new parks, create benefits for everyone. In fact, investments in parks typically displace low-income residents (anyone been to the High Line?). Setha Low’s anthropological research in New York City showed that upscale materials or finishes, like brushed aluminum or polished rock, can make lower-income people of color feel unwelcome, setting them up to be followed and harassed because Caucasian park visitors think they don’t belong there. Creating new upscale mixed-use districts in historically African-American, Native American, and Hispanic spaces raises the likelihood that police will kill more people of color. Trickle-down public benefits from private real estate investments are a myth. We can stop repeating it and instead work to increase the health, wealth, and stability of low-income communities directly. In the San Francisco Bay Resilient by Design Challenge, our ABC Team re-thought our work in East Oakland to focus more on supporting local businesses and health, rather than trying to imagine the trickle-down benefits of big new real estate investments.
Third, we can promote a culture of restraint to protect local habitat areas. Persuading humans to back off and respect the territory of other cultures or other forms of life is the real “balance of nature,” created by our own sense of restraint. We can design windows in “walls” that surround key vegetated areas, instead of designing paths through them. Maybe these are literal walls, like the habitat island at Parc Henri Matisse in Lille, France by Gilles Clément. Or maybe they’re thorny hedge plants or wetland “moats” with an overlook platform. Physical trampling, noise, and pets exert real limits on biodiversity. And cultural self-restraint can be sexy—it can be theatrical and negotiated. Not going somewhere can make that special place valuable and mysterious. Bring back the sacred Greek temenos, and the hortus conclusus. Limits and social negotiation create deeper design opportunities and better designers.
There’s more: are you designing new urban districts in China, Africa, or the Middle East? It’s time to reconsider taking that work unless it’s an infill strategy.
And we should all stop flying so much, considering its impact on our climate and our health — and now that we’ve mastered Zoom.
Prevent urban and agricultural sprawl into native vegetation. Promote increased wealth and self-sufficiency for the global poor. Support animal welfare by becoming an activist against large-scale animal farming.
Landscape architects can lead a re-think of how to design for biodiversity, cities, and health on our one little planet.
Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, is associate professor of landscape architecture, environmental planning, and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley College of Environmental Design.
In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, do we wait for social distancing to end or start experimenting and adapting our community outreach models?
Public agencies, design teams, and communities face uncharted territories, not without risk. Our ability to advance projects relies on the insights and magic that emerge from interactive, person-to-person community gatherings.
Can we successfully forge camaraderie and casual interaction online? What are the real and perceived barriers to equitable access to online interaction and how can they be addressed?
Does the pandemic actually present an opportunity to widen audiences and level the playing field?
As we adjust our short- and long-term approaches, here are a few considerations:
Put equity front and center
Do we really know what we think we know? Assumptions about the digital divide – who has Internet access and who doesn’t – can be misunderstood, as reported by the Center for Internet Society. Remember this mantra about the importance of a community input: “nothing about us, without us, is for us.”
It is critical to hear directly from the community what the barriers are. This takes more time. Some of the barriers include English as a second language; childcare and eldercare at a time when health issues are even more pressing; and a lack of or limited Internet access and associated support.
There are many relatively inexpensive solutions such as free webcams, hot spots, or phone data top ups. Filling the gaps identified by community members can help support advisory councils and allow community informed work to continue.
The health crisis could push the landscape architecture profession to make initial outreach about barriers to access commonplace.
Build a welcoming atmosphere
Create personal connections, stimulate creativity, and support trust. In order to achieve these goals, consider the context of our revised daily lives: localized experiences; more free time for some, less for others; individualized experiences as well as more multi-generational interaction; interpersonal tensions and mental health challenges; more time outside for some and more time inside for others.
How can we adapt our familiar community engagement goals – diverse communication style choices, interaction between residents, reporting back to the group – to the new normal?
Some ideas include self-care and personal experience check-ins; self-guided walking tours; scavenger hunts; general gamification of activities; sharing on-site design team and community member smart phone videos; and prompting storytelling through video, written or illustrated media.
There are exciting possibilities for video analysis, which builds on the power of emotion in a way traditional analysis does not.
Remain flexible and appreciative
Plan the first meeting and adapt with the next. It’s hard to anticipate right now what will matter. Each community is having collective and unique experiences that will influence their priorities going forward. Keep the outlines broad and any necessary expectations clear. Reflect on those expectations to ensure they are truly the basic ones.
Share back what was heard and confirm the value of participation. Constantly tailor the process to the audience interests and needs to influence how the interaction occurs and how it is curated.
Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic can be the advent of a much more inclusive process.
Establish stipends for community ambassadors and residents who co-create with the design team and bring the expertise of their lived experience to the project. Ask what types of leadership and mentorship opportunities could be built into the process to provide career opportunities during uncertain times.
This is where diversity, equity, and inclusion considerations meets design – where designed process outcomes are much broader and long lasting than the physical design itself.
An intentional process in this pandemic-conscious world could also result in valuable policy input and revisions as agencies scramble to keep their work meaningful and valuable to constituents. Building in opportunities to inform policy helps people connect with the democratic process, which is increasingly critical when chaos is also an opening for autocracy.
