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Placemaking in The Time of COVID-19

Research has shown how successful placemaking can impact favourably on health, wellbeing and community, gaining additional positive media profile for a developer/ landlord and residents, whether the project is mainly aimed at commercial or residential usage, or a mixture of both.

The current restrictions caused by Covid-19 impinge on placemaking projects in a number of ways.

  • Indoors or outdoor spaces?

  • Social distancing

  • Hygiene

  • Sustainability

  • Re-purposing


The drive to contain and limit contagion has resulted in a preference for outdoor spaces over indoor. Socialising at a safe distance in a garden or park is preferable to meeting up indoors. Research shows that well-ventilated areas are safer than those where there is no free-flow of air to disperse Corona virus droplets. Bottlenecks in passageways, entrance gateways, access to toilet facilities, need to be taken into account before spaces can be re-opened for public use.


Workplaces need to be fit for purpose, to allow for social distancing restrictions which require working staff to keep a 2-metre distance from one another. Where companies are unable to re-open their offices to staff because of size restrictions of the area, or bottlenecks in entrances, exits and access to toilet facilities, there is a growing trend for landlords to offer rent relief/reduction through to the end of the year, particularly for companies hardest hit, for example in the events and hospitality industries, where income is reduced and the retail sector where shops have been closed and recovery slow. Marking out distancing outside retail shops, for example, can be adhered to with the help of staff supervision, but once consumers are in an area, it is harder to police compliance as can be seen from the recent overcrowding and consumer panic at the Bicester Village Designer Outlet.


Enhanced cleaning processes are the responsibility of whoever manages a space, whether internal or external. Installation-based placemaking activities and activations need to take this into consideration when developing ideas for this summer, for example. Seating whether in public places or private areas such as pub beer-gardens, will need to be rigorously planned and maintained, to ensure user safety. Hand hygiene has been identified as a critical factor in protection from infection, so all areas require easy, safe access to hand-washing and drying facilities. Even the use of recreational assets such as table tennis, swingball or mini-golf will need to be audited in terms of Health and Safety, to ensure the reduction of possible contagion “hot spots.” Information points based on touchscreen technology also fall within this category, as do communal door knobs, shared cutlery and crockery, marketing collateral such as brochures or ticketing, and paypoints.


One of the many concerns to emerge from the period of “lockdown” has been that of sustainability. With increasing numbers of plastic/non-recyclable materials being used in everything from face masks, to gloves, to full PPE, the gains previously achieved by the environmental lobbies to reduce the usage of items such as one-use plastic or polystyrene cups or plastic barrier toilet seat covers have been severely threatened by the drive to revert to one-use items in order to avoid contagion.


As a result of the lockdown policy imposed by the UK government to “shield” the population from contagion, there have been a number of foreseen and unforeseen issues. Hospitality venues such as restaurants and pubs are re-thinking their spaces, perhaps looking at ways that they can re-purpose their external areas to cope with less clement weather later in the year. Entertainment venues such as theatres are not only putting performances online, accessible for a fee, but are looking at ways to comply with the Covid 19 rulings but still cater for audiences. For example, a number of outdoor car parking spaces are being transformed into old-school drive-in movie venues in the evenings. Large department stores such as Debenhams, are finding that the existing move towards online shopping behaviours has deepened across the general population, and may never return to pre-Covid activity.


The additional challenge of working within the parameters of Covid-19 legislation, means that developers/landlords will be looking for support with creative ideas and installations to entice people back into their spaces. These will need to offer flexibility on delivery and allow for social distancing measures to be realised. With creative input, internal and external landscapes can be developed to fulfil changing needs without detriment to pedestrian flow, or the consumer experience – but rather, to enhance them. Many of us have learned to enjoy the beauty of natural spaces, whether private gardens or common land. The time has come for urban planners to rethink their own environments to encourage urban activations that are timely, sustainable and enjoyable – lifting the spirits and looking forward to the time when Covid-19 is no longer an issue in placemaking.


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