On this last day of Landscape Architecture Month in the year 2020, we are continuing to respond to the challenges of extended stay at home directives. We are also trying to imagine what a return to “normalcy” will look like in our households, neighborhoods, public spaces and larger communities.
We, as landscape architects and designers, are looking beyond our own backyards to further consider how shared outdoor spaces will function. We long for our accustomed physical and social connections; yet it remains difficult to grasp the large and small steps to regain what suddenly has gone missing. Will these spaces be more profoundly valued as social sanctuaries and essential to peoples’ lives?This experience of imagining adaptations to life beyond the mandates of COVID-19 reminds me of the difficult reckoning with our shock and vulnerabilities after the 911 attacks in 2001. The threat was different, but the feeling of fear was impactful. I recall how the opening of the newly christened Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade was transformed into a sacred space for those who gathered. Rather than the planned gala celebration of the Eastbank, city staff and event sponsors came together to organize the Illuminata, a nighttime candle-light vigil. It was held in solidarity with the many people across the nation who were deeply affected by the crisis. A procession formed a continuous ribbon of humans and light along the east and west banks. The ribbon spanned across two bridges of the Willamette River. Its mirrored procession was reflected on the surface of the river. Public participation in the Illuminata was far greater than we ever expected. I still think about the impact, peace and beauty of coming together in that moment: a powerful, emotional, shared experience that was all about hope. For many of us, we were able to move forward, in part, from that point.
Now, as we stay home, our expressions of hope and solidarity are experienced very differently. We realize it’s unrealistic to think that any single point in time will acknowledge the end of a world pandemic. Unlike declaring an end to a war, there will be no exact moment that helps us attain closure. How will we gain a post-pandemic perspective, given the effects of the human tragedy and disruption that we are currently experiencing? Collectively and individually, we will all remain profoundly shaped by this experience.
Over time, we will resume family and friend gatherings, sports, festivals, farmers markets, parades and concerts, the “normal” activities in the spaces that we once took for granted. It is my hope that we reflect upon and recognize the value of our shared spaces. Will they, in an entirely new way, begin to feel sacred?
World Landscape Architecture Month is an international celebration in April showcasing the ways that life grows in the spaces landscape architects create.
In the face of this unprecedented novel coronavirus crisis, we all pause for personal reflection. As designers of the built environment, we are also considering the perplexing social distancing adaptations that require a rationing of physical space. We’re all being asked to analyze the potential consequences of our individual actions at a microscale. We’re also thinking at a macroscale of effects across the country and globe, which is difficult to fathom.
We witness many people turning to parks and open spaces for solace, mental health and nature, as well as exercise routines and recreation. Increasingly, we grasp the value of friendly, walkable neighborhoods and flexible open spaces—places where we can spend time outdoors with our kids, family members and neighbors (at an appropriate distance) during these times of crisis.
We crave optimism and are looking for ways to restore our bodies and souls. We recognize that our connection to nature, sunlight and fresh air is essential to our being. The appropriate levels of engagement and respectful use of outdoor spaces are key. And the need for increased resources deployed to the underserved parts of our community is further underscored—now more apparent than ever.
In walking to a number of neighborhood parks here in Portland throughout the last month, we see diverse people from all walks of life savoring the spring air: couples, elders, multi-generational families, parents with strollers, teens, tweens and solo dog walkers. We study how they consciously populate shared outdoor spaces and (for the most part) demonstrate concern for others. People who pass on walkways and in streets often acknowledge one another in ways we rarely see in urban environments. We nod to porch sitters. Our basic human desire to connect, even with strangers, seems as strong as ever before.
The need for collective awareness and respect for each other is heightened at this time. It’s an opportunity to remind ourselves of the importance of our investment in our parks, access to nature and the public realm. As landscape architects, designers and planners, we must use this time to deepen our understanding of the intrinsic value of parks, walkable streets and public spaces where everyone can feel a sense of belonging. We must redouble our efforts to create spaces that promote the values of equity and inclusion throughout the region. Everyone deserves access to these shared assets that help to define a healed, healthy and re-connected community.
With final design complete, the much anticipated Creston Park playground and pathways project is breaking ground for construction. This beloved park in SE Portland will get upgraded play equipment that is accessible and inclusive, bright and cheerful, and carefully nestled between the existing stand of Douglas firs. New accessible pathways will connect to the playground from the parking lot and Francis Street. We’re looking forward to seeing the neighborhood kids swing, jump, hang, imagine, climb, spin, create and play to their heart’s desire.