There is opportunity for this health crisis to accelerate democratic, community-driven design.
Be alert. Create space for true narrative
A silver lining of disruption is that previously unheard narratives can emerge and provide a more holistic picture of our world. In public settings, social norms tamp down sharing of difficult stories. But difficult stories are the foundation of racial reconciliation and transparency. It leads us to acknowledge we operate in a gray world, not black and white.
Challenging stories are the foundation of building trust. As research demonstrates, compelling stories stick with people. We can create safe space by consistently providing a venue to share those stories, celebrating the sharing of stories and their impact, and curating them to create a constructive environment.
Repeating the invitation to share stories in multiple meetings communicates this is a deep desire, not a superficial request, and will prompt different results in different times and settings among people.
The pandemic could result in greater listening – the ability to hear another person’s story, one that may be in conflict with your own beliefs or assumptions.
With thoughtful outreach, but acknowledgement that we will make mistakes, we can bring our design creativity to a community-informed design process. Much can emerge from this crisis that will improve business as usual.
Let’s keep sharing the many ways to accelerate relationship building apart and together. We look forward to hearing the collective wisdom.
Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Deb Guenther, FASLA, is a design partner at Mithun, an interdisciplinary firm focused on design for positive change and located in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles. She is working with community members, utility districts, and transit agencies to shape city infrastructure together.
Last summer, masked anti-government protestors in Hong Kong began tearing down light poles and gutting them, looking for facial recognition technology embedded alongside the Smart City WiFi and 5G. For the protestors, “smart” light poles, like a Trojan horse, represent the vanguard of mainland China’s surveillance state. Trust in what had previously been ignored as a boring, albeit useful, public utility had broken down.
While highly politicized in Hong Kong, there is a worldwide trend to embed Smart City data collection devices and surveillance technologies into street furniture. Some of these technologies, such as city-wide wireless internet and 5G cellular service, have great appeal while facial recognition technology and sensors that record conversations, track foot traffic or purchasing transactions remain controversial. Light poles play a key role in Smart City planning because their “perfect elevation,” strategic positioning, and complex wiring capabilities make them the ideal host for the new technologies.
Many in the international and American lighting industry are on board with this trend. They see the Smart City movement as an opportunity for the lighting industry to enter the data collection and analytics business, providing the industry with “the Holy Grail of all companies, recurring revenue.” As an editorial in LD+A, the journal of the lighting engineering world, put it last June: “Lighting IS a platform to gather information and process and analyze it at the edge where it is collected ….or pass it on to another location where it can be analyzed.”
As lighting designers working in the public realm, we are very concerned. We have already witnessed the “frictionless” integration of data collection devices and surveillance technologies into new light pole designs at the private industry level in the U.S. This is proceeding rapidly without public knowledge, debate, or oversight. And in another worrisome new development, we have also seen tech giants offering these systems at little or no cost directly to municipalities, where fiscal deficits may make such offers irresistible. The priority accorded lighting in the design of nighttime public space may well be compromised by data collection and revenue generating.
As lighting designers, we believe the purpose and value of public lighting is its ability to create pleasing, social, intimate, safe nighttime experiences. We use our training and expertise to do that in cities across the country.
What — we ask ourselves — is a picnic at dusk or an evening turn at the dog run to feel like when the primary purpose of light poles is to house machine learning algorithms trained to recognize specific people, objects or behaviors? Will people still draw near the light they cast once they learn that their casual conversation is being captured day and night? And if the platform/data monopolies become the de facto suppliers of civic infrastructure, and lighting manufacturers morph into tech companies, what will become of the design of public lighting? Will it actually light our parks and plazas? Will the value of lighting design — its careful balance of function, aesthetics, ecological sensitivity, and the psychological and social needs of communities at night — become subservient to, or dismissed in favor of, the strategic needs of data collection?
As citizens, we support those institutions and individuals who are raising privacy concerns about the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement and public housing developers, among others. As professionals, we need to urgently and loudly argue that the value of lighting in public space is its ability to foster public life at night rather than stand by as light poles are converted into a Swiss Army knife of technologies controlled by corporations whose motives are not civic-minded but financial.
We must be committed to transparency and argue for meaningful oversight and accountability. Giant tech companies and lighting manufacturers that promote friendly-sounding Smart City services embedded in strategically-placed light poles, need to be clear with us, our clients and communities about the type of granular data collection involved and for whose benefit it is being collected. If tech companies (or their avatars) offer “free” equipment to our clients in return for ownership of the data that they collect, we need to help our clients navigate the implications of such contracts so that the present and future implications for the community are clear.
While public lighting has always played a role in policing and other government-sponsored public safety measures, it is worth remembering that lantern smashing has been around just as long. During the French Revolution and other rebellions of the 19th century, lantern smashing was a popular movement, not to plunge areas into darkness, but because street lanterns had become symbols of a hated authority.
As the protestors in Hong Kong showed, street lighting – far from promising gentle evening experiences — can again become a hated symbol of corporate and governmental control of our public life.