15 JUN 2020


Covid-19 is still a very real threat which will continue to impact every life for the foreseeable future and we need a long-term plan to embed social distancing in our cities, says Neil Manthorpe.

Life is beginning to return to our streets and public places. We are able to meet with friends and loved ones. Shops, businesses and schools are reopening. Yet Covid-19 is still a very real threat which will continue to impact every life for the foreseeable future, shaping the way we develop public places across our towns, cities and communities. 

In May the government issued its “Safer Public Places: Urban centres and green spaces” guidance to support the safe reopening of local urban centres, including high streets, transport hubs, offices and parks, and made emergency funding available to local authorities and landowners.

As can be expected, the push to get local economies moving again has been swift, with interventions quickly implemented to support the transition from lockdown to something resembling normality. 

However, many of the measures taken are temporary in their appearance, condition and durability – they’re not suited to complex urban environments with a diverse range of users. 

As we look to reopen and recover, a more integrated public realm response is required. Greater value must be delivered from the proposals we are developing – we cannot simply adopt one method of resolving the complex issues of overcrowding and social distancing within constrained urban environments. 

A strategic response plan covering all components of our urban centres needs to be considered, offering better quality, more permanent and integrated physical adaptations which are sensitive to the areas in which they’re located. 

Footway widening, removing street clutter and pedestrianisation of our streets can all help in reducing congestion and conflict, but rather than just introducing lines of cones, spray paint, hazard tape and crash barriers, new kerbs lines and wider footways should be considered.

As well as the provision of more pedestrian space, wider management of movement, use and encouragement of active travel will be required. Traffic speeds should be slowed and vehicle access restricted. There are wider air quality and safety targets that can also be reached through the management of traffic.

Opening times of shops, offices and public buildings can be phased to assist in travel demand management and reduce peak time conflicts. Information and signage can be integrated within the public realm on shop fronts and lamp columns to free up more space. Many larger stores are providing stewards to help manage queues, another approach is to use town centre wardens to support all shops, businesses and customers. 

There is also an important consideration around the use of digital data to inform the decisions being taken and digital tools to inform how people interact with their public places. The use of data can help focus resources where they are needed most within our urban centres. Digital tools and apps can be used to inform and influence to help alleviate on street issues of overcrowding.

Through an integrated response there is an opportunity to reimagine the future of our urban centres. With more space and priority being given to pedestrians and greater provision for active travel, placemaking can and should form the focus of our recovery. 

There is of course a temptation to stick with the temporary measures and make do with what we have. As designers, as supporters of business and advocates of integrated places we have a responsibility to reimagine our future for the benefit of all.

Neil Manthorpe is associate director of landscape and urban design at Atkins.


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