What Happens to Cities When We Are Free to Roam?

Despite lockdowns and quarantines brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the question of how to shape public space has never felt more relevant.

A few dozen yards from Fort Point—the historic fortress tucked under the Golden Gate Bridge—lies a small and picturesque overlook. Designed by local studio Surfacedesign, the platform is a place for cyclists and passersby to stop and contemplate the bridge, the fort, and the hills of Marin County. The wooden handrail that bounds the platform is only five years old, yet looks scraped and weathered, home to hundreds of carvings and messages left behind by visitors. 

"Within a couple months of opening, it became this wild surface where just about every half an inch was covered with people's tags, notes, and so forth," says Roderick Wyllie, founding partner and principal at Surfacedesign. "But I'm fine with us building public spaces that are resilient and beat up, so long as they are still beautiful, sensual, and provocative" he says. 

Engravings at the handrail of Fort Point Overlook. 

Wyllie's position comes from a unique perspective on public spaces, influenced by his research and lectures on garden design around the world. "Gardens are often these places that are functionless," he says. "We're not designing a lab building or an office building or a home, but sensual, very locally rooted spaces where you can't do anything much except stand and ponder, or tell a secret, or maybe have a picnic." 

Interpreting public spaces through the lens of garden design provides a much more appealing vision for the public realm than the fast, digital, consumer-friendly solutions proposed by many architects and planners today. In our contemporary world, creating "hubs" of "multicultural expression" and "community building" has often signaled the coming of generic, gentrified retail corridors that don't meet the demands of all inhabitants of cities.

The Shed and Vessel at Hudson Yards, as seen from a luxury unit at the 35 Hudson Yards tower.

For many years now, the public realm has been shaped not in the image of gardens but of exploded malls. Like Hudson Yards in New York City—the most expensive real estate development in U.S. history—many recent urban renewal projects are full of LED signs, cold voids, ticketed experiences, rules, regulations, surveillance, and fabricated landmarks that double as photo booths. Surrounded by luxury housing, cafes, and coworking spaces, their singular purpose is to guide us towards work, home, or consumption. While this hamster-wheel might be integral for our contemporary idea of a city—and very Delirious New York—it has all but stopped spinning in the last few months. The anxiety of the rush hour commute has been replaced by an invisible and deadly agent.

"The issue is that you get out of your front door and it's like, boom, you have to move on, because you have to get somewhere," says Jerome Unterreiner, principal and senior urban designer at the architecture firm ZGF. "And hey, if you want to stop at a table and you're not patronizing a retail space, you're loitering, so you better move. Everything is going too fast, it's all about growth."

Unterreiner has been asking himself a question that would resonate with many of us today: Why does it feel so strange to walk outside our front doors? According to him, the answer might have nothing to do with navigating crowds and avoiding unclean surfaces in a pandemic, but with problems that predate the current crisis by decades. "Look at Detroit—we went from horses to horsepower in a matter of decades. The first centerline was drawn in Michigan in 1911. The first stop sign was installed in Detroit in 1915. Then the first automated traffic light in 1922. Pretty soon after, the streets were only for movement, and the pedestrian was the problem."

Unterreiner joined me in a Zoom call from Seattle, while his colleague and fellow principal at ZGF, Steven Lewis, dialed in from Los Angeles.

"By virtue of being sequestered, we have had to step outside of our front doors," said Lewis, who, for a time, served as design director for the City of Detroit. "We have discovered how much the outside world depends on single occupancy vehicles and moving to and from work. And now, since the death of George Floyd, the lens through which we, as Black folks, have looked at the country and society has been extended to many others." 

Steven Lewis poses by colorful markings on a street in Detroit, designed to slow down drivers, and make them conscious of their surroundings.

In order to resolve these barriers that stand between the indoors and outside realms, and between the different cultures that make up our cities, Unterreiner and Lewis advocate for a grassroots kind of architecture where communities are encouraged to take authorship of their public spaces, and where physical boundaries between outdoors and interior spaces are challenged through permeable barriers.

A conceptual streetscape model designed by Jerome Unterreiner offers wide sidewalks and pedestrian passages that bleed into buildings.

Cities should be built for lingering, where people can take time to socialize and explore their world without having to buy things or be seen as loiterers. Our public spaces should not be defined by barriers to access, and nobody should live in fear of surveillance. An abstract life made up of the three urban renewal categories—live, work, play—reduces society to an organized rat race where challenging norms, and contemplating systemic disparities, is impossible.

The Brooklyn Museum Entry Pavilion and Plaza designed by Ennead.

"What we have now is a world in which a lot of buildings are very memorable, but the space in between is somewhat residual," says Peter Schubert, design partner at Ennead Architects, the New York City-based studio behind the Brooklyn Museum's entry pavilion and radiating plaza.

Ennead's design created a green entryway for visitors that doubles as a public gathering place for neighborhood residents. It complements the rigid forms of the neoclassical museum, and allows its function to engender other functions. Neighbors talk, sunbathe, and run on the steps, and find an escape from the corporate and digital world that surrounds them.

One of the most eye-opening experiences of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has forced many of us to see what our cities and public spaces feel like without the constant need to commute to work and to buy things. For many, these functions have been digitally sublimated, and the city and its public spaces have become backdrops for repose and political action, not consumption.

This presents designers and communities with an opportunity to reassess their priorities in the public spaces they share. Should public infrastructure only serve the aims of traffic, production, and commerce? Does the new urbanist model—which borrows heavily from a Western European model, reflecting the tastes of a particular kind of urban, educated, and white middle class—reflect all of our needs?

A public beach at the Expedia headquarters planned by Surfacedesign.

"I don't want us to mimic European traditions that undermine and don't celebrate what is spectacular about the U.S.," says Wyllie, who claims to find as much inspiration for the design of vibrant public spaces in the beaches of Los Angeles as in model Northern European cities. "But we have to realize that there's an issue: We have inherited a gigantic infrastructure that is not so relevant anymore."

Without significant federal investment—the likes of which hasn't been seen since the last century—we can't expect our public spaces to be uniformly overhauled in a transformative moment. Any change is bound to be gradual and surgical, taking place in small interventions like in San Francisco, at the Fort Point Overlook.

The Fort Point Overlook extended the Golden Gate Bridge Plaza project, one of Surfacedesign’s collaborations with Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

There, the fort, the bridge, and the platform represent the ages and uses of the geographic promontory that juts out towards the bay: A military fortification, an Art-Deco thoroughfare, a landscaped vantage point for Instagram pictures. They are the product of different generations with different priorities, but now work together as a public landmark that embraces visitors and locals alike. It is a tightly-knit urban assemblage of ages and functions, a wild garden where the potential for difference and meaning is realized not by a marketing brochure, but in the tiny wood carvings on the platform's handrail.


Last Updated


Get the New Normal Newsletter

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it. Subscribe for the latest news, shelter-in-place guides, and glimpses into the community’s new normal.