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How to build more equitable public space after COVID-19

Experts talked about how COVID-19 has impacted public space, the future of public-private partnerships, and how cities can be accessible to all.

How to build more equitable public space after COVID-19
[Photo: petrovv/iStock]

This article is part of the New New Rules of Business.

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The Fast Company Impact Council, an invitation-only group of executives, founders, and other leaders from across industries, gathered on June 30 to share insights on the future of business and society. Members split into small groups, moderated by Fast Company editors, and shared their perspectives on how they are managing and innovating amid the global pandemic, the economic slowdown, and calls for social justice.

In this roundtable discussion, led by senior editor Suzanne LaBarre, top executives and thought leaders discussed how to innovate public space. Participants in this session, in alphabetical order, were Bradley Lukanic, CEO of CannonDesign; Ceasar McDowell, professor of the practice of civic design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Justin Moore, executive director of the New York City Public Design Commission; Lionel Ohayon, founder and CEO of ICRAVE; and Ali Rubinstein, Co-CEO and chief creative officer of Meow Wolf. Excerpts of the roundtable have been edited for length and clarity:

Justin Moore: There’s a system of white supremacy and racism that has literally constructed the environment we all live in and share. We see this in the literal design of our spaces—what people have access to or don’t have access to. We see this in the ongoing design and construction of spaces and cities—the lack of maintenance and care [in certain neighborhoods]. The design conversation needs to integrate multiple fronts for what makes equitable public space. Some of it is policy and planning, which are connected to things like culture and politics. How do we even decide what happens to a space? Current systems are engineered toward those with power, privilege, agency. A lot of people are left out.

Lionel Ohayon: City streets are the public realm, and yet we don’t have healthy sidewalks. If we have an opportunity today, it’s that retail is broken and the real estate market in New York is on its way to being broken. The underpinning of that market is retail, and the value of retail has basically been underwritten to zero. These spaces are now worthless in terms of the economic model and how you finance buildings. There’s a great opportunity to now say, “What do you want those sidewalks to be?” How do we imagine a sidewalk that belongs to everyone?

Ceasar McDowell: That is true; sidewalks are an important part of what makes a city work, but they’re not sufficient to taking care of broader issues. We have lots of history of people living next to each other in different classes and statuses and still not doing the hard work of dismantling power and sharing resources. You can have everyone on the street and still have really bad policies and practices in place. It takes more than just hoping the intermingling will do it; it takes us constructing new practices.

One of the problems is that the infrastructure we have in place for the public to engage with each other doesn’t work for the public we have today. It’s not enough just to create the spaces for people to come together; people have to have a way to work through things together and they need support to do that. To assume that when we put it together, we’re going to figure it out isn’t right.

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Bradley Lukanic: There’s an interesting thing that’s happening right now where public and private are getting blurred. Restaurants are spilling out onto the streets; parking is becoming outdoor seating; you can do physical therapy in the park because of telemedicine. You used to have to go to a place, go through a door, but these things have spilled out to the city in different ways. The question is, is it accessible to all? And it’s not. And who will lead the way [to change that]? Will it be governmental, trying to think about how you ease restrictions and policies? Or do you let it organically happen and try to find the best practices?

You’ve got to think there’s something coming that’s been accelerated by the pandemic [as well as the movements around] diversity, inclusion, social justice, which is now starting to take a faster momentum. Buildings and spaces that are designed for a singular purpose are set aside to reimagine how we experience each other, either physically or digitally. Cities will be reimagined; I’m just not sure if they will be shaped by individuals, civic leaders, governments, or an intersection of all of those.

Justin Moore: I would see this public-private conversation on two poles. Governance models should forefront justice, and business models and operations models should forefront equity.

Ceasar McDowell: I don’t think we get there by relying on the same institutions that got us where we are. We’re going to have to build transitional kinds of organizations and structures that will let the existing ones die off and something new emerge. The things we rely on in business and government can’t get us there.

Justin Moore: I would think instead of transition [we should talk about] transformation, because business and government care about innovation. An example I’ve been using a lot is [transitioning] from the police department to a department of care. Today, if there’s an issue with a homeless person who needs help on the street, the police department is the entity that’s called. Maybe 10 years from now there’s a block association that has the agency and resources to govern public space. You could have a completely different way of interacting with the community and navigating public space.

Ceasar McDowell: COVID-19 has let us know how much we don’t want to move into this totally virtual society. It’s really gotten people to understand the importance of relationship and being in space with each other. And it’s also heightened the fact of who we want to be in relationship with and in space with. What we’re finding is you can’t necessarily trust others in the public to take care of us. And that’s broadly for all society but specifically for Black people.

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There’s this interesting thing going on where in the Black community, we’re seeing more support for what we’ve been experiencing and at the same time we’re seeing behavior in the general public that says, “All I can do is take care of myself.” We’re living with both those things at the same time, and they’re emblematic of what we’re talking about here: the old systems in place. We have to create those mechanisms, spaces, and structures that will allow this transformation to happen. It’s going to be contested and it’s going to be hard. There’s no smooth way toward where we’re going. It’s going to be a struggle and we should welcome it.


Read more insights on the New New Rules of Business from Fast Company’s Impact Council members here:


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