Lockdown has seen public open spaces take on a significance difficult to imagine 12 months ago. Visitor numbers at parks and other outdoor attractions have increased exponentially. From a financial perspective, anecdotal stories reveal tales of unprecedented increases in income from car parking offset with ballooning costs of litter picking and dealing with the inevitable aftermath of the country’s rapidly expanding canine population. Further afield, in National Parks and other protected areas, the negative impact of wild camping and higher than usual volumes of visitors has been well documented.
In amongst all this are examples of innovation that are likely to outlive the immediate impact of the pandemic. Museums, galleries and theatres fortunate enough to be set in or near open spaces are seeking to animate them with pop-up events, community programmes, catering and entertainment. These spaces are being seen with a new sense of opportunity, which can support the core mission and commercial realities of cultural institutions.
We have seen many examples of innovation in response to adversity: A theatre set within open-air grounds took small-scale performances outside last summer when the auditorium remained closed. A London park where the café was burned down in an arson attack at the beginning of the pandemic responded by enlisting the help of a range of local pop-up providers that served the needs of visitors as well as providing much-needed income. The need to manage visitor numbers at another outdoor attraction lead to the introduction of online advance booking which enabled local users to guarantee access, while offering new insights from the resulting visitor data.
As we emerge from Covid-19, those that can will surely look to how they can continue to use the outdoors to attract new audiences and enliven their programme and wider offer in different ways.
In some respects outdoor activity can offer a freedom from institutional constraints – both physical and intellectual. It can take the cultural offer beyond the threshold into people’s daily lives. And in terms of engaging with people and collecting ideas for improvements or activities, our experience has been that people always have something to say when asked about the principles of what professionally gets termed as ‘placemaking’. Questions such as, “What’s your relationship with this place?”, “What do you like about it?”, “What could be better?”, “What are the possibilities?” more often than not prompt insightful and creative response from people.
Hopefully some of the investment currently being proposed in our towns and cities will find its way into projects and organisations that can continue to develop creative and sustainable uses of the outdoors. Anyone who has been involved with this type of activity knows that it can be accompanied by cost and sometimes complexity. The impact of heavier use needs mitigating through increased maintenance and cleaning and then there are considerations such as insurance, legal and planning constraints and public safety, as well as balancing the interests of public access with those of nature, biodiversity and immediate human neighbours. All of this explains why investment is needed to enable outdoor activity and improvements to be developed thoughtfully; but the positive impacts are there to be grasped.
Working in public spaces can enable organisations, artists and others to involve people in more democratic ways to creatively shape change in their environment. This is one area at least where we can try and provide a lasting positive legacy from the pandemic at the same time as creating resilience for the future.