Fellow Forum Co-Chair, James Russell, FAIA, reflects on public spaces for recovery and resiliency. James is a journalist and consultant specializing in cities, architecture, climate-change adaptation, and mitigation.

Public Space and Public Places: Resilient by Definition

As I pedal around the city on my bicycle, I have observed with sadness the way the coronavirus pandemic has attacked the very reasons we pile ourselves up in buildings within a dense city: engagement, spontaneous interaction, proximity to the things we need and the people we love.

These are cities’ reasons for being. 

In this palpably strange time I’ve been doing my best to take the measure of the city from my two-wheeled vantage. People have said we must isolate, huddle in expansive private houses, play only in our own backyards, and let tech “user experience” designers invent the electronic equivalents to city life—the places we meet, interact, and enjoy the pleasure of others.

But cities and city people are endlessly adaptive, and everywhere I see people yearning for what we’ve lost and looking for ways to recover what has been taken away. We newly value parks as a place to meet people and to clear the cobwebs of our Zoom-addled minds. That made me think of Design Trust’s several park-related projects, especially “The World’s Park,” which recognized that Flushing Meadows Corona Park, like several of New York’s crown-jewel parks, is not readily accessed by nearby residents. The project showed how disparate communities could unite to press for improvements.

I’ve ridden through too many neighborhoods pocked by empty storefronts. “Laying the Groundwork” anticipated the need to diversify the streetscape experience and now is an essential resource as cities face a dramatically transformed retail future. As we emerge from the pandemic I’m loving the adaptations and workarounds—the carnival of awnings and planters around outdoor restaurants, for example. Gorgeous murals show us art is not only for on-screen viewing.

I find it tonic just to watch New York’s ever-changing bays and rivers, and I have spent a lot of time contemplating late-afternoon reflections on the waves of the Hudson River. “Future Culture” showed how artists can use their unique perceptions to visualize the physical environment in new ways. It brought people rarely consulted into the process of determining how everyone could share the precious resource that is Staten Island’s neglected northern waterfront.

Public space—the way people adapt to use it, how happy we’ll be to experience anew familiar places now off limits—is by nature resilient, reflecting precisely our own human resiliency.