How will the coronavirus pandemic affect public space?

Porch - for FOPRN
During the pandemic and at other times, it’s possible to maintain “sociable distancing” — to control our level of exposure to others for a variety of reasons.

Its biggest impact may be in prompting a re-assessment of the way we think about public space and density, says Michael Mehaffy of the Centre for the Future of Places.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In a podcast at public radio station WPKN of Bridgeport, Connecticut, architect and author Duo Dickinson talks to Centre researcher Michael Mehaffy about lessons from the current pandemic.   The link to the podcast is here, and the transcript below has been lightly edited for readability. 

Duo Dickinson: Well, I guess we’re back on Home Page Radio. In the miracle of wired radio, we’re having Home Page Radio generate from five separate sites this month, and this is the fifth site we’re going to be connecting with.  Which is Michael Mehaffy – Michael, are you there?

MM: I’m here, hey Duo!

Duo: Good to talk to you. We had just been on the phone before with Steve Mouzon, who told us the plain and simple truth, that things like copper door knobs and multiple entries are the old lessons of safety in a pandemic world, that are lost on, perhaps – it was Governor Cuomo that said that density is our enemy. We also talked to Ann Sussman who talked about the fact that design is not necessarily from on high or from a big box, but the way we think about the world actually empowers us to rethink the way our world is when we are sequestered at home, sheltering in place.

Well, Michael Mehaffy is an author and educator, a researcher, designer, consultant, all over the world… A Senior Researcher at the Ax:son Johnson Foundation, the Centre for the Future of Places, and he’s also Executive Director of something called Sustasis, and Sustasis Press. And he’s also taught all over the place, but he’s really very well-known. And how I’m associated with him is working with Christopher Alexander, author of A Pattern Language, a very famous book, and other people that deal with design in a different way than I think is usually presented in the press or by public perception.  And in that way, Michael, I’m going to ask you a very interesting question.  We’re all living at home now, we’re all sort of separated and segregated intentionally from each other.  In your lifetime of looking at congregating people in a good way, tell us what we can learn from this forced separation.

MM: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting actually. I think in a way this is a “teachable moment,” because it really forces us to think about how we interact with other people, and how we do that through the places that we live. You know, by the way, I’ve seen a lot of people just anecdotally, or heard about a lot of people, coming out onto their porches and their stoops, and trying to visit with each other, in spite of the social isolation that’s required in this pandemic.  And creating a kind of, I would call it, “sociable distancing” – you know, where we are still in proximity to each other, and that’s very very important, to still have that human contact. And in fact the research is showing that that in itself is really an important component of resilience, and of the way that people survive these kinds of crises.  The sociologist Eric Klinenberg has written about that, about the need for “social solidarity.”

And so I think we’re beginning to really re-assess the way that we have been building over the last 50 years or so — you know, as Steve was talking about: the sort of single-family detached, often isolated home that’s not very well connected to the public realm, that’s very car-dependent and so on.  And what I’m afraid of, frankly, is that this will reinforce some of those tendencies, of, you know, exclusion and isolation and car dependency.  You know, people holing up in their houses, binge-watching TV and so on. And not recognizing that we have to have that other component too, that sociable interaction – “sociable distancing” I would call it.

And also that density, as Steve was alluding to, is not just one thing. It’s not just all hyper-density all the time, but many different forms of density, and many different ways that we can sort of dial in our own comfort, our own degree of interaction with people – whether it’s because of a pandemic, and we have to be a little bit further away from people, you know, or just the level of comfort that we have as individuals at different times of our lives. That we want to be jam-packed and, you know, elbow to elbow with people at one time, and maybe we want to be more secluded at other times. And the spaces of our houses and our buildings, if they’re designed well, they allow us to do that, they allow us to self-organize our relationships with one another. And in turn, self-organize the buildings, and the way the buildings evolve and change over time.

Duo: Well let’s take that one step further.  So, where are you calling us from – or where are we calling you, actually?

MM: Well, I’m actually in a little town called White Salmon, right around the corner from where my daughter lives, one of my daughters.  The other daughter lives in the next town over, and she has a big wraparound porch that’s a great space. I was just over there visiting them – on the porch, because, you know, we can’t get too close to each other! But we –

Duo: (Laughs) What state is that in?

MM: They’re actually on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge, and I’m on the Washington side. It’s a really beautiful area.

Duo: Wow. This is pretty exciting to me, to basically see an entirely different world through your eyes. What I’d like you to – you know, I know of your work – you’ve actually studied I think the way humans live together as well as anybody that I know of. And I’d like to you sort of – now that you’re forced to essentially detach yourself from other people as much as possible – could you let everybody listening to you, with all of your experience, tell us of any things you’ve learned in this last week or two, where you’ve been forced to be alone in your place.

MM: Well, I think it’s just reinforced to me the importance of this social solidarity, as Klinenberg refers to it. And “sociable distancing.”

You know, both of my daughters and I live in small towns, but they are very urban places, they’re walkable, they’re very well interconnected. And you know, as Steve was talking about with Barcelona, a city that has lots of spaces that interconnect with the public realm. Not just one big tall building where everybody is, you know, they come down and they’re suddenly in a very very high density environment, like might be the case in Manhattan, for example. I mean that’s one extreme of density, but the other – it’s not just two choices here, it’s not that versus holing up in your apartment alone.  In fact that, as Klinenberg showed us, is very very dangerous in a crisis, because people tend to die. They lack the social connections that help them to adapt and survive.  So we need all those different gradients of interconnection with each other, and we need them in our environments, in our built environments.

So you know, I think people tend to look down their noses, some architect friends of mine who are avant-garde designers, at the idea of porches, for example. Well that’s, you know, old-fashioned or something.  Well, no, it’s simply a form of evolution that’s very intelligent, and we need to start thinking that way.  And I think, get off this – Ann Sussman alluded to this a little bit too – get off of this sort of industrial art approach to human environments.  That we’re sort of costuming up with our avant-garde abstract art, these industrial products that are often quite toxic to human well-being. And we need to get back to the kind of thing that Steve Mouzon is thinking about, of a more natural, evolutionary way of thinking about human environments.  And why human environments are healthier for us, and easier for us to connect to one another – easier for us to make changes that make us more comfortable, so we are actually more willing to be sociable and interact.

So I think that – to me, this experience has been fascinating, and scary, and disturbing in many ways – but also inspiring in many ways. You know, when I heard about the people in Italy coming out onto their balconies and opening their windows and singing, and seeing people coming out onto their porches and stoops, and you know, having “sociable distancing” rather than just isolating themselves. And so I think we’re seeing in a way, first-hand, this kind of self-organization that happens, this kind of resilience that happens.  And we’re seeing it working really well in some places, and not so well in some places. And I think that’s a really interesting lesson right now.

Duo: So as you’re dealing with these macro issues of how people live, in terms of creating, for lack of a better word, walkable places – places which are not dependent on gigantic cars and gasoline, really places that are not, don’t even have sidewalks, the normal mid century American lifestyle. And you’re thinking about this reality, that humans should be closer together, that’s actually becoming now, I think, a general social consensus, humans should be denser. When you’re looking at the present situation, where density can be called toxic by the governor of New York, tell us – because this is a rare opportunity, now that you’ve had a chance to really self-separate, from a life of extreme social integration and intellectual thinking about what has happened – tell us what you think of the future of the world after this. Because this will change, I think, the way people think about the way they live.  And tell me what you think, how that will change.

MM: I hope so. Again, I think it’s a teachable moment – I hope it’s a teachable moment. Because we do have a moment of opportunity to rethink some of our assumptions. And one of them is that whole idea of density, as you said. People think of density as sort of being all one thing or all not one thing. It’s like either super crowded, you know, Manhattan streets or it’s nothing, it’s isolated behind your, you know, gated community and your car dependent neighborhood. No! There’s a whole tissue of relationships and kinds of urban spaces that can exist, and should exist, and does exist in many places, including the small town where I am right now. And I think it’s important for us to think polycentrically that way – that there’s big cities, there’s small towns, that everybody can have that kind of interconnected web of relationships in their neighborhoods and their towns.

And there’s international policy agreements that are really beginning to describe that in detail. There’s something called the New Urban Agenda, which was agreed to by all 193 countries of the United Nations – a lot of this language described in it. We’ve been involved in that for a number of years now. And there are other things going on – you mentioned Christopher Alexander, I think a lot of people are beginning to come back to his work. And we have a new book as I think you mentioned, A New Pattern Language for Growing Regions, which describes some of the work that’s going on in the New Urban Agenda, and the idea of walkability and sociability, and all these ideas that we’re beginning to in some cases discover, and in some cases rediscover. And I think it’s an exciting time in that sense.

Duo: Well, in these closing minutes, the one thing I’m really fascinated by is the fact that the zeitgeist of a month ago, the zeitgeist in, really, the world, of massive systems of connection, of massive ways of eating, of interacting, where people would essentially cook less and less at home, would be more outside of the home, would be completely engaged in stream behavior, now that the pandemic has forced us to snap a lot of that, and actually depend more on streams to connect rather than disconnect, and also to cook as opposed to order food, I would love to hear your analysis of – and if you don’t know him out there in radio land, Christopher Alexander, who has for fifty years, recreated the way architects should think about things in the world and how they design – tell us how the pattern language book that you’re dealing with now… tell us how the essentials of that relate to how people might look at their homes in this house-bound time.

MM: Well, I think you put it very well.  I think this moment, this crisis, is forcing us to recognize how non-resilient a lot of our systems are, how non-adaptive they are, and how vulnerable we are. And the antidote to that is to be more resilient, and that means more interconnections, more sort of polycentric approaches instead of the too-big-to-fail approach, which is obviously getting us into trouble. And the idea that we can have different levels of scale of things going on in our lives, that allow us to cope, and to interact, and to solve problems.

You know, that’s a whole other subject, what is resilience and how do we get it.  But I think this moment is really forcing us to think about that in a way that I think is a great opportunity, if we’ll use this crisis to, again as I said, as a teachable moment, to think about how we can make more resilient, more sustainable kinds of ways of living.

And I think Chris Alexander is one of the guidestars for that way of thinking, along with people like Jane Jacobs and a number of others. Again, people are beginning to come back to read these folks again, and recognize that what they’re saying has a whole lot to do with where we are right now in history with this pandemic. So again I think it’s a time to move forward with some innovations, but also to recognize some of the mistakes we’ve made with the, you know, novelty approach, and the abstract art approach, and begin to focus more on human beings, and human adaptation, and human environments.

Duo: Well it’s been great to have you on the show, Michael Mehaffy, and we really appreciate your time, and we’ll have you back again! So thank you very much.

MM: Delighted, Duo.

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