“Let’s meet at the parking lot.” If you think I’m talking about some clandestin­e or covert operation, I can assure you it’s far more nondescrip­t than you think. What really transpired was a feeble attempt to grab coffee on the go when dining establishm­ents were only opened for takeaways during the recent “heightened alert” in Singapore, in yet another measure imposed to help contain and control the COVID-19 situation. It sounded like a scene straight out of “comedians in cars getting coffee,” except that I could only hope to muster a fraction of Jerry’s humour; as if the whole scenario of having “come down to this” isn’t tragically funny enough. And to add laughs to the comedy, while sipping takeaway coffee in the car, I received a text from a friend that said, “Is that you I saw outside Culina? I wasn’t sure because you got into a car?” I knew she was being polite by omitting “someone else’s car”. This is not looking good: Hanging out in a car, in the parking lot. Thank goodness it was broad daylight and nowhere near a beach.

In an era of lockdowns, public spaces have taken on a whole new meaning. It is now more than just a mere shared space. It has become a symbol of escapism, a respite from home, almost like a home away from home. The “public” is now almost “private” in a psychologi­cal sense. I remember during the circuit breaker in 2020, the only place we could go, besides supermarke­ts, were the public parks, gardens, nature reserves, beaches and just about any open public space. That triggered my fitness journey as the public pavements and roads became my treadmill. I started urban hiking daily, climbing stairs at Fort Canning and window shopping along Orchard Road, continuing the habit even today. It was clear right from day one that I’m not alone and I’m sure anyone who had done any form of outdoor activities, even once, in the last 12 months, will notice the flock of like-minded individual­s, even at the crack of dawn. I even bumped into friends more than a couple of times, while out walking, regardless of whether it’s 5am in the morning or 6pm in the evening. In an era where we work and learn at home, the idea of playing outside has taken on a whole new, almost sacrilegio­us meaning. It’s almost meditative to have that “me-time”, outside, in public. The irony isn’t lost on me either!

Now that public spaces play a role in our private lives, how should we rethink urban planning? What do we want out of public spaces? At the core of any urban planning, a public space is meant to be a shared space that is accessible for everyone, from all walks of life, regardless of race, gender, age, and nationalit­y. Some famous public spaces like Central and Highline Park in New York City, Hyde Park in London, and the Tuileries Garden in Paris are also iconic tourist attraction­s, much like the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore. The main difference between then and now is that as we spend more time doing home-based activities; ww yearn to spend more time outside, more than we used to. So instead of jogging in the park every weekend, more people now jog or exercise outside every other day. We are looking at an increase in human traffic in a time of social distancing. So how do we maintain crowd control in public spaces during COVID times? As we change the way we work, play, and live, public space creation should adopt new strategies beside the obvious solutions of dedicating pedestrian-only walkways, widening of roads, or creating designated cycling lanes.

I think a private-public space model may work in this new era. There will be many square footage of commercial spaces in the business district that will have to be repurposed as more people work from home. How about giving incentives to private companies to convert these spaces into vertical parks for the public to access, like the observatio­n deck at Marina Bay Sands? Either charge a minimal entrance fee or keep it free access, but allow food and beverage and retail vendors to take up spaces and operate businesses at these spaces. A very uniquely Singapore example is Changi Airport. Nowhere else in the world will you find students studying along the benches at the viewing galleries or couples going on dates at the airport. It was like a version of the “parking lot”. In the spirit of nostalgia and national identity, how about repurposin­g spaces in iconic buildings and converting them to vertical pseudopubl­ic spaces that will act as a platform for social interactio­n and a respite from the confines of home; public space as a beacon of “freedom” and shared emotions?

After all, a space is just an empty place, if not for its purpose and usage, much like monuments and relics, turned to public spaces. What use is there for stones and concrete if they don’t add value, socially, economical­ly, intrinsica­lly or not? As Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in Ozymandias:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains.

Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

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