Creative placemaking in a post-COVID world

Why community gathering spaces anchored by purposeful public art are more important now than ever

Rewind less than a year ago and terms such as “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” had yet to enter our daily lexicon. Who would have thought they’d soon represent a reality that has since changed the way we speak about the world around us?

In recent weeks, society has started to pick up a familiar pace following the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. And with this “new normal,” community-building has taken on a different perspective. Buildings, neighbourhoods and everything in-between are being looked at with fresh eyes – something more than just bricks and mortar, street lights and sidewalks, parks and public art.

Earlier this spring, researchers at the Bass Centre for Transformative Placemaking note that the economic, physical, social and civic structures of connected communities will lay the groundwork for resiliency and recovery. In a post-COVID world, physical spaces will double-down as community hubs – locations that have meaning, convey strength and act as a rallying place for its people.

In turn, creative placemaking has the potential to unite people and become the great stabilizer of this community experience, says Ryan Bessant, president of Heavy Industries.

“Developers and municipal leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to leverage creative placemaking features such as public art as a vital component of creating a stronger sense of community,” he says.

“People’s demands of their communities are going to change. Some people might never spend five days a week in an office tower ever again. And they won’t want to be quarantined to their house either. Instead, you’re going to see people spending more time in planned common spaces. Which means people’s needs from a community-perspective, in turn, are going to evolve.”

Richard White, a Calgary-based columnist behind the popular Everyday Tourist blog has been writing on urban development, including public art, for more than three decades. He agrees that people’s demands for purposeful uniqueness in the places they live, work and play within will continue to increase – a trend he argues actually already existed before COVID-19.

“When you look at how new communities, they build the greenspaces first. They build the dog park and the pathways and the lake first. That’s not changed,” he says.

“Yet there certainly is room for making better public spaces. And if people are not going as far afield, they are going to looking for what’s new in their communities. They are going to be looking for destinations.”

Bessant notes that in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of Heavy Industries’ clients questioned whether they should hit the brakes on their respective projects. Yet it didn’t take long for many to instead put their foot on the gas and see the opportunities past COVID-19.

“They saw the added importance of creating unique experiences for when things return to normal,” says Bessant. “They felt it was as relevant as ever to differentiate themselves and tell their story.”

“Ultimately, people want unique experiences – whether you’re living, visiting or working in that space. You could be a city wanting to talk about your space in order to attract more business or investment or travel, or a developer wanting to attract new homeowners.”

The key to navigating the current social environment and being prepared for the other side of this crisis is to approach traditional development models with feature spaces that demonstrate usability, distinctiveness and connectiveness with the surroundings, says Bessant.

“It’s not about packing up and going home. It’s also not about just grabbing the baton and running to the finish line. It’s about planning the proper approach to every development, every amenity space, every piece of public art so that, once we start racing, we’re confident that we’re heading in the right direction.

“At Heavy Industries, we’re purposeful in everything that we do. We ask the necessary questions from the outset to understand the intent, the challenges and, most important, the opportunities to make something that can help people connect with places. We can’t construct anything until we understand the story we’re looking to tell.”

Learn more about Heavy’s approach to building world-class art, architecture and placemaking. Connect with us to start the conversation.