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August 3, 2020

Exploring the Lasting Imprint of Our Pandemic Places

A few weeks ago the Lowney Architecture team gathered to quickly sketch and discuss our “pandemic places.” This was, in part, a design-thinking exercise led by the Landscape Architecture Studio, meant to explore how several months of working from home had caused our perceptions of “space” to evolve.

The prompt — purposefully vague — was simply to close our eyes and visualize our pandemic place, followed by a quick sketch to share with the team for discussion. For some, this resulted in literal depictions of their day-to-day work space. Others took a more escapist path, providing vignettes of their “happy place,” both in real life, and in some instances hypothetical.

It was interesting to bring our changing feelings towards indoor and outdoor space to the surface. Many of us are feeling cooped up in our tiny Bay Area homes, longing for the freedoms of nature, now “off-limits” or restricted in many ways. Others are feeling anxious about time spent outside, now that something as mundane as an evening walk has taken on new meaning as irresponsible, or even dangerous behavior.

A prominent educator in landscape architecture, and pioneer in the social issues of housing, open space design, and healing landscapes, Claire Cooper Marcus often theorized about impactful moments throughout a person’s life. As a research associate with UC Berkeley’s Institute of Urban and Regional Development, she explored how these moments, particularly formative experiences in childhood, are often linked to outdoor spaces. During times of both joy and trauma, deep imprints are made that last throughout our entire lives, shaping our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

For many of us, the global recession due to the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. We are learning lessons in resilience and developing behaviors framed not just in self-preservation, but in morale, and even patriotism. Many are drawing comparisons between our collective behaviors and those seen in individuals who lived through the Great Depression.

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As individuals trying to cope with the strange and scary circumstances of our daily lives, it can be challenging to even think about scenarios “on the other side” of this pandemic. When will that be? What does that even look like? But as design professionals who are responsible for leading the charge on the safest and best uses of public space, we must. Is there such a thing as being overcautious in design? In landscape architecture, we already place great  focus on designing for climate resiliency, and plan for things like  the 100-year flood. How about designing for the 100-year pandemic?

While that may seem extreme in some ways, particularly with a vaccine in the works and absolutely no way to predict how the next pandemic-level virus will behave, designers frequently plan for worst case scenarios. In fact, mitigating those scenarios is the very thing that steers building codes and safety regulations.

Simultaneous to this pandemic, we are experiencing political unrest in Oakland and throughout the rest of the country due to the Black Lives Matter movement. While the two are seemingly unrelated issues, there is parity in the role of collective public opinion. Throughout history, and today, we’ve seen how critical mass must be reached in order to sway action. We ask ourselves what it takes to make people truly care about something? Do you have to see it with your own eyes, or personally feel its impact on your life?

In the team discussion, we further mused on how simple activities like going to the park or the grocery store have become politicized. We questioned which of our own latent personality traits have been brought to the surface because of this — and how we’ve grappled with the associated optics of each. Are we freedom-seeking nonconformists who want to break the rules, or are we altruistic acolytes, seeking order and control? What message does our behavior in this time and space send to our friends, family, or colleagues? How do our actions affect our community?

When reviewing our sketches, it was easy to correlate these thoughts and feelings with the illustrations that manifested from the “pandemic places” exercise, particularly for those individuals who conjured outdoor settings. We saw spaces in nature ranging from peaceful and serene, to wild and unkempt, to manicured and tidy.

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For outdoor enthusiasts, the detrimental impact of COVID-19 on their favorite green spaces has been sudden and obvious. With parks and trails totally overrun by individuals seeking to regain their freedoms and get some fresh air, safe social distancing has become a challenge. Not only are restroom and waste facilities being neglected as maintenance staff struggles to keep up with the ballooning number of visitors, but the abuse of public space seems to be on the rise in many locations.

Something to pay close attention to in the short- and long-term is how this pandemic impacts our economy, and how cities and municipalities choose to respond as a result. Now, more than ever, people need access to recreational green space — yet we increasingly see defunding of parks departments, resulting in things such as scaling back of maintenance staff, and closed facilities. We’ve also seen firsthand that green, open space, staffing, and maintenance are typically among the first things to be cut from a project’s budget.

In addition to their “Slow Streets” program which supports essential physical activity by creating more space for social distancing, the City of Oakland has asked visitors to Lake Merritt to “give the lake a break” (still unmandated, at time of publishing). With new cases of COVID-19 soaring in Alameda County, linked in part to gatherings at the lake, City officials have highlighted unsafe conditions in urging residents to choose a different location for their recreational activity.

As a firm with many landscape architecture, multi-family housing, and master planning projects in our portfolio, part of our job has always been to advocate for public and private outdoor space. Based on our own personal experiences with the current pandemic, there’s perhaps a renewed sense of urgency or focus on thoughtful and responsible access to that space. It’s important that our learnings and legacy span beyond an urge to hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but instead shape trends throughout the industry, and generate conversations that help improve the quality of life for our neighbors. We have the responsibility — and the honor — of being a catalyst for change.


As Director of the Landscape Architecture Studio, Jennifer Ivannovich brings more than 20 years of experience in the design and development of contemporary spaces to Lowney Architecture. Her expertise fuses landscape architecture, ecology, graphic design, and product design. She has been involved in a range of projects throughout her career including art installations, residential and commercial landscapes, and restaurant designs. Influenced by the natural environment and response to user needs, she seeks to create spaces of longevity that reinforce the important connection between people and their environment.

To evaluate solutions for an existing property, or to discuss landscape architecture plans for your next project, contact Jennifer at moc.h1603599490craye1603599490nwol@1603599490refin1603599490nej1603599490, or reach another member of the Lowney Architecture team at 510-836-5400.

 

 

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