I Went to the Beach and Saw the Future

As “new normals” proliferate in 2020, the question remains: how will our relationship with public space evolve in the post-pandemic era?

Nathan Bahadursingh Nathan Bahadursingh

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Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer as schools reopen their doors, football season readies up and temperatures begin to gradually decline. Celebrating the works and contribution of laborers, the long Labor Day Weekend is meant to cultivate rest and relaxation. It is also a time to enjoy summer activities one last time before Fall fully sets in.

For me, it was a wake up call. The events of 2020 had greatly thwarted my typical summer plans and activities. A combination of rigid travel restrictions and the mental malaise that has come as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the socio-political state of America, had kept me in an idle state for much of the summer.

Realizing how quickly the season was fading, my equally eager friends and I decided to partake in the most quintessential summer activity: We headed to the beach. Not just any beach, but Rockaway Beach, a destination with a unique sense of place that possesses the very essence of New York City. While it might seem an unlikely place to learn profound truths about the contemporary urban condition, that’s exactly what occurred as I walked across the sand.

Rockaway Boardwalk Reconstruction; photo via WXY architecture + urban design

The trip made me realize how much I had been missing out during the past six months — the everlasting, child-like wonderment of staring at a clear, blue sky, baking in the sun, and running into waves was refreshing, to say the least. I left feeling healed, content that I was at least able to relish the beach during one of the final phases of the summer.However, I also left with something else. I had a realization, an epiphany of sorts. I saw everything in plain sight, simultaneously. I saw 2020 summed up within a single section of Rockaway Beach. 

When looking forward, I was met with the serenity of the vast Atlantic Ocean. Directly behind me, I was sandwiched by post-war public housing projects. Looking up, I saw commercial planes — their engines roaring — soar overhead, departing from and arriving at the nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Smaller banner planes routinely featured, flying across my line of sight while pulling aerial advertisements for various companies, each looking for business in spite of continuing economic uncertainty. When looking to my side, I saw people sunbathing with their masks on, while their children tirelessly choreographed dances for Tiktok. All types of sounds blared from wireless bluetooth speakers, interspersed across peoples’ beach towels.

Rockaway Beach, Queens, NY; image via Urielevy, WikiCommons

What I witnessed was an amalgamation of many forces that felt utterly overwhelming and odd, yet normal. It felt familiar. I had experienced this before. I had unknowingly become accustomed to this reality, and it had not been apparent until I saw it, all at once, at Rockaway Beach.

This is public space in 2020. Technology, transport, consumerism and community — their intersection and proliferation amidst a global pandemic is something that can only be labelled as the “future”. 

As this new normal continues to cement itself, the question remains: how will our relationship with common space evolve in the post-pandemic era? Things will undoubtedly advance to become more optimal and efficient. We’ll be battle tested from the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s likely that new ways of organizing physical space that can mitigate the risks of future pandemics take shape.

While I can’t say with one hundred percent certainty how the future will look, I’ve realized how quickly new and unusual phenomena can become “normalized” to the point where they go completely unnoticed. Perhaps another trip to the beach will provide those answers for me. 

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