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COVID-19 Op-Ed by Ernest Wong

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This week will be a month since we closed our office and sent everyone home to work remotely. It’s given me time to reflect on the impact of this pandemic on all of our lives. Recalling prior events such as 9/11 and the 2008 recession that impacted how we viewed the world, this Coronavirus event will certainly be life-altering in ways we can’t even imagine. As resilient as we are as a society and a human race, we also are susceptible to pandemics, natural disasters and even our own ignorance.

This incredibly dangerous event has me thinking about our future. As one of the high-risk individuals of being a baby boomer with a history of respiratory problems including a recent bout with pneumonia, I also have a dog that must be walked daily. I’ve been trying my hardest to abide by the social distancing, constantly wiping down surfaces and door handles, and limiting my movement to a small area surrounding my computer. As the weather has been changing, I’ve seen more people using this time to get in shape, occupying the valuable streets and park spaces that we covet, and generally ignoring all of the warning signs and practices that have been told to us on television and the internet. We just can’t help ourselves, and now our Chicago parks and the lakefront have been closed to the public.

"Empty State Street retail corridor in downtown Chicago": John Boehm for site design group, ltd.

“Empty State Street retail corridor in downtown Chicago”: John Boehm for site design group, ltd.

More importantly, however, I’ve had a chance to connect with numerous business owners, community leaders and city officials that has me thinking about the near future. Especially the devastation to the service providers that includes so many restaurateurs, hospitality and hotel workers, event planners, retailers, gyms and even the healthcare industry that includes dentists and optometrists, that we often take for granted. As the construction sector starts to take a hard look at their project loads, everyone from developers, architects and contractors all are looking at their balance sheets to forecast their liabilities in the months to come.

The practice of landscape architecture will change dramatically. After spending a career of figuring out ways to connect people and designing public spaces for people to gather and engage, all of that will go out the window. William Whyte wrote and documented the benefits of social gathering and behavior, the security of volumes of people in public spaces and the economics of dynamic open places. While this still remains true, the billions of dollars spent on signature civic parks and neighborhood playgrounds will succumb to our fears of touching each other. The fear of the handshake, the fear of the euro-greeting, the fear of smiling at each other starts to erode our senses. Or as Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Shining” puts it, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Grant Park

Grant Park; Image: site design group, ltd.

So where do we go from here? This pandemic will certainly affect how we interact with each other and how we live, work and play on a daily basis. Public transportation will certainly change and likely get more expensive. The way we live will certainly become more isolated. Will this regenerate an exodus to the suburbs? The “white flight” of the 2020’s? The way we work will certainly entail more teleconferencing and other digital platforms. Something that this generation has been trained to do by texting and instagramming each other even as we sit next to each other. Artificial intelligence will boost and flourish. And where will that leave those who can’t afford technology? Finally, the way we play will become more isolated and distant. Our National Parks will be inundated with folks rushing to get away from each other in the name of “connecting with nature”. It’s a sad scenario, but probably a very real scenario as we enter a Brave New World.

As we’ve seen from other countries, this can’t last forever. This will affect our kids and how they think of the world, and shape the way we communicate and travel. I believe that we’ll all have to be smarter, more disciplined, and respectful of each other. We’ll have to approach life more timidly at first, until we can gain more trust in ourselves and each other. It’s almost like learning how to walk again. One thing is true though, is that we’ll be better prepared for the next dilemma.

ernest wong

Image: site design group, ltd.

Perhaps there is a solution in sight. Through our discourse and fear, maybe we will find not only a vaccine for this virus, but an empathy to treat each other with dignity and kindness. One thing I’ll suggest is that we all take the time now as we’re confined to our homes, to think about life in the future and write about it somewhere. Whether in a personal diary, on a blog or even through your favorite organization’s portal, it will document where we are now in this point in history. If you have ideas on how this pandemic can find opportunities to change our public lives, whether it’s public transportation or your internet connection, food delivery service or how we gather together in the future, this is the time to share your thoughts. Documenting this moment in history will gain insight in how we plan for the future, whether it’s the private or the public realm. I’m looking forward to the next time I can hug my friends and family, or smile and wave across the bar or restaurant at my colleagues or even say “hello” to my fellow dog owners in the park.

Please be safe and vigilant. I’m thinking of you all as we slowly move forward.


Lead Image: Brodie Kerst Productions for site design group, ltd.

Published in Blog, Cover Story, Featured
Ernest C. Wong, Founder and Principal of site design group, ltd. (site), has been instrumental in the evolution of the firm as a multi-cultural cutting edge design entity and fostering the landscape architecture profession in the City of Chicago. In managing the firm for over 30 years, site has established a reputation for creative design solutions, and developing thoughtful, community-oriented urban spaces. A strong proponent of civic and community engagement, Mr. Wong sits on the board of numerous service organizations and professional juries including the Driehaus Award for Architectural Excellence in Community Design, Chinese American Service League, Near South Planning Board, and the Chicago Landmarks Commission. In addition, Mr. Wong is a frequent speaker at universities as well as design, business, and diversity conferences. This year, he served as the keynote speaker at the Chicago Loop Alliance’s Annual Meeting, discussing the future of retail and public spaces. Ernie serves on the board of numerous public service organizations and professional juries including the Chinese American Service League, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, Student Conservation Association, and the Near South Planning Board. Ernie also serves on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Landmarks and Cultural Affairs Commissions and was recently named the “2010 Chicagoan of the Year” by the Chicago Tribune as well as the 2012 Chicago Friends of the Parks honoree. In 2013, Ernie was elevated to the American Society of Landscape Architects Council of Fellows for his exceptional leadership, extensive community service, and outreach work.

1 Comment

  1. Good work, and I always respect a William Whyte reference.

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