Planning in a COVID World

Planning in a COVID World

“Change is the only constant in life.” 
 – Heraclitus

Our present COVID-centric world models Heraclitus’ profound expression 2,500 before this year of constant change. We have seen shifting public health guidance, new limits on how our businesses can operate, and new ideas on how we should use the built environment around us. As an Urban Designer and Architect, it has been interesting to watch how people have modified their environments to adapt to the changes required in a pandemic. At Williams + Paddon, we have been watching and listening. We’re learning from end-users during this experience to fuel innovation in the short-term as well as taking note of best practices to inspire future design.

The World That Was

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Let’s start by taking a look back at the pre-COVID world. In any-town USA, you might find a scene like the one illustrated above. Depending on a city’s size and scale, it might look a bit different, but the premise would still be the same. Commercial and service buildings pushed up to the setback line with the number of off-street parking stalls maximized. People sidestepping when passing one another. Cars the dominant force in this ecosystem; priority given to vehicles over pedestrians. Sidewalks narrowed to provide parallel parking on the street—urban trees planted in narrow sidewalks competing with pedestrian circulation.

This design is functional, efficient, and works for the narrow program it was designed for – walking. However, it is not flexible, memorable, nor optimized for pedestrians and last-mile mixed transit commuters. The user experience in this traditional metric is now revealing its inflexibility. Do we have to sacrifice delight for efficiency? Is there a way that we can provide both?

The Response

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California, like most of the world, has been under government mandate to close indoor operations to blunt the spread of the virus, which took many sectors by surprise. Brick and mortar businesses had to adapt rather quickly. Many restaurants and services providers converted parking stalls, the only outdoor space they had available, into informal dining and retail spaces. Sections of parking lots were roped off and filled with pop up tents to provide relief from the summer sun. Construction barricades lined streets to allow the pedestrian realm of the sidewalk to widen. Although not ideal, customers brought life and energy to these new temporary spaces. This adaptive use of space was a breath of fresh air; however, we think we can do better. We see this next phase as an opportunity to innovate on conventions that are no longer working well, and incorporate elements of past planning practices that are particularly well suited to the current challenge.

Those pre-establish public spaces such as pocket parks, small squares, and anywhere outdoors that provided a planter wide enough seating became the place for locals to meet up. Even in a social distanced setting, people wanted to be around other people and adapted their surroundings and habits to make socialization possible.

The World That Could Be

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One of our biggest takeaways from this pandemic is that outdoor space needs to be adaptable. Providing outdoor space programmed for single-use functions may not be a luxury that we can afford moving forward. Remember our first example in ‘The World That Was’? The narrow sidewalk only provided the minimum space needed for the single-file walking. In ‘The World That Could Be,’ the sidewalk becomes so much more. The sidewalk becomes a restaurant, bookstore, produce stand, and even a barbershop just by providing a few more feet in width. This flexibility of uses should not be an afterthought, but a standard of future design.

People craved outdoor public spaces to socialize. Where they didn’t exist in the pre-pandemic design, they were created by recapturing space from parking lots. The public realm should be designed for the users’ experience and not organized around the vehicle used for mobility. Communities should be prioritized for people, not cars. With our current understanding of the future of mobility, parking counts should be evaluated against the benefit of providing quality public open space.

Although there is no exact formula, there are a few elements that we think should be considered when designing quality outdoor public space:

Connection to Nature: We believe that the public space should connect people with nature, even in an urban setting. The soothing sound of water and dappled shade of the urban forest canopy provide refuge from the stresses of life, even with the bustling city just a few feet away.

Flexibility: in the design of outdoor gathering spaces, one element should serve multiple purposes. A delivery lane becomes a food truck station, a planter edge becomes seating, moving the café tables from a slightly raised area creates a stage. We need more ‘Swiss Army Knife’ spaces.

Variety of Seating Options: Properly proportioned planter edges and stairs make great seating areas that encouraging socialization within these spaces. Movable chairs allow the users to take ownership of the space, whereas fixed benches preclude it.

Inspire Delight: These public areas are ideal locations for public art, live music, and one of the most universal human activities, people watching. Public space should be attractive, memorable, and make you feel something. Even if that something is passive, like a sense of calm or a feeling like you belong.

Our Opportunity

In an intensive study of what makes public gathering spaces successful, the sociologist William Whyte observed:

“…an elemental point about good urban spaces: supply creates demand. A good new space builds a new constituency. It stimulates people into new habits — al fresco lunches — and provides new paths to and from work, new places to pause. It does all this very quickly.”

William Whyte -The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

Our philosophy at Williams + Paddon is that design should introduce strong gestures that organize space but provides flexibility in how that space is used. As we continue to glean lessons from the ever-changing world around us, we continue to seek inspiration for our future design solutions.

Bold thinking and avant-garde solutions are no longer relegated to “what if” thought experiments; we’re living in an age of experimentation now. We are ready for the challenge—let’s see what we can dream up together!


Associate / Senior Planner / Project Architect