COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

A Placemaker's Perspective from Wuhan

May 29, 2020
May 29, 2020
An older couple wearing masks sits on the street in Wuhan, China, as life carefully returns to public spaces. Photo courtesy of Zheng Yue.

In 2018, Project for Public Spaces worked with UN-Habitat, Isocarp, the Wuhan Planning & Design Institute, and several local partners to host a regional Placemaking Week in Wuhan, China. This gathering of several hundred national and international practitioners and local planning students offered an opportunity to explore many important issues in public space, from health to preserving historic streets to community process, and also marked the launch a nationwide Chinese placemaking network.

So when we heard the early news of a coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, our hearts sank. Ethan Kent, one of the primary organizers of the event, reached out to his contacts to find out how they were coping and how public life in the city has changed since the pandemic.

He heard back from Zheng Yue (郑玥) a certified urban planner in China, who holds an MSc in Spatial Planning from University College London. Currently, she works for the Wuhan Planning & Design Institute, with a focus on land-use planning and regulation as well as community planning. Here is what Yue told us and showed us about her experience since the lockdown began over three months ago.

Project for Public Spaces (PPS): How are the public spaces of Wuhan doing now? I understand the ban has recently been lifted.

Zheng Yue (ZY): Public spaces have been very lonely for these three months. As you saw when you were in Wuhan, local residents really enjoy the squares, the parks along the Yangtze River, the small street corner parks, and so on. During the lockdown, people were not allowed to leave their own apartments or their gated communities. In older communities with  no walls and gates, temporary barriers were built.

Temporary barriers limit the coming and going of residents in older buildings. Photo courtesy of Zheng Yue.

People now are allowed to leave their communities as long as they have a green QR code on their coronavirus app—green means healthy, yellow means suspected patients and close contacts, and red means confirmed or diagnosed patients—or an acceptable reason for going out, like work, grocery shopping, or going to the hospitals and a body temperature under 37.3° Celsius.

One restaurant cut a small hole in the barrier to allow for food deliveries. Photo courtesy of Zheng Yue.

I have been to some of the parks by the river during lunch break this week. The most obvious difference now is that you can see many kids with their parents playing outside in daytime. This was not normal before the lockdown, simply because most kids needed to go to school and after-school classes. Everything else looks normal—old men are fishing and old women are dancing and taking pictures. Although, because everyone wears a facial masks, the local Wuhan custom of eating while walking is barely seen now.

Life slowly returns to a park on the Yangtze River. Photo courtesy of Zheng Yue.

PPS: Are there some silver linings for public space in Wuhan that have come out of this? Do people seem to appreciate public space more? How is public space behavior changing for the better or worse?

ZY: People now pay more attention to not littering and keeping the environment neat and clean. And after a nearly three-month lockdown, people are desperate to go outside, to meet with friends and family members. Also, it is safer to stay outside rather than indoors, so public spaces makes a more attractive option for gathering.

A handful of people eat outdoors on a pedestrian street. Photo courtesy of Zheng Yue.

Now the summer is coming and we can see more and more families in the parks, picnicking or playing with kites and skateboards. Outdoor activities are not forbidden anymore as long as you protect yourself correctly and continue social distancing. I can truly feel that normal life is getting back day by day, which is really comforting.

A once-normal scene that has new significance: People waiting for the bus. Photo courtesy of Zheng Yue.

PPS: What can other cities learn from Wuhan?

ZY: Well, I think it’s a painful experience for everyone involved, not only for the inconvenience, but also mentally. Many people experienced helplessness and upset moments during the lockdown. Some lost their loved ones.

Delivery workers take a break together. Considered essential workers, many of them worked through the lockdown. Photo by Zheng Yue.

One unique thing Wuhan and other Chinese cities do is to provide necessary assistance for residents through community workers, who are part of the local government, although most of them are paid less than civil servants. It is of vital importance that local officials make plans like this to ensure people basic needs, including providing food, medical support, and readiness for any emergencies.

Community workers prepare packages of food to send to elders living on their own. Photo courtesy of Zheng Yue.

PPS: What are some of the plans for recovery related to public space and placemaking?

ZY: As far as I know, the first step is mainly about improving living conditions and the environment in those residential building blocks that are more than 30 years old. Work at the community level will be conducted by planning organizations with collaboration from community residents and community workers.

Much like in other parts of the world, cycling has become a favored mode of transportation in Wuhan. More unique is their thriving shared bike systems. Photo courtesy of Zheng Yue.

As for the placemaking community, most of the planners at the Wuhan Planning and Design Institute and Wuhan Land Use and Spatial Planning Research Center have been involved in voluntary community services, such as helping deliver food and helping residents to buy medicine. Some projects are currently delayed, so we have more time to get engaged in community issues—and more importantly to support people.

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space