Parks, plazas, and open spaces that apply inclusion as their foundation instill community pride, and are integral to our social, cultural, and economic fabric.
Managing Public Space during a life-threatening virus + protest
What now? Empty parks requiring social distancing can suddenly be overflowing with protestors. A peaceful expression may be tempered with vandalism. Budgets are twisted by revenue losses from empty spaces and the need to spend to adapt to social distancing.
What are public space managers and planners to do when confronted with a tangle of clashing issues that require balancing constitutional rights, human desire to socialize, and protecting the health and safety of visitors and staff?
We’ve learned a lot in the past few months and want to help you navigate successfully through these unprecedented times.
Put family first
Clarity, transparency, and empathy are critical to maintaining the trust and commitment of your workforce. Staff wants and needs to work.
Those who steward our parks are concerned about their health from COVID-19 and mass turnouts. When a park maintenance worker was recently used as a canvass for graffiti by a protestor but praised a day earlier for caring for the park by neighbors, incidents like this tax both physical and mental health.
Open space managers need to apply all of the care you put into ensuring the physical and mental wellbeing of those you go home to each night.
Whether staff are dealing with a health crisis or a social justice assembly, take steps to ease stress, lift confidence and morale, and keep everyone safe.
Go above and beyond safety guidelines, including:
- | Increase security as appropriate
- | Have clear procedures in place to respond to crisis
- | Notify appropriate parties of positive tests for COVID-19
- | Enact a real, ongoing training program that includes de-escalation methods
Above all, communicate daily and directly to understand what your staff is experiencing and how they are coping.
Expect the worst and the best in people
Park visitors, like everyone, are in uncharted territory resulting from the confluence of shelter-in-place rules and social activism.
People will behave badly in public spaces and do things they know are dangerous because they feel a right to ownership. It’s not unusual for someone to:
- | climb a 20-foot fence to play tennis
- | take kids to a park that’s closed to comply with social distancing
- | have dogs off-leash in areas where that’s not allowed
As a public space steward, you can help visitors be their best and comply with all required regulations and protocols. From a practical standpoint, identify trouble spots to keep stir-crazy park goers from making bad decisions that are dangerous for them and increase liability for you.
Enforce rules or more will be broken. But do it in a way that advises people of the need to take care of each other. Peer pressure, compassion, and direction are effective. Have you considered a friendly park monitor to remind people of the rules?
In the end, park users are your customers and civic partners, and you want them back when it’s safe.
Recognize that closed means open
The better informed and connected each of your audiences are, the better chance you have for success.
The result of closed public space means it’s time to open up—like never before.
Maintain consistent contact, provide resource advice, and do more than email tenants that are currently shuttered. They are fighting for their livelihood and are relying on credible resources and guidance to help them survive.
Revenue generating tenants will find hope in a return if you have a strong partnership grounded in a common desire to succeed and understanding of strategies to reboot and reinvent closed areas.
Likewise, a vibrant partnership with public officials and community leaders will give you an understanding of the probable and possible.
Consider forming a community-based security council to work and partner with local enforcement to address needs unique to the site. Visitors need to be clear on what they experience when they arrive today and understand what it might be like in the future.
Strong safety ethics weaken risk exposure
In addition to the ethics of protecting visitors from COVID-19, the absence of hand sanitizer, keeping high touch areas clean, and clear signage about park conduct are potential liability issues that provide unwelcome exposure.
Similarly, a staff well trained in conflict management will limit risk from potential legal action. Investing wisely in these essential expenses are ultimately cost-saving tactics to prevent big-ticket budget-busting risks for forward-thinking managers.
Look ahead for what’s next
Being a belligerent optimist and brainstorming scenarios is vital to getting ahead of issues.
Creating policies and protocols in the midst of a crisis adds to the chaos. There’s a lot to anticipate and consider as these turbulent times continue including:
- | What happens if a new spike in the virus occurs or your location is the focal point for assembly?
- | What if your budget can’t cover the result of a new spike in the virus that results in another shutdown?
- | How do new regulations impact change staffing needs?
- | Are you prepared to address the angry mob that can spiral out of control on social media?
- | What resources can you rely on to figure all of this out to know if you’re prepared for the unexpected?
- | Who can support you in the midst of a crisis?
- | What programs can you plan now to ensure an atmosphere of trust, kindness, and rejuvenation?
Today’s world is so fluid that it’s hard to answer the question of “What’s next?” Use this time to get prepared for the next issue by having protocols and policies in place, and becoming a creative problem solver. Our world has changed forever.
Ready to turn your public space into community value?
For over 25 years, MJMMG has planned, activated, and managed world-class public spaces across the US including Union Square Park and Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, Pearl Brewery in San Antonio, TX and Independence Mall in Philadelphia, PA.
To learn more about our unique approach to Integrated Public Space Services, contact us. And if you have a public space challenge, let’s discuss how we can help.
As Founder + CEO of MJMMG, Mary J. McCue leads a multi-disciplinary team that plans, activates and programs award-winning public spaces throughout the US. Send Mary an email or just call 415.477.2600.