It is evident, and necessary, that this pandemic serves as an opportunity to re-evaluate our cities for the future. How should they be designed and planned to better meet the needs of all citizens? There have been many new ideas and creative juices flowing over the last few weeks and months as we put to the test our theories and strategies about the city. The number of meanwhile (temporary) uses across cities has multiplied beyond recognition as they adapt and mobilise to respond to citizen’s needs in the wake of an urban crisis; a global pandemic from which we need to learn, to plan and to implement differently.
As COVID-19’s impacts on public life become more evident, so does the presence of meanwhile uses, and their ability to fill vacant spaces and repurpose land uses. They have delivered rapid practical and adaptive responses, reflecting changed priorities regarding urban infrastructure and social demands. Meanwhile is evident both in preparation for how we were going to tackle the crisis (such as the Nightingale Hospital in London) and in our current and emerging responses; from reinventing uses such as turning hotels into temporary housing, to retrofitting our public spaces so they are safe and support social activity in these testing times (such as new cycle paths in Milan, tactile street art in Auckland, and creating one-way pedestrian movement in Cardiff to ensure the city centre operates within a safe environment).
The practice of deploying meanwhile uses, however, is not new. The history of such uses in response to crises is well documented and before the pandemic more and more meanwhile uses were being implemented to address the rapidly changing urban fabric of cities worldwide. I therefore question whether meanwhile uses have an ever more important role to play in planning for a more sustainable and resilient future?
I believe a deeper look at the reasons behind the emergence of meanwhile practices in the built environment reveals a bigger picture, one whereby its increasing emergence provokes new and more radical approaches to planning. Within a Covid-19 context, it is evident the rapid implementation of meanwhile uses is challenging taken-for-granted assumptions about how planning addresses global trends and urban issues in the immediate, medium and longer-term. As the pandemic enters its recovery phase and we begin to look to the future, we need to question what we can learn and what opportunities arise from this practice as individuals, academics and urban practitioners alike rethink the debate on the use and concept of space in cities. Whilst meanwhile uses can comprise of relatively small and transient interventions, they are evidently not inconsequential in the larger scale of the city or its long-term vision. Their ability to test and trial uses and spaces within a rapidly changing Covid-19 context allows even greater agility through a triage response, for example, temporary road closures are happening much faster than we’ve ever seen before. As cities and our urban social networks become more heterogeneous, fragmented and exposed to increasingly stronger and less predictable global processes and risks there is a critical need to rethink the planning status-quo.
Meanwhile space opens new doors to visualising, understanding, engaging and developing the urban fabric and its social networks, asserting social and use value over exchange value, and questioning whether the positive feedback loop acknowledged in these cases may play a role in enhancing civic pride, driving economic growth and delivering more inclusive and sustainable development. Whilst planning for the permanent remains a crucial component to urban strategic development, we also need to recognise and respond to the short and intermediate term needs of the city, its uses and its people, and how these feed into a longer-term vision.
It appears within a more globally connected and mutually responsible world it is activation that is required and demanded; it is about doing something rather than doing nothing. However, while the key drivers of meanwhile may be its ability to quickly respond, to adapt and innovate at a marginally low cost and address immediate need, critically, it is the longer-term outcomes and benefits associated with meanwhile that are fundamental in the fight for inclusive and resilient planning.
It is important that we don’t give into the seductions of meanwhile uses, but rather use its transitional abilities to seek opportunities for longer term transformation. For example, building inclusive communities, enhancing social capital through local skills development and training and greening the city by improving environmental outputs to advance health and wellbeing. Monitoring and evaluation of meanwhile against agreed outcomes and KPIs is key to being able to evaluate success and provide the evidence base for translation from meanwhile to long term interventions. There must be recognition that if we’re going to implement meanwhile uses, we must do so appropriately, responding to a current need but also making sure we look to deliver a longer-term goal and ensure that the actions we take now reflect the city of tomorrow. Meanwhile should not just be about filling a void; it should be about improving it, providing a sustainable narrative for a better future.
Cardiff City Centre Recovery Strategy (Arup) – Arup is supporting Cardiff city centre plan for its reopening. The firm is developing a strategy that addresses both the immediate challenges around reopening the city centre and the longer-term opportunities to improve public space in the city as we move out of lockdown. This includes deploying meanwhile uses.