Enchanting the Post-COVID City

On shared spaces and collective experiences

Article image

What can we dream for the future of getting together again? Can we still find enchantment in our experience of the city? When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, doomsday scenarios circulated extensively about our future; urban life changed drastically, orchestrated so that you don’t have to see your neighbor, and everything was to be touchless. But perspectives quickly shifted back towards enabling—and celebrating—shared physical spaces. The opportunity is ripe to reimagine our urban public spaces so they can contribute both to our collective well-being and our increasing need for flexible, resilient infrastructure.

Finding opportunity in constraints

 For healthy societies to thrive, strangers need, as American political philosopher Michael Sandel said, “to literally bump up against one another in the ordinary course of life.” The informal connections that follow are key to ensuring a sense of community and care for each other, familiar and unfamiliar faces alike.

With this in mind, safety measures hold opportunities to enable transformative collective experiences. Physical distancing gives way to new choreographies that change the negative space between us into something playful, positive even. If bodies need to stay physically apart, time becomes a factor that can unite them: by doing something at the same time in different spaces or being in the same space at different times. When designing for touchless interaction or distancing, we can choose to design beyond touch or beyond proximity, making public life more sensory, more agile, more connected. Away from policies of control, this shift in perspective defines healthy, accessible and equitable public spaces.

Swings in public space (Montreal).
21 Swings, Montreal, 2011, Daily tous les jours. Photo © Olivier Blouin

Reimagining smart

Urban infrastructure as a whole is reimagined with the human experience, and scale, at its core. Today, we have the technological capacity to engineer beyond the functional to serve the experiential as well. The same smart technologies that are used to optimize urban processes can support spontaneous surprises. They can bring to life enchanting experiences and help connect people with each other in the physical world. The magic of coming together, of sharing improbable encounters, generates surprise and delight. Using the best high-tech tools of our times, the city imagined around people coming together and collaborating can inspire a sense of possibility for a better tomorrow. Right now, our urban environment is getting better at managing resources and data, but a successful city is not just a set of optimized processes. It should also enable the happy things to happen, the things that connect us on a higher level and make us care for one another, ultimately leading to stronger, more resilient communities.

An installation in public space (Houston).
Hello Trees, Houston, Touring installation since 2017. Daily tous les jours. Photo © Morris Malakoff

Enchanting the walk

A lot of urban policy makers are learning from the pandemic by applying more livable design strategies to our streets—and one of the most visible examples of this has been the shift towards increasing walkability. As Enrique Peñalosa, Bogota’s ex-mayor in Colombia, said, “Human beings are walking animals, and we walk not to survive but to be happy.” Beyond safety and health, walking is one thing we do on the streets that can ignite our sense of freedom. Walking makes us happy. What about dancing?

Dancing has the power to change our relationship with our own body by helping us have a more positive view towards others and ourselves. In an article for the New York Times, Gia Kourlas wrote, “Your partner is a stranger, and the sidewalk is a stage … social distancing isn’t just about honoring space; it’s also about celebrating it.” When imagined with enchantment in mind, even in a pandemic, urban routines can become cherished rituals that spark joy in our lives. Dancing in the street almost becomes a political act, an act of resistance.

So, is this the end of public life?

It actually feels like the best time ever. The best time to make the city everything it should be. More green, more inclusive, more just, more resilient, and yes, more dancy. If anything, the current crisis proves that we need more collaboration between strangers to have healthy cities, and that public life can help shape these connections. The crisis proves that together, we are powerful. And that we need joy. Joy allows us to connect more easily with our neighbors, building trust. Trust builds strong communities. And strong communities can do anything.

 

This article was written in collaboration with Cecile Chandran, Rebecca Taylor, Michael Baker, and the rest of Daily tous les jours.

 

Main image: Walk Walk Dance, Montreal, 2020, Daily tous les jours. Photo © Victorine Senthilles-Thot

 

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