Corona effects on urbanism – report from a policy paper shop-floor thread around urban public spaces

The current Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly urban effects but also begs questions on how to move along beyond the crisis. JPI Urban Europe has long recognized the value of experimentation, such as urban living labs, in research- and innovation. The following is a report from a policy paper message board around public space in JPI Urban Europe’s AGORA.

Why urban robustness? Why look beyond the Corona crisis?

In the tapestry gallery, among the complicated wall hangings, there was a bulletin screen filled with messages and games and jokes. I stopped before it, and a sentence struck my eye. “Only under the stresses of total social emergencies do the effectively adequate alternative technical strategies synergetically emerge.” Jeez, I thought, what prose artist penned that? I looked down — the ascription was to one Buckminster Fuller.’

– Stanley Robinson, K. (1984) Icehenge, Ace Books

For Otmar Wiestler, president of the Helmholtz Association, the response to COVID-19, ‘is a unique, profound, global field experiment that has never been done before.’ As such, policy makers would do well to heed its insights and lessons for the future.’

– Science Business

Principal global problems such as biodiversity decline, climate change, food and water security, energy supply, public health, and social justice are not only wicked, but essentially urban…’

Wolfram, Borgström, & Farrelly (2019)

Photo from webcams overlooking the deserted streets of Italy, found and manipulated by Graziano Panfili, a photographer living under lockdown.


It started with Johannes’ reflection on the slightly awkward feeling of being quarantined while editing and developing the follow-up policy paper from the Agora Riga workshop:

It feels very weird to me working on a policy paper on public spaces while being on (partial-) lock down. As many/all of us are effected by the current situation, I was wondering if you would find it reasonable to add one chapter to the paper which discusses recommendations / ideas / maybe reflections on the effects on (the use of) and roles of public spaces.’

But the collection and reflections kind of overflows the ‘limiter’ on urban public spaces and keeps on (re-)presenting reflections more generally on urbanism and society at large this first half of 2020. It is as if the Corona crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, across the globe and the various responses in different places, gives a first taste of what JPI Urban Europe anticipates in its Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) 2.0 in the challenge on shaping urban robustness and dilemmas in resilience. As a bunch of memes in social media during the last weeks has touched upon, the Covid-19 pandemic can be seen as a demo-version: one of the most common themes was of it as a demo-version of a world without vaccines.

However, as some comments below pick up, in the SRIA 2.0 the need for urban robustness has more to do with

  • what happens in the wake of climate-change and the probably increasing uncertainties, disruptions, and magnitudes of various kinds of crisis in the Anthropocene;
  • that robustness is not simply the contingency optimisation of a system but has as much to do with how this is done (the ends does not justify the means).

Following Nowotny, the sense of robustness has to do with how this sturdiness, the what ‘we want to defend and shape resilience around’, what in some policy corners are talked about as the recovery aspects and beyond, is shaped with a genuine ethos of co-creation and leaving no-one behind.

‘Urban areas and policy are challenged not just with resilience in a technical sense, but with the robustness of their ethical value base around democracy and human rights by increasing turbulence and shifting grounds in terms of climate as well as societal dynamics. Whereas resilience de- notes the capacity to recover, robustness focus on the sturdy and healthy ‘baseline’ of urban settings as a pre-condition for sustainability as well as for sound resilience in crisis-management.’
SRIA 2.0, p 22

A taste

This robustness is built by more heterogenous elements and infrastructures than ‘technology’: a main ingredient seems to be the degree of trust between actors in society (between individuals and institutions), since this is crucial to coordinate responses to crisis without resorting to anti-democratic measures (which, as the UN , among others, warned, just like quick-fix technologies usually runs the risk of sticking along for longer than the crisis itself). Urban resilience, in terms of dynamic re-organisations after crisis, has uncertain effects on communities and neighbourhoods. Whether or not communities and residents indeed trust each other and their institutions to have their back when hit by a crisis affects the overall societal responsiveness.

Another seems to be equity and standards of living or liveability, since those cities and urban areas that are ‘better resourced, less crowded and more equal’ are not as vulnerable than cities ‘marked with inequalities and a high concentration of urban poor’ (OECD ‘Cities policy responses’ p. 1).

Sociotechnical systems such as transport and mobility of course play a role, although at the moment a negative one: current systems in most urban areas are not robust and actually increase vulnerabilities as they contribute to air pollution, which leaves urban inhabitants at greater risk in this particular crisis (probably in other kinds as well?) to respiratory troubles. This is also linked to societal urban consumption patterns.

A Swedish commentator made the observation that in many parts of the world the life expectancy because of Covid-19 crisis actually increased, particularly those areas in China and Southeast Asia that caters to Western consumption, where the otherwise usual high environmental stress in terms of pollution now lifted during the ‘general slow-down’ (Huss in SvD Debatt).

Quarantine themes emerging

So, here are some bits-and-pieces on what we observe related to COVID-19, Corona, and the current variegated responses in Europe and beyond regarding urban public spaces.

We observe that networks and initiatives, such as ISOCARP, ESPON, OECD etc., publish statements and are working to gather and provide resources relating to urban policy responses to as well as how Covid-19 affects urbanism in general, and placemaking and urban public space dynamics/practices in particular. Here, how to address eco-anxiety pops-up around children’s needs in terms of a healthy life and climate to be put at the core of public space.

These observations and samplings quite quickly turned to society at large in various parts and noting initiatives (such as ‘Frena la curva’) to support the lock down/stay at home. And with regards to not least food security, an increase in urban farming in coronavirus lockdowns. Wherever authorities and business owners have put up tape and indicators of how to keep physical distance, the general responses has been one of civic concern and obedience. (Then again, in the corona-case, acting against  this civic concern also means putting yourself at risk. Egoism is still true altruism?)

