Austrian firm Studio Precht has published a proposal for ‘Parc de la Distance’: a maze-like public green space designed with social distancing measures in mind. Offering a new way for “being alone in public,” the park’s numerous walkways are arranged in a swirl pattern separated by tall hedges. Each route has a gateway on the entrance and exit, which indicates if the path is occupied or free to stroll.

Viewed from above, the park resembles a colossal green fingerprint. This reference to human touch reflects another, less sterile aspect of the designer’s intent. Studio co-founder Christ Precht explains that although the park uses physical distance as a design guideline, solitude here is not about deprivation of the senses. 

Instead, like a Japanese Zen-garden, here it is also about offering a space for contemplation and escape. “Although people are visually separated most of the time, they might hear footsteps on the pebbles from the neighboring paths,” he said in a press release. “Sometimes visitors are fully immersed by nature, other times they emerge over the hedge and can see across the garden.”

ALONE IN PUBLIC

Though the park is a proposal for Vienna, Precht believes the concept could benefit city-dwellers in other parts of the world, even after the pandemic is over. As we enter yet another month of our common quarantine, what is certain is that speculative designs like these ask interesting questions about the future of our urban spaces. 

On the one hand, COVID has put into question the way our lives are designed for density and proximity. On the other, as the closure of public parks and beaches take effect, we are reminded of the value of well-designed, communal outdoor spaces, and how the built environment can affect our physical and mental health. 

Thus far, other projects in this field remain focused on the short-term, and as such favor the approach of dispersion. In Rotterdam for example, Dutch studio Shift Architecture Urbanism has published a model for ‘Hyperlocal Micromarkets’, a spatial design for a fresh produce market that uses a 16 square grid to guide customers into keeping a safe physical distance at all times. 

Similarly, on the individual scale of things, there is a trend for using technology to help people navigate city streets at a figurative and literal arm’s length. Sidewalk Widths NYC is a new interactive map that indicates which New York City streets are wide enough for pedestrians to practice social distancing. Routes deemed ‘too narrow’ are indicated in orange and red. 

At the moment, these responses are still intended as temporary. But the pandemic will probably not leave us the way it came — suddenly and seemingly without warning. Our values will shift. The way we work, walk, play, and seek escape will adjust. So as we approach a ‘new normal’, this is a question facing architects and city planners everywhere: when should we design in favor of social distancing, and when do we choose to foster better (smarter?) social connection? Can we do both? 

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