Should we reimagine our towns' public spaces after the pandemic ends?


A pink primrose has taken on a whole new meaning in Italy, which experienced the highest death toll from Covid-19 in Europe last year.

Not only has the spring flower been selected as an emblem for its national vaccination campaign, but it is central to the design of special prefabricated vaccination “pavilions” for 1,500 Italian piazzas or squares. Architect Stefano Boeri has designed them to be easily assembled and energy self-sufficient, with a ring of solar panels on the pavilion roof.

In interviews with several architectural journals, Boeri explained how he wanted to use his design skills to celebrate vaccination as an act of civic responsibility and love of others.

Boeri’s concept feeds into an international re-evaluation of public space, which President Michael D Higgins had been highlighting repeatedly long before Covid-19. The European Commission is currently collecting ideas for its “new European Bauhaus” initiative, which invites all European citizens to reimagine the spaces they live in.

A conference last week couldn’t be more timely in asking if Ireland “should have a renovation wave plan after the pandemic?” Riot: Sligo has lined up a series of international contributors to discuss ideas around how to re-imagine an entire Irish town.

Among the speakers invited to participate by co-ordinator Conleth Teevan was 'rain man' Jens Thoms Ivarsson, creative director for the Swedish city of Gothenburg.

The designer and artist, who has developed his passion for water since 1991, was formerly creative director of Sweden’s IceHotel in Jukkasjarvi, and has worked with German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. More recently, he has spearheaded the Rain Gothenburg project, which was designed to mark the city’s 400-year jubilee and help it create “the best city in the world to live in when it is raining”.

Rain falls on average every third day in Gothenburg, and the topic is as much of an obsession in Sweden as it is here.

Ivarsson recalls there was initial resistance and concern among city officials, who felt the focus on rain might frighten away tourists - not fully appreciating how visitors tend to know how to dress for elements of any kind.

And so Gothenburg has funded projects such as a “rain playground”, where there is better fun to be had when it is lashing and splashing, and a rainfall climbing frame.

Artists worked with engineers on and city stormwater management projects, and on rainwater recycling and other initiatives around climate change, he explains.

“We also ran dance and art projects which aimed to brighten up some of the dark, old, rainy months of winter,” Ivarsson says.

The pandemic refocused Gothenburg’s approach, but also highlighted the need for more public space, he says.

There is a realisation that we have to design cities for humans, not cars. “Creating spaces where people can meet safely during a pandemic is a challenge for all cities, but one which can be overcome with pavilions and other structures celebrating the outdoors."

It’s music to the ears of Irish Architecture Foundation director Nathalie Weadick, who also participated in Riot: Sligo.

The 15-year-old foundation is committed to communicating the culture of architecture and urbanism to the public, and is best known for Ireland’s largest architectural festival, Open House Dublin.

The foundation is also spearheading Reimagine, a national “placemaking” programme with communities that have been piloted in six towns and will be working with four more.

It involves a central portal with toolkits, mentoring, and information which “harnesses the agency of communities across Ireland to amplify their potential in a way that can transform their physical, social, psychological wellbeing”, Weadick explains.

Supported by Creative Ireland, Reimagine has combined the expertise and vision of the three Ps: Public, planners, and professionals, she says.

The collaborations have resulted in a cultural district in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, an architectural installation along the Walks in Loughrea, Co Galway, and the Melt the Walls temporary installation in Tallaght’s Chamber Square in west Dublin among others.

“Working with groups like Kilrush Town Teams in Co Clare was so satisfying, as communities are best placed to know what they need,” Weadick says.

"Not only were we facilitating identification of what’s possible, but also encouraging communities to aim really high."

The Irish Architecture Foundation is “tiny small”, with a staff of four, but Weadick is particularly excited about the potential of a new outdoor public space scheme announced in February by Culture Minister Catherine Martin.

The scheme aims to take account of public health guidelines in encouraging local authorities to open up and create public spaces and facilities dedicated to the arts, culture, and festivals. City and county councils can apply for a capital grant of up to €250,000 for a project at a funding rate of up to 90%.

Some key questions that came up at Riot: Sligo included - who gets to decide what kinds of creativity are valuable? and how the concept of a creative place is different from gentrification or 'art-washing', as it has also been described.

It also examined how effectively cultural planning can involve genuine collaboration across all departments and all sectors of the community.

Former Galway 2020 creative director Helen Marriage of British company Artichoke, Axis Ballymun artistic director Mark O’Brien, Tongan artist Vaimoana (Moana) Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu, Dutch expert in the economics of art and culture Arjo Klamer and European cultural expert Joost Heinsuis were among the participants.

Niamh NicGhabhann, senior lecturer in the University of Limerick’s Department of History, Laoura Ntziouru, attached to the European Investment Fund, Italian economist Rossella Tarantino, who was the development and relations manager for the 2019 European Capital of Culture in Matera, Italy and economist Stephen Kinsella also spoke.