Public spaces have ceased to be public in the current scenario of the pandemic. The fear of coronavirus and the lockdown that has followed, has been keeping the public spaces absolutely deserted. Some of the zones which allow use of public space allow it only on the basis of the strict guidelines issued by the government. These guidelines direct people on how to act and behave in public spaces. Social distancing has been used as a critical measure to control the transmission of the virus affecting larger populations. While some countries are beginning to ease restrictions at public spaces, some, where there still seem to be chances of the virus spreading, continue to follow strict guidelines. It would be extremely challenging to state or analyse, at this particular point, how people would use (and behave in) public spaces after this pandemic. Even after the restrictions in public areas are outlawed in future, there could be a lingering fear in an individual’s subconscious mind of getting infected, hence reducing the usual tendency of people to go to a public space. The current social isolation and the expected lingering fear of infection in future may immensely threaten the mental well-being of the population at large. This imperatively calls for a solution. Are psychiatric and psychological consultations the only solution? Most likely not. May be a much more influential means to maintain positive mental health is; the design of public spaces with a focus on providing for mental well-being. Designing for mental well- being– could that be the new normal?
Public space design which falls under the purview of urban design has always been about bringing people together. People have been going to public spaces for the prime reason of socialising. In fact, it has been well established that social interaction promotes subjective well-being which further impacts the happiness levels of individuals. Unfortunately, in the current scenario of the pandemic, we have to drastically transform the relevance of public spaces by keeping ‘social distancing’ as the norm. This transformation questions the conventional urban design theories, and calls for innovative public space design which takes into account the pandemic and yet enhances the mental well- being of individuals.
‘Social distancing’ as the norm in public spaces alters the behaviour of any individual visiting that space. Thus, the city design and planning institutions may now include the comprehension of environment-behavior studies in their design process as a must. The interdisciplinary dialogue between urban design, mental health and environment-behaviour studies may be the only way to prosper in the current scenario. Gehl Architects headed by Jan Gehl, a practicing urban design consultant and professor of urban design at the School of Architecture in Copenhagen, Denmark puts this across as “We need to monitor what is happening right now and learn from the fundamental change of behaviours and mobility patterns, the environmental improvements and hard impact to local community businesses to improve the way we plan for sociability, health and well-being.”
Originally public spaces which also include streets, by means of natural surveillance, have also been providing for the much essential sense of security in a city. Jane Jacobs, the American- Canadian journalist, author and activist who influenced urban studies, wrote that in order for a street to be a safe place, “there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street.” She emphasized that people don’t watch a street because it is their duty, but because they are naturally drawn to the human interest and activity they find on a healthy street. However, the reduction in number of visits to a public space in the current scenario, might lead us to feeling tremendously insecure in a city.
Just as the streets, the relationship between the inside and the outside space has also been of extreme importance in the built environment. These times of the pandemic make this relationship even more relevant, where semi public-private spaces through balconies are proving critical for people’s only access to the outside. At a time when visiting public spaces poses a threat, these spaces give residents the opportunity to partially connect with neighbours and their community.
Another significant mental issue with regard to the current pandemic may be ‘Agoraphobia’. It is a type of anxiety disorder in which one fears of places and situations that might cause panic, may become rampant due to a constant fear of infection arising out of visits to public spaces. This may further lead to social isolation, negatively impacting the mental well-being of the people.
The solution lies in designing public spaces such that people feel safe and carry out their day-to-day activities without any mental stress. Undoubtedly, there is a pressing requirement of taking the design parameters for positive mental health into account while designing and planning. It may be advisable to add mental well- being/happiness/emotional well-being ratings into the assessment of every design. Mental health maps concerning built environment indicators should be generated so that better strategies and a well-being plan could be formulated to enhance the mental health of
the citizens. Involving all the relevant fields of expertise such as healthcare professionals, architects, urban designers, academicians, researchers and practitioners, in the design process, would give a holistic approach to achieve this comprehensive vision. The pandemic times talk about counsellors to combat anxiety; however, designing for mental well- being requires to be the new normal!
Tina Pujara is an assistant professor of architecture and urban design at IIT Roorkee, heading the research group ‘Happiness
Sayna Anand and Asesh Sarkar are researchers with the Research Group ‘Happiness by Design’ at IIT Roorkee.