Though advances in communication technologies and mass media have broadened the definition of the public realm, research and pedagogy on public space are still centered largely on site. The study of public spaces, the communities that produce them, and everyday life requires access to material space. COVID-19 dramatically altered the dynamics of urban life and urban research. Some users of public space retreated to the comfort and safety of the private realm, while many others still struggle to sustain their livelihoods and survive outdoors. Researchers, instructors, and students have endeavored to observe, understand, and address exacerbated urban inequalities from afar, as place-based observation and data collection is restricted. In the context of a remote capstone course in spring 2021, we employed an urban humanities approach to investigate the expanding and contracting dynamics of public space in Westlake, Los Angeles: a dense, multicultural neighborhood area that is continuously subjected to heightened security, regulation, and control under neoliberal urbanism. Urban humanities approaches engage with various forms of seeing, understanding, and communicating, drawing upon visual, filmic, and narrative methods from urban planning, architecture, and the arts. This empirical, interactive, and representational pedagogy (Cuff et al., 2020), developed through the collaborative teaching and research activities of UCLA’s Urban Humanities Initiative, enabled virtual instruction and research within the conditions of the pandemic. Using this multidisciplinary approach, we uncovered how marginalized populations challenge definitions and reconfigure functions of public space, adding depth and perspective to our analysis. We argue that urban humanities methods help planners and designers understand play, sustenance, and survival in public space (de Certeau, 2013), particularly when remote research requires that engagement with the material world be facilitated through the digital. Importantly, these tools may also enable practitioners and educators to envision more appropriate and malleable solutions that accommodate overlooked groups in public spaces.
Andrés F. Ramirez is a doctoral student in urban planning at UCLA. His professional background is in media production and cultural communications for architecture and the built environment. His research interests include urban theory, public space and media studies.
Claire Nelischer is a doctoral student in urban planning at UCLA, interested in public space governance, civic participation, and urban design. Her current research centers on questions of spatial justice in the production and management of urban parks, and the role of planners, designers, and communities in shaping shared public environments and outcomes.
Christopher Giamarino is a doctoral student in urban planning at UCLA. His research interests include theories of urban design and social justice; expanding public space for skateboarders and the unhoused; and spatial ethnographies of everyday life.