By David Todd McCarty and Mike Rollison
Mike Rollison is a Partner at Torti Gallas + Partners, an award-winning international planning and design firm, where he leads the Retail and Placemaking Studio across multiple offices. His career has focused on the planning and design of placemaking environments for clients throughout the United States and abroad, dedicated to creating meaningful and authentic mixed-use destinations.
David Todd McCarty is a Partner at Panzano + Partners, a New Jersey-based branding firm that specializes in branding real estate developments across the globe. From luxury retail and resorts, to multi-use developments and experiential destinations, Panzano creates a sense of place through strategic, data-driven marketing. With a background in branding and storytelling, David oversees all aspects of creative development for the agency.
ross human history, crisis has always presented opportunities for innovation and will always be fertile ground for those fearless enough to look past the obvious obstacles at hand. We are now in flux, as they say. A period of dramatic shifts that are taking place within both social consciousness and human behavior. We don’t yet know what will become the new norm, and what will fade away—a momentary anomaly from a chaotic time. While in the midst of this, we look for patterns; trends that help us to determine what has the legs of a foundation for the future and what is merely transitory.
These real hardships, be they related to health and wellness, employment, financial, or otherwise, now represent the new challenges we face as a society, at least in the short-term. No one can give a realistic answer to the question, “How long will this last?” Because no one knows. However, as design professionals we feel compelled to respond fearlessly with creativity and innovation to this pandemic—a response we feel is not only warranted for the needs of our clients, but critical to society as a whole.
In our business, we deal with the human experience. At the moment, we have been forced to make cultural and physical adjustments for sheer survival, ones that have driven us into isolation and made us wary of human contact. So, as we are contemplating a move towards recovery, we must ask ourselves, how do we regain a sense of human interaction without sacrificing health and safety? How do we engage as a society if we are not able to operate as a community? How do we communicate with consumers that are frightened to leave their homes?
Technology has an important role to fill, but we tend to view our needs through the framework of human experience as opposed to mere functionality, cost or effectiveness. How does it make our lives better is a question we ask; not how does it work? What problem does it solve, not how it was made? We are looking for richer experiences, not simply greater efficiency.
So, what will life look like moving forward? How will technology solve our immediate needs and how will creativity and innovation inspire us to greater success? By embracing technology but making it work for us, not the other way around. We need technological innovations that mimic human behavior. We need things to be a little messy. We don’t do well with too much perfection. It’s why we still have human umpires and don’t let computers make art. We will embrace new technology that aids our ability to move through the world as seamlessly as possible, that allows us to operate unhindered by the environmental necessities that health and safety require. The best technology often isn’t flashy, it’s invisible.
“I have talked to some folks who have the ability to print things on surfaces that have a coating applied to it to prevent you from contracting COVID,” says Paul S. Weinschenk, President of Retail for Peterson Companies. “There will be some people who have a way to figure it out.”
Our goal should be to create environments that inspire us to move freely, while keeping us safe and secure. Integration is the key to this. We need fewer barriers and more portals.
As planners and designers of public spaces within our cities and their communities, we feel there is great opportunity to not only learn from the pandemic, but to create innovative solutions for both existing and future placemaking environments. We are unfortunately all too aware of where the difficulties lie in moving towards some sense of normalcy; the obstacles in our path to recovery. But we have to begin to have the conversation that allows us to talk through our need for flexibility and human experiences in the face of enormous change. This takes creative thinking, what some call an out-of-the-box mentality, and it requires abstract thought. The path to innovation is almost never direct, rather it requires an ambiguous path and often enters our consciousness from a direction we least expected.
When it comes to innovation, half the battle is not focusing too closely on the problem. More often than not, the solution is in our periphery because if we are too focused, we will miss the magic. This is why creative people are bound to discover new ideas because they are more open to seeing possibilities in failure. Failure is not our enemy, it is merely another view point from which to determine a better outcome.
When it comes to discovering spaces that captivate and inspire, we are looking to be surprised but not shocked, comforted but not bored. We want to be enthralled without being overwhelmed. When you add an aura of uncertainty that is, in our current state, being translated as danger, we must add an element of flexibility to adapt to changing modes of behavior. Looking at a variety of possible outcomes and creating an environment that overlaps the core strengths of those alternatives is how you create a space that will work over time. There is not one mode of behavior that will last over time, especially when you are experiencing tumultuous change. Our job is to find the center of the Venn diagram and set up shop. It is from there that we can communicate effectively with our customers and reassure them and prepare them for what is to come.
“I have learned how flexible the human spirit can be,” says Evan Goldman, Exec VP of Acquisition and Development at EYA, LLC . “We will see the explosion of daytime populations in our neighborhoods as a result of working from home. Places of gathering and social activities will come back with abandon. Retail and hospitality are the most creative uses in our industry – they will figure out a way to come back. It will be interesting to see if people will come up with new material science solutions for things that we touch – public art, doorknobs, benches, and swing sets. I believe that social distancing will be a 12-18 month phenomenon, with a positive side effect towards a pushback on being cramped.”
A New Reality
As we navigate this new reality, there is going to be a constant battle to balance our digital and analog worlds. To look to technology to help us, but also to never abandon human interaction and sensory stimulus. We might find ourselves more isolated in certain aspects of our day, but this will need to be tempered by greater immersion in the natural world. Reality-based programming will be critical to our mental health as our reliance on digital communication grows.
There will be real, practical changes that will help us bridge this divide. Contactless delivery of online orders and touchless transactions. Remote offices and distance learning. Telehealth care and virtual entertainment. Upgraded technical infrastructure combined with more accessible green spaces. We will see greater digital readiness in many aspects of society, that will enable us to more quickly avoid future public health crises, and more in-depth virtualization of everything from entertainment to fitness to medicine.
“I have begun to better understand unpredictability,” says Patrick Cox, Managing Director & Chief Development Officer for ValueRock Realty Partners. “From a business, a planning and from a personal space standpoint, forward planning is a great opportunity to show commitment to investment in jurisdictions, counties and states.”
The thirst for experiences that we are collectively feeling may be quenched slowly at first, as the drip…drip…drip of regaining confidence, slowly drawing us out of our homes. What will our favorite places look like when they reopen beyond the safety of our homes? How will we interact within them? What will be open? Will we be ready?
The Need for Shared Experiences
“Man is by nature a social animal,” claimed Aristotle. He went on to say that anyone who did not partake of “common society” whether because they were unable or were without need, was either a beast or a god.
Human beings are social creatures and are hardwired to seek solace in human interaction and community. One of the hallmarks of that intimacy is touch. Social isolation isn’t just contrary to our nature, it is explicitly harmful to not only our mental, but to our physical health as well.
From gathering around the campfire in order to hear stories told well, to the public house to learn of the news of the day, to the corner store or the post office, we come together as a society in a variety of ways. We crave human contact and revel in shared experiences. Human nature isn’t going to change that easily, but the theater in which we share those experiences might.
The last several years had seen a surge in the “experience-based” platforms across many industries and many places we frequent. From culinary experiences in chef-driven restaurants to programmed events like movie nights and concerts in our favorite places, to the personalization of experience through the brands we touch each day, these experiences are often at the core of our lifestyles and define how we spend our time and money. In this moment we are all thirsting for experiences that until a few months ago we took for granted.
“Our society is an active and curious society that wants to congregate and socialize,” says Patrick Cox. “Our public spaces need to be reflective of that and COVID should not compromise these basic necessities. The Spanish Flu was followed by the roaring 20’s after all.”
The nature of our experiences and how we share them will need to adapt to service our need for health and safety, and creativity and innovation are going to lead us there. Solutions will not rely wholly on virtual technology and we will not all be relegated to watching Rhianna through goggles in an antiseptic space. Experiences will still need to be based in reality and involve human interaction in a natural world.
What is to become of public space design and placemaking in the post-pandemic world? As planners and creatives tasked with designing the public realm it is our duty to begin brainstorming on two separate levels. First, how do we retrofit places that already exist within our communities today into safer spaces for the future? Second, how do we plan for the future as it relates to new neighborhoods and public spaces?
The first is obviously more challenging. We simply cannot push buildings further apart on our streets to allow for expanded social distancing in the public realm. We can however undertake measures to better utilize existing parking on our streets to widen our sidewalks at times. Some cities already employ activation tactics to make streets pedestrian-only certain times of the year. Other solutions like PARK(ing) Day, when citizens, artists and activists collaborate to transform parking spaces into people places utilizing parking in creative ways, may become more of the norm. The awareness of six-foot distancing may be here to stay for quite some time. Couple that with the reality of more carry-out queues and curbside pickup occurring with our restaurants and retailers. This will equate to more space needed on our sidewalks to remain safe. How do we effectively retrofit public space for these accommodations?
The design of new neighborhoods and town centers will be easier than the need to retrofit. It is less challenging to begin with the premise that more public space is a good thing. We may begin planning for the need to provide wider right-of-ways, or distance from building to building across a neighborhood street. This is more apropos in semi-urban areas than rural where there is more land of less value. Bigger isn’t always better, however, purpose-driven spaces that offer flexibility and positive experiences are the goal. What will the new town center or shopping street of the future look like? How should it be designed?
A new calculus needs to be employed to solve for distancing and increased public safety. Discussions about this topic are already occurring from one home office to the next. The percentage of public space should and must increase in urban and semi-urban areas.
“We may see smaller seating pod zones so you can be in smaller areas within a larger space,” says Goldman.
Smaller Groups. Larger Areas.
The world of telecommuting, remote workstations and home offices used to be the sole domain of either corner office types who could choose whether or not to come into the office, or gig economy workers such as freelance writers, silicon valley programmers and high tech entrepreneurs. But in the COVID-19 era, where everyone is a potential candidate for working from home, and remote offices a real alternative for the future, everyone has the possibility of working in a corner office with a window. This paradigm shift is going to have an enormous effect on all aspects of society from office space to home life to community culture and socialization.
“I have spoken to three or four senior executives at other real estate companies that can easily have 30-40 percent of their staff working from home,” says Evan Goldman. “I wonder if this work from home beta-testing is really going to take off. The efficiency I have gained personally has been phenomenal, I’m so much more productive.”
WFM (Work From Home) will not actually work for everyone, and will never be doable for whole sections of the economy such as service industries, hospitality and many lower-wage professions, but there is no question it is here to stay. Many companies will scale back their space needs, or more likely, redefine how valuable space is utilized.
Rather than large swaths of workstations, we will likely see more hoteling of space, where individualized offices are replaced by common areas designed to let an employee come in at pre-scheduled times, plug in to work for a period of time and then leave. There will be fewer of these, since not everyone will be scheduled to come in at once, and larger, more spacious common areas will be needed to congregate, strategize and socialize.
Just as office space is destined to change, home life will also require shifts in how space is allotted. Home offices, no matter how big or small, will become not just a luxury, but a necessity. Creative use of space will become even more important and unit size will have to be considered. More doors and separations will be needed both for sound, security and health reasons, as greater needs for privacy, even at home, will become desirable.
As workspaces might become smaller and more utilitarian, common areas reserved for socialization and recreation will become even more important. As we move away from social isolation and back towards some sense of normalcy, comfort levels will be tied to trust in the people we choose to associate with and the environments we find ourselves in. We will begin with those living with us, before reaching out to extended family and close friends, and finally to work associates. The last hurdle will be crowds of strangers such as we might encounter at a sporting or entertainment event.
As we navigate these various levels of trust, we may begin to think of groups in smaller numbers but contained in larger spaces. We will get together with a small group for a private dinner party, before we feel comfortable heading out to a crowded restaurant where we find ourselves packed together with strangers. We might work independently and in isolation, using video conferencing and other digital forms of communication to stay in contact with associates and then break up the isolation with small team collaborations and social gatherings.
Social distancing and public safety have changed our attitudes toward others—in a good way. Complete strangers are smiling at one another, if only with our eyes, and offering small gestures of kindness, as they share public space. There is seemingly a new era of cooperation and improved sense of community that is a result of the new “shared experience” of all of us being in this together. We are problem solving as a community.
Perhaps one of the larger questions we will be grappling with in the coming months deals with trust. It begins at home with your spouse or partner or roommate first. The people with whom you share your residence in isolation or quarantine must be trusted to do the right thing—to remain vigilant—to stay healthy.
We have spent time away from our families and friends and it has been difficult. Next, as our country begins to reopen, we will flock to our families and friends—the people we trust. Eventually we will need to begin trusting in our colleagues as we migrate back to work environments. Lastly, and perhaps most difficult is trusting strangers. It may take a substantial amount of time before we are ready to be in close proximity with strangers at a sporting event or concert. What happens when the person seated right next to you sneezes or coughs? How do we trust under these extreme circumstances?
“We need to remove anxiety,” says Peter Cole, Chief Development/Asset Management Officer for Madison Marquette. “People are nervous. ‘Should I go back? What happens when I get there?’ As they approach and enter any gathering place—if it’s clear that it has been thought through, that management is taking care, and consumers are behaving in responsible ways, people will become more comfortable. Wayfinding has to be flexible enough to be able to expand and contract as needed. Having clear and demonstrable operating plans that allow people to come back within set guidelines, and to have it be evident from the moment they approach your property, this will create trust.”
Building trust will be critical to our evolution beyond the pandemic. It can and will happen. For the first time in modern history, the entire world has a common enemy. We are literally all experiencing the same anxieties, but the reality of this enemy being deadly and this fight being long-lasting has brought the global community together with a common goal—eradicate this virus and do everything we can to stay healthy until there is a vaccine.
Perhaps more than ever the world is in a moment of incredible cooperation. Our physical distancing and aversion to “getting too close” has led to this cooperation in our communities to simply stay alive. We have a shared purpose in public spaces and a common goal. Most interesting is the notion of what we worried about six months ago as individuals has been replaced by what we all worry about together now. Our global anxiety is collectively focused on doing the right thing—staying safe and getting through this. But we are nothing if not resilient.
“The active engagement and the thirst for being social animals isn’t going to be doused by this,” says Cole. “People need to be given the tools to relax and really enjoy it.”
An Emotional Response To An Illogical Dilemma
The dialogue we have will not just be between designers and developers, between planners and contractors, but between brands and customers. We need to be constantly polling consumers to track their shifts in attitude and gauge their level of confidence and fear. Honesty and authenticity will be critical to communicating our intentions going forward so that trust is central to everything that we do.
If your marketing efforts don’t reflect the public’s understanding of the current environment, you will most certainly be deemed untrustworthy for it will be obvious that you are either indifferent, uncaring or ignorant to their hopes and fears. We must build trust and confidence in public spaces by offering reasonable solutions that converge at the nexus of heart and mind. We must engage people’s emotions while also providing logical solutions.
Recovery from the pandemic will be an emotional response to an illogical dilemma, and any branding effort must reflect that. You won’t make the virus go away with a clever bit of copy, you won’t convince anyone to put aside fear with a video, but you can approach fear and danger with human kindness and caring in the face of darkness.
Anyone can scare you with statistics, or lull you into a false sense of security with blind hope, but the successful brands will offer an authentic alternative to the status quo.
No Opportunity Without Optimism
We are experiencing a truly unique time in human history that we perhaps haven’t seen since the end of World War II. A global phenomenon that nearly the entire planet is dealing with simultaneously. Like the shared experience of war or other forms of crisis that brings out the best in people, we put aside our otherwise petty disagreements and those who survive work together for the common good. We regain a sense of community that we usually only experience during certain holidays, snow days, natural disasters and bad movies. While it’s been overused as a marketing trope as of late, there really is a broader sense that we are, all in this together.
There is no opportunity without optimism. There is no innovation without perseverance. If you’re expecting the worst, you won’t be disappointed by anything, but you won’t be surprised by anything either.
The good news is that we are surrounded by creative people who inspire us every day because we work in professions that reward innovation and accept failure as a byproduct of success. We are perpetually optimistic because we know that perseverance pays off. We are used to collaborating in teams that rise to meet every challenge, knowing that we are stronger together than alone. We look to our elders to provide wisdom, and our youth to inspire endless enthusiasm and passion. Experience allows us to look back and learn from our mistakes, while youth enables us to dream without being bound by the past.
We are actively having these discussions with our clients across the country. It is through this dialogue that solutions will present themselves. To begin the dialogue that will result in innovation and transformation, we will need to think in phases, from short-term solutions to long-term planning. Our ideas will need flexibility and the ability to adapt quickly to changing situations, as will our messaging. What we design and how we communicate will be the ultimate test of building trust and designing a future we can appreciate. Our process will involve both engagement and collaboration with our peers across multiple industries and multiple platforms. This process will yield strength in numbers—not too dissimilar to our global responsibility in this moment. Human interaction is a vital part of our society. We will strive to address quickly the challenges at hand and design a better tomorrow – one conversation, one meeting, one solution, one day at a time.