Going from urban planning to social planning amid the coronavirus

Public-space planning took on the meaning not only of leisure, recreation and sports, but also behavioral elements.

PEDESTRIANS CROSS the Jerusalem Light Rail tracks on Jaffa Road. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PEDESTRIANS CROSS the Jerusalem Light Rail tracks on Jaffa Road.
In the last decade, urban and commercial planning, offices, transportation and many other areas have revolved around the principle of cooperatives. Shared workspaces, shared scooters and bikes, and shared vehicles have long been a familiar thing. But COVID-19 has refined the principle of cooperatives in the public sphere. Today, every local authority, planning institution, landscape architect and urban planner must add to their toolbox the planning of urban space. Urban space, open spaces, city squares and sidewalks have become an integral part of city life, and from an element of spatial planning, the one with the greatest social significance.
The coronavirus pandemic has radically changed human behavior in public spaces. At the same time, public-space planning took on the meaning not only of leisure, recreation and sports, but also behavioral elements. Today, planning a public space should be tailored to public behavior and take into account behavioral elements, such as the desire to meet people in the open space, the desire to go outside the house, to invite and get invited over, and to spend time with friends in the open space in a gathering designed to relieve loneliness, conduct work, unite with family, or simply drink coffee.
Landscape architects and urban planners can no longer see the landscape literally, but as a more complex reality in which people use the public space to hold social gatherings, work and hold meetings on park benches, and where open spaces replace cafes and restaurants as meeting places. Urban planning has become more challenging and requires planners to recalculate Today, in the age of corona, a landscape architect sees not only the need for a landscape, but space as a place used for a variety of functions.
Just as COVID-19 has accelerated digitization and remote-work procedures, so it has changed urban-space planning. Processes that had been done on a spot basis – such as removing fences at Tel Aviv’s Gordon Pool, placing chairs around the pool in Rabin Square, and opening municipal gardens – are now becoming part of an orderly urban planning policy.
Beit Tami, for example, which is currently undergoing renovation and upgrading, was planned as a public area and space, as was customary, for leisure and relaxation. Now the renovation treats this space as an integral part of the need for a meeting space, as a social value, as a behavioral part – and the renovation has been adapted to that. Removing fences from the Histadrut building and opening the area to the public is another example of a process that is already happening in the field, and there are additional examples.
THE CRISIS that COVID-19 has created is also a great opportunity for a saner, more humane approach to planning, one that sanctifies the common public spaces and celebrates the principle of cooperatives. The lock-down period further emphasized the importance of the 100-meter line, and future planning must take into account that reality has changed, making even a pillar floor in a shared building a common space to be utilized. Maintaining a two-meter distance between people requires the design of wider public gardens with new and adapted benches and creative seating solutions.
As a result of the new planning trend that is emerging, the understanding of the importance of green lungs within the urban fabric is also beginning to take shape. Many cities in Israel have become overcrowded, and municipal parks have become a scarce resource. It is not impossible for us to benefit from the changes and transformations and be privileged to see in the common public space more green spaces and community gardens, which will attract residents and become an alternative meeting place with great accessibility. At the end of the day and at the end of every pandemic, humans are still social creatures.
The public space also makes it possible to make resources accessible to those who cannot afford their own yards. One of today’s emerging trends is to provide city residents with “pocket gardens,” which are useful and also utilize small areas in the public space to relieve loneliness, and to work and study jointly.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, many workers have switched to working from home, and students to studying on Zoom. It is not inconceivable that this trend of remote work and study will continue to take root even after the pandemic disappears. This is a real revolution whose beginnings we are seeing now. This is therefore a golden opportunity for cooperatives in the public space and in the field of deploying communication infrastructures that will enable work and study even from a municipal park. A public bench in the fresh air can be a perfect workspace, sometimes far preferable to a four-walled house or office.
To this end, local authorities will do well to turn the spotlight and resources toward vulnerable populations, promoting free and reliable infrastructures of collaborative Wi-Fi and lighting in public spaces – necessary tools for students and micro-business owners to study and work outdoors. These will also increase the residents’ sense of personal safety by reducing delinquency and crime in the urban domain.
All that is required is rethinking by decision-makers, mayors, members of planning committees, planners and landscape architects. It is time to abandon the old conventions and adopt a fresh, new planning approach, and move from urban planning to social planning.
The writer is an urbanism researcher and CEO of the Tel Aviv Foundation.