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This Baltimore design competition is seeking ideas to reconfigure public spaces in a pandemic

With restaurants and business districts reopening, Design for Distancing is calling on the city's creative community for new concepts that allow people to gather safely — tactical urbanism meets public health.

Thames Street in Fells Point. (Source unknown)
The deadline for the competition was updated to June 7 at 11:59 p.m. 6/3/20, 11:10 a.m.

With Maryland set to move fully into the first phase of reopening from the businesses closures brought by COVID-19, Baltimore city’s restaurants were allowed to reopen at 5 p.m. Friday with outdoor seating.

It’s a move that will bring some sense of normalcy. But with social distancing restrictions in place that require patrons to sit six feet apart and limits the number of people sitting around a table, it is becoming clearer that businesses will have a new environment to navigate.

“As the small businesses in town are looking to reopen, I think we’re aware that reopening Baltimore in such a way that we can meet public health best practices is going to require significant changes to the way businesses operate and the capacity they are going to hold,” said Jennifer Goold, executive director of Station North-based nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center (NDC). Plus, there’s the reality that restaurants will likely have to extend capacity outside to make income to help stay open.

When thinking about how to remake spaces and still create inviting areas for the public, it doesn’t take long to arrive at the idea that the reopening is a design challenge.

And in Baltimore, it’s one that city leaders believe there is a lot of creative talent to tackle — the folks like architects, landscape architects, graphic designers, makers and other innovators.

So they’re putting out the call with a competition of plans for remaking commercial corridors this summer. It’s called Design for Distancing: Reopening Baltimore Together.

With a $1.5 million investment from Baltimore City’s COVID-19 Small Business Assistance Initiative, the Baltimore Development Corporation and NDC are launching the program this week.

Running May 29 through June 3 (they’re moving fast), the competition is seeking ideas for “tactical concepts for innovative urban public space configurations for maintaining safety and social distancing while patronizing businesses.” Leaders are encouraging local agencies and independent creatives to get involved, and are accepting submissions from around the world.

[UPDATE: As of 6/3, the deadline is being moved to June 7 at 11:59 p.m. to allow for additional time and space amid nationwide protests in response to George Floyd’s death]

The outdoor concepts must be designed to meet the needs of restaurants, retail and service industries, as well as follow guidelines to allow for safety offered by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which has a team of about 10 people offering pro bono support to the city on the effort. The organizers are also making $50,000 in stipends available. Applications and a design brief are available at the project’s website.

The ideas that are selected will be announced June 8, and then will be shared in a design book that will be freely available on the web. That means it can also serve as a resource to other cities.

In Baltimore city, these outdoor concepts will be implemented temporarily for the summer and early fall outdoor season starting in July, and there could also be a chance to explore more permanent solutions. The areas that will be transformed include existing main streets and arts districts, as well as areas within two blocks of public markets.

So what are some of the features that can help small businesses adapt in a pandemic? Think about ways to make narrow sidewalks more accessible and control traffic flow. Or, ways to allow for people to line up safely for carry-out at restaurant, continue to shop at a farmer’s market or wait outside of salon or laundromat. There’s also the dirty work of allowing for sanitation and removal of food waste. Tools might include signage, recyclable dishware, handwashing.

In general, it’s a chance to think about how guidance can be built into the physical environment. And some of the design elements could be movable, or able to be adjusted as needed.

“As we learn more about our safety and how things will change as we reemerge, we want to make sure the installations are flexbile as possible to meet the ever-changing knowledge and information that we have,” said Goold.

BDC CEO Colin Tarbert said there has been an interest generally in testing new concepts for urban spaces that allow more movement of pedestrians on sidewalks and create more space for people to eat and recreate on sidewalks and in other centralized spaces. He sees this is an opportunity to “test some new ideas and maybe even encourage additional business growth, if we’re able to provide more seating for restaurants that otherwise wouldn’t have it,” he said.

With the pandemic bringing new modes for society, it’s a chance for the city’s public health and design talent to show how spaces can transform.

“Baltimore has the opportunity to not only support its own incredible small business community, but also be a leader in creating new urban models for social distancing by developing innovative solutions that safely allow our local and global economies and public lives to open up again,” Goold said.

Companies: Baltimore Development Corporation
Series: Coronavirus

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