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Tuesday, 29 September 2020

The city is your playground: Public space and the new normal

Public space infrastructure is the key to making a city usable and accessible in the wake of the coronavirus, and Cairenes must bear this in mind

Hana Zaky , Saturday 22 Aug 2020
before and after ( courtesy of hana Zaky)
before and after ( courtesy of Hana Zaky)
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If you have been keeping up with the current overwhelming influx of memes on social media, you can spot one defining behaviour: people’s use of open space.
 
People on their balconies, people using their roofs, basically everyone trying to find an escape from the current confinement that is their home. This behaviour can be seen globally, in rich and poor countries alike.
 
As an urban designer, it makes me happy to see people using cities’ common spaces. Rooftops are more active, and if you know me, you’ll know my love for activating rooftops. Picnics have become more common; the outdoors has become where we want to spend our leisure time.
 
Citydwellers’ recreational behaviours have moved from the inside to the outside. 
 
Unfortunately, in the past five years Cairo has seen a phenomenal increase in malls and closed assembly spaces -- massive over-designed structures with inoperable atriums that have been successful in bringing many people under one roof. But notice the problem here: under one roof.
 
Are we going to feel safe with thousands gathered under one roof for the foreseeable future? Probably not. The majority of the population will be looking for outdoor leisure with open air seating. 
 
The problem in Cairo is that it does not have sufficient public space infrastructure. What is public space infrastructure? It is a number of things, but to keep it simple, it ranges from sidewalks to large urban parks.
 
Public space infrastructure is the key to making a city usable and accessible. When designed, it provides moments of relief in bustling cities, it lowers the micro-climates of streets in hot seasons -- the benefits are numerous. At this point in the country’s reopening, public space could play a huge role in people’s lives. 
 
I suspect that it will take time before we can all return to the lives we led pre-COVID. The question is though, do we even want to? COVID-19 has shown us that there is so much space we are not taking advantage of, space that is available to us all the time and at no cost.
 
This is the time to define the new normal -- how people will be using the city after the pandemic. 
 
According to many global green space studies, the area of green space per person should range from 12 square metres to 40 square metres, depending on the country’s climate.
 
However, in Cairo, this area does not exceed 2 square metres. Which brings us to the main question we should be asking: can we design an integrated public space infrastructure strategy for the city? A strategy that responds to the current changes of behaviour we are seeing, and tackles them on all levels, from the micro level of each individual, to the macro level of the entire city?
 
For example, incentivising people to upgrade their roofs and have them act as a micro communal space for their building’s community, introducing open air cinemas and theatres, and so on.
 
A macro level strategy would be to map the existing public spaces and to identify the walking radius surrounding each one. If the walking radius exceeds an average of 15 minutes, then there is a gap that needs to be filled with pocket parks or any accessible public space.
 
The solutions are numerous and can be found by studying cities’ that have successfully implemented public space strategies in dense environments, such as New York. 
 
The benefit of having accessible public space that resonates with me most is that it connects people to the city. People start to have favourite public spots and corners.
 
When asked about public space experiences, John Ellis, principal at Mithun, an architecture and urban design firm in San Francisco, said: “In San Francisco, on Sunday afternoons there is a tradition of walking along the Crissy Field Esplanade from the marina to the Golden Gate Bridge. It ends at a small cafe called the Warming Hut where you can buy coffee or tea and then stroll back. It is a delightful walk with great views of the Bay and an opportunity to see joggers, kids flying kites, families with their dogs, and all sorts.”
 
When asked about public space and the change of behaviour in Cairo, Ellis said: “We are all social animals and thrive on contact and friendships, the routines of daily life. It would be a great loss if we all disappeared into gated compounds and malls. The Mediterranean tradition of passeggiata, strolling in the evening and people watching after the heat of the day diminishes is such a pleasure. I remember witnessing this in Palermo in Sicily last year when people of all walks of life, rich and poor, young and old, would stroll along the main promenade at dusk. Cafes and restaurants were open with sidewalk seating, and people seemed to have dressed up for the occasion. Is there anything similar in Downtown Cairo?”
 
So, what do we do now? The answer is in the title. Use the city -- it is yours. If you build it, they will come. Renovate your roof, instead of it being a dump for your old furniture. Add seating to your building’s side yards. Allow cafes to extend their seating onto sidewalks and possibly close off the streets on weekends to facilitate more outdoor use. We can do so much on a micro level that will have a greater effect on our urban environment. 
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