2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID-19 Pandemic


Rethinking public spaces.
Exploring the interplay of the analogue and virtual realm and its effects on public and social life in cities

Thursday 16 July 2020  /  Series 3 (July) - Webinar 3

>>> Speakers and agenda
>>> Programme of our COVID-19 initiative


The webinar was initiated and hosted by Luisa Bravo (City Space Architecture / The Journal of Public Space) and Hendrik Tieben (Chinese University of Hong Kong), and moderated by Astrid Ley (Department of International Urbanism, University of Stuttgart, Germany). This webinar is part of the series “2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID19 Pandemic”. Social media and digital communication are nowadays closely embedded into everyday practices and rapidly transform social and public life. This is particularly true for urban life which increasingly takes place in “hybrid spaces”, where face-to-face and virtual interaction blend. However, little is known about the role and implications of ‘hybrid spaces’ for social and public life in times of the lock down and COVID-19. This webinar critically engaged with this phenomenon and explored its effects on urban planning, community-building, community resilience, participation and democracy via discussions with scholars, practitioners, and experts from Portugal, Germany, Italy, and Hong Kong.

Recorded video of the webinar produced by Yin-Fen Chen, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Summary of the webinar curated by Stephanie Cheung, The Chinese University of Hong Kong


Insights from speakers

Carlos Smaniotto Costa, CeiED Interