COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

You Asked, We Answered: How Can Public Space Managers Help Fight COVID-19?

Mar 19, 2020
May 18, 2020

by Nate Storring & Katherine Peinhardt

Please note: Information in this article is based on the current status of the virus in the United States at the date of publication. For the most current information on the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), please consult ongoing updates from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It’s so easy to take public space for granted. It’s all around us, and we use it every day to commute, to do our errands, to meet friends, family, neighbors and strangers. But like so many things, we only really appreciate the full value of public space when it has been taken away from us.

As COVID-19 has spread across the world, and health agencies encourage “social distancing” as a means to limit contagion, it is like we are all taking part in some strange social experiment: What if all of a sudden, you couldn’t use almost any public space or public building? For two weeks? A month? Six months? 

San Francisco's Union Square sits empty this week. Photo by Bryan Meadows.

This experiment has led many observers to turn to philosophical questions, with New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman going as far as to wonder whether city life as we know it will survive. As he notes, pandemics are inherently “anti-urban,” and “undermine[s] our most basic ideas about community and, in particular, urban life.” The COVID-19 pandemic seems to prey on the interconnectedness of our world, and our cities (and their public spaces) are no exception. But as Alex Bozikovic points out, it’s worth recalling that some of the world’s first and most famous urban parks were imagined as “the lungs of the city,” and they may still serve that uplifting purpose—though in a much more quiet, solitary, and occasional way—as we all hunker down in our homes most of the time.

Yet amid these urgent questions, practical guidance for public space managers hasn’t always been clear or comprehensive. Although many public spaces have already seen a sharp decrease in foot traffic, elsewhere people have ignored the danger, continuing to congregate in bars, parks, and streets, leading to public yelling matches in Brooklyn and Parisians shaming these #irresponsables on social media. Retail sales are down, and biking is up. While grocery stores will remain open, public markets face the threat of closure, even though the lost business could crush local farmers and food systems at a time when global supply chains could be interrupted. What is a public space manager to do? 

To help placemakers navigate this difficult time, we pulled together the following seven strategies for public space managers that choose to keep their spaces open during the outbreak of COVID-19 to operate responsibly and support the health of their communities. 

1. Follow all recommendations from government agencies, and close when necessary.

Responses and policies will vary at the local level, but as stated by the National Recreation and Park Association, one common thread among public spaces across the country must be a sustained effort to connect to the wider COVID-19 response: “Park and recreation departments are considered an essential partner in the intergovernmental emergency response planning.” The CDC has a robust guide for community-based organizations, which provides details on everything from environmental cleaning and disinfection routines to best practices for keeping staff members healthy. It also provides a guide for event organizers, including strategies for those who find themselves struggling with decisions around how or whether to cancel events.

Because the COVID-19 virus can linger in the air and on surfaces for extended periods of time, public space managers should plan to increase the frequency and thoroughness of cleaning regimens in their spaces, particularly of high-touch surfaces like doors, handles, and furniture. Limiting the amount of furniture provided to users can also lighten the workload.

MTA New York City Transit staff disinfect a subway car in response to COVID-19. Photo by Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit.

For spaces that serve vulnerable populations (and most of them do, in one way or another) this also means canceling gatherings that involve ten or more people, and discouraging those that might pop up in an informal way. While this may feel like a difficult decision, the situation is not without hope: this type of limitation has already led to the type of creativity that is so often borne of difficult times. Neighborhoods in Italy are already going viral for their heart-warming moments of collective balcony singing, group exercise classes are being led from across courtyards in Spain, weddings in Israel go on at a distance, and neighbors (and retail stores!) are looking out for elderly and at-risk folks as they take on now-stressful tasks like grocery shopping.

At times, public space staff may even find it best to make decisions that go beyond the scope of national or state-level directives. Places like Seattle, Washington, and Montgomery County, Maryland, have made the tough but necessary choice to limit activities and close public facilities based on an evaluation of their unique local situation. Decisions must be sensitive to the public health context of a given community, and public space management decisions must prioritize the health of the many over the enjoyment of the few. 

2. Encourage all visitors to take responsibility for one another.

Public spaces that remain open for use are prime opportunities to educate users about the importance of social distancing and hygiene. Public space managers can start off by creating signage and helpful prevention information that encourages users to stay home when sick, wash their hands frequently and effectively, sneeze and cough into their elbow, avoid behaviors like public spitting, and most importantly, practice social distancing (limiting time outside of the home, and maintaining six to ten feet between themselves and other people when in public). If possible, managers can also provide hand-washing and hand-disinfecting materials in their space itself. Because some level of continued recreational use of spaces like trails and sidewalks is likely, providing these resources to ongoing visitors is of vital importance.

A social distancing sign at a park in Florida. Photo by Jordan Hopkins.

Public space managers can also keep an eye out for neighborhood support networks, both existing and newly created, that have mobilized to support vulnerable community members. These groups are increasingly popping up with offers of help via social media, offering to do grocery runs or pharmacy trips for older or differently abled residents. Public space managers can keep an ear to the ground for these types of groups, and reach out to provide space (as appropriate) or materials. Doing so can centralize these efforts—though not the people planning or benefiting from them!—and help improve neighborhood-level access to the types of supplies needed to get through a period of self-quarantine or illness.

3. Disperse peak usage throughout the day.

Public space managers should aim to reduce the number of people in their spaces at the usual peak times of day and week through design and communication. Encouraging the public to avoid peak times has already seen success in some cities. For example, the Mayor of New York City is discouraging non-essential trips on the city’s crowded subways, and perhaps partially as a result of these recommendations, bike commuting has risen in the month of March. Meanwhile, some cities like Bogotá, Colombia are expanding their network of temporary bike paths as an alternative to crowded buses. 

What makes a great place? To discourage unsafe use of public space, try applying some of these characteristics in reverse: Keep the space safe and accessible, but make it less comfortable, less sociable, and offer fewer things to do.

Public space managers can think of it as applying some of our characteristics of successful public spaces in reverse. Keep the space clean, safe, and accessible, but (for the time being) make it less comfortable to linger, less sociable, and offer fewer things to do. In particular, removing seating and other amenities that enable congregating and lingering can encourage visitors to practice social distancing—though be mindful of users who may need furniture, such as elderly people, people with disabilities, and people with nowhere else to go. These interventions are one of the clearest ways to discourage peak use, while allowing off-peak, short-term use, like walking and biking, when needed. 

4. Protect and advocate for people experiencing homelessness.

Regardless of housing status, many people depend on public spaces as providers of vital services or simply as places to spend their time. It is crucial to bear in mind the particular vulnerability of unhoused people to the virus, given close living quarters in many shelters coupled with the logistical difficulties of following personal recommendations from the CDC or WHO, such as frequent handwashing, when experiencing homelessness. Providing clean restroom facilities and/or appropriate cleaning products can help unhoused people to protect themselves.

Discouraging stigma is also more important than ever, and it is a crucial part of a compassionate approach to public space management during COVID-19. Public space staff are often among those who are most familiar with the challenges facing unhoused people—and are therefore among the best-equipped to connect with local efforts around safe and public health-minded provision of shelter space, and to advocate when more or different approaches are needed. 

5. Support local businesses by connecting them with resources.

Much like public spaces, local businesses are likely to see impacts on foot traffic, and may have already grappled with declining sales and the stressful decision to close up shop. Public spaces can link up with local businesses by sharing resources for small businesses, ranging from financial assistance programs to alternative marketing campaigns. We recommend visiting this COVID-19 resource page created by our partners at Main Street America to help main street managers work with their local businesses. 

A tip sheet from Main Street America on how to #SupportLocalSafely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

6. Take care of your staff and contractors.

Besides providing training around new or increased practices like disinfection, it is important to make sure to keep staff and contractors in the loop on all response strategies to ensure consistent implementation and help communicate the urgency of COVID-19 prevention.

Public spaces should also consider closing down regular operations outright, not only for users of the space but also in the interest of employee well-being. Every day a public space remains open is another day that staff and users may be exposed to other people. If closure seems like the best option, however, part-time, seasonal and contractual workers will likely be most impacted by loss of pay, and some workers may also face a lack of employer health insurance and other benefits, according to the National Recreation and Park Association. Making sure that employees continue to be compensated fairly during the closure of a space can make a world of difference during times of stress.

If a space is to remain open, employers should plan for absences due to COVID-19, and implement fair practices around work-from-home policies, sick leave, and time off for childcare or caring for sick family members. Additionally, public space managers can work to limit face-to-face interactions among staff, and use digital tools to keep a space up and running, when possible.

7. Hang in there.

As with anything else, it is hard to know what will come next for our beloved parks, plazas, markets, and main streets. But like with any other global challenge, public spaces can be a part of our response: whether by closing down to limit the spread of the virus, or by implementing inclusive and health-minded practices in the best interests of staff and visitors, alike. Don't forget that as placemakers, we have skills in observation, community engagement, and responsiveness that still have value in this new context.

Every public space faces the COVID-19 virus in a different context, and our responses will be as varied as our public spaces themselves. But one thing we all have in common is the driving motivation to support one another as best we can.

Do you have public space questions you want answered? Do you have a story or strategy you want to share with your fellow placemakers? Let us know at

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space