We make direct observations on our own. For instance, noting the early, mid-March first wave in Europe and its responses being reflected as with a sense of ‘you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.’ Even those working from home in their apartments seem to have a strong longing for ‘the urban’ – the street life, the park life, the vibrancy and life that is the city: public, semi-public and private spaces (businesses, shops, restaurants) which, in the end provide you things you can order to your door. Is there now a growing recognition of its non-materialistic values?  

We observe the tragic irony that quarantine is far from safe. An increase of domestic violence against women during the pandemic and lock-down situations are reported from around the world (yes, Northern Europe). Adding to this, areas of cramped housing accommodation report higher numbers of inhabitants hospitalized in Covid-19. These are already areas where ‘third spaces’ like outdoor public space have already proven particularly important for inhabitants. Why not consider urban  public spaces as ‘essential services’ for women and people in vulnerable domestic situations, as Ayanda Roji of the Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo reasoned (personal communication). We also note critical voices on how to practice distance and manage  sanitation if you’re homeless in a city without adequate provision of free-of-charge restrooms and shelter.

In the ‘first wave’ are Instagram posts (and similar social media platforms) to share the experience of urbanity, particularly public spaces, estranged by quarantine and human face-to-face distancing principles. Instagrammers observe and visually reflect upon the pandemic effect on our everyday shared spaces. Photo captions to these depopulated spaces are of pitiful and upright sad character. It looks like a viral mourning of the public areas we call home but at the same time a recognition of the same. Will we eventually see some interesting corrections on the presumed importance of face-to-face friction with strangers, and notes on the screen-vs-square ‘debate’?

Anecdote from the North

Something hit me during one of my working-from-home-lunch-forest-jogs in Stockholm the other day. During the pandemic, it is visible to the eye how physical space and distancing is a matter of hierarchy in practice – who gives space to whom? Who should take a step to the side, who stays put? I found myself zig-zagging so much between elderly people in the track that the jog became somewhat of a football-dribble exercise (which was very unfortunate me). They did not move for me. No questions asked, from neither of us. A logic of flows that resemble sea traffic where smaller boats give way to larger, less manouverable boats, and where leisure traffic give way to commercial traffic. Within a matter of a few weeks, this norm has established itself, on recommendation from the Swedish National Public Health Agency. Stockholm is not on lockdown but practicing levels of self-imposed solidarity quarantine in combination with social distancing – leading to an increase in park visitors and distance-dribbling.

It’s a reoccurring theme in public space safety policies however, I mean, who to design for, the potential perpetrator or its victim – in ethics and in practice? I look around the park and realize that the elderly here trusts me not to harm them – it goes against both of our logics that I would stop, lean over them, and cough… But when it comes to the safety of women and girls in public parks, the established norm is that we, as potential victims, are encouraged to stay home at dark hours. Critics of this have, somewhat provokingly, argued that ‘if the problem is that men harm women, we should tell the men not to go out in dark hours’. It is almost as if we have built resilience on the matter (disrupting events will happen, we know how to bounce back from them – men are prosecuted, women comforted, and order is restored) rather than robustness (‘women and girls don’t worry about safety in public parks because the chances of being seriously hurt by a man have been minimized thanks to preventive measures’).

Heading back to my apartment, I experience my first ever conversation with another resident in my neighborhood. Running pass a mother and her daughter playing floor hockey at an empty parking space, I gasp. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for two years but have never seen any appropriation of space whatsoever. This area is an anonymous and somewhat gated part of downtown Stockholm with regards to street life. Inhabitants here purchase the space they believe they need (spaces that are now closed). ‘I’m sorry!’ shouts the mother, as the ball is headed my way. ‘No believe me, I’M sorry!’, I shout back.


Do you have an anectdote on your everyday urban life during Covid-19? Get in touch and we might put it up here!

Themes emerging is also the role of urban planning, both in terms of ‘you don’t know what you have…’ after decades of public administration austerity as well as placing maybe a tiny bit too much confidence in how urban design may influence societal life. But the analogies to the birth of Modern planning in the 19th Century public health concerns are no less valid. And with that also queries around the compact city vs urban sprawl and how to deal with it now, in times of distancing and when physical proximity to work is no longer a significant factor in deciding where to live. The importance of smaller-scale responses in crisis, and neighbourhood-level-orientation in urban policy in general, is another issue that has been exemplified and somewhat prototyped during the pandemic. Appreciated neighbourhood-responses have been many, such as Helsinki’s ‘Neighbours help neighbours‘.

And of course, methodological concerns. One proposition is to develop a fractal sense of the situation, that is, how to organise urbanity in a more robust way to better respond to anticipated similar and increasing disruptions (cf. Nowotny in Science|Business, no. 833).

This also developed into capturing voices reflecting on what will probably change, on a longer term, and questions about the political moment (i.e. not Politics as in the procedural sense of governance but political debate and exploration, making sense and meaning on what paths to follow further on, working with ‘what to do?’ rather than ideological templates, of how to choose what path ahead ‘we’ want to embark.

Moving on?

Given the reflexive moment, the sudden opportunity to have a hard look at urban and societal practices and the difficult political work of sorting out what seems reasonable to keep on doing and what we could – or should – do very well without has perhaps begun with a different sense of earnestness than, say, what the environmentalist and climate-change movement (‘Greta’) achieved in the preceding months, years, decades.

Just like the nuclear disaster in Fukushima ‘inspired’ a German energy turn (transition), which of course has run into implementation difficulties just like all large- scale systemic innovation, so this pandemic may move us into the experimental ethos and pathways required to live well with the Anthropocene.

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