Posted by: bluesyemre | February 8, 2021

How a #Library is reimagining Public Wi-Fi during COVID-19

A free Wi-Fi pop-up created by CultureHouse at the Somerville Public Library in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Like many of their counterparts across the country, in March 2020 the Somerville Library closed due to COVID-19. The resourceful staff quickly implemented curbside pickup and found ways to adapt their services. However, there was one service that proved difficult to offer in a COVID-safe manner—wireless internet access.

In Somerville, a city adjacent to Boston, an estimated 18% of households have either no internet access or only a cellular connection according to the U.S. Census Bureau. These residents are left behind as almost everything—from jobs to social services and even vaccine appointments—has moved entirely online. Before COVID hit, the Library was an important source of free internet access to the community. When it closed, patrons would sometimes sit on the ground near the building, hoping the signal would be strong enough to use. They were, quite literally, being left out in the cold.

A free Wi-Fi pop-up created by CultureHouse at the Somerville Public Library in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Over three days in January 2021, CultureHouse transformed an empty courtyard in front of the Central Branch of the Somerville Public Library into an all-weather workspace for the community—bringing back free Wi-Fi access for the first time since the pandemic began. CultureHouse is a nonprofit urban design organization that improves livability in local communities by transforming unused spaces into vibrant social infrastructure. Pre-COVID, our work focused on transforming vacant storefronts into pop-up community spaces. Recently, we have been working with community institutions to allow them to continue their services and operations by adapting outdoor public spaces to be comfortable and COVID-safe. 

Bringing the Library Back Online 

The CultureHouse team started by talking with the Library staff about what they needed, and providing patrons internet access outside was top on the list. Luckily, the Library had an underused courtyard in the front of the building. We proposed building a tactical outdoor work area, equipped with Wi-Fi, in the plaza.

The courtyard of the Somerville Public Library before activation.

Just setting up chairs around a router, however, was not going to be enough. With the New England winter rolling in quickly, we needed to pay special attention to creating an environment that was comfortable, no matter the weather. In many cold climates, people assume they can’t use outdoor spaces in the winter. Boston is no exception. But as cold-weather outdoor dining and physically-distant social gatherings during COVID have shown, with the right infrastructure outdoor public spaces can and will be used year-round.

With this in mind, we sketched out four workstations—each with power outlets, chairs, a table, an umbrella, and a heater. To keep the space bright during the early winter sunsets, we added lights around the perimeter. We divided up the stations with pallets (some of which we sourced from a nearby construction site). The pallets protected patrons from the wind while keeping the design affordable and adaptable.

A close-up of one of the four workstations.

With the Somerville Public Library Foundation stepping in to fund the project, we were ready to go. We installed the pop-up over three days in early January, alongside the Library staff, City electricians, and volunteers. To bring high-speed internet outside, we partnered with Mass Mesh, a volunteer-led group that installs community-owned free wireless networks in the Boston area. 

When the switch was turned on, the Library saw an immediate benefit. “The ability to provide free internet access in a safe and inviting space means a great deal,” said Library Director Cathy Piantigini. “Maintaining connections is so critical during this time of social distancing, both digitally and in person. We’ve missed being able to offer both during the pandemic, and we’re thrilled for the opportunity to make these essential services available.” The lights and Wi-Fi are on 24/7, meaning patrons can use the connection even when the Library is closed.

Using Tactical Urbanism as a Catalyst

Lessons from the Somerville Library Wi-Fi pop-up extend well beyond the city limits. COVID-19 has shown what many in the urbanism field have known for years—our public spaces are much more malleable than they seem. Under a traditional development process, it would have taken years (if not longer) and a large budget to renovate the plaza into an internet-connected outdoor workspace. By leveraging tactical urbanism principles, we were able to respond to the need quickly, cheaply, and effectively.

Over the course of the project, we changed the design to overcome barriers and minimize complexity. Our first design, a covered pavilion, was going to require a building permit and complex architectural review for snow loads. So we switched to umbrella coverings, which are easy to close in case of snow and therefore did not require the same review process.

The Wi-Fi pop-up at night, with the library in the background.

Finding low-friction paths is essential in creating rapid-response changes in the built environment. Short-term pop-ups, like the one at the Somerville Library, can change deeply-ingrained perceptions about how we use public space. Until recently, many people (myself included) did not believe that New Englanders would sit and stay in public plazas in the winter—let alone pull out their computer and start working. The Somerville Library Wi-Fi pop-up shows that if we embrace winter and design spaces that are comfortable, we can have vibrancy in any weather. After all, human connection is one of the best tools we have to persist in this unparalleled time.

Aaron Greiner is the Founder and Director of CultureHouse. To learn more about CultureHouse’s work, head to culturehouse.cc and follow them on social media @culturehousecc.

https://www.pps.org/article/how-a-library-is-reimagining-public-wi-fi-during-covid-19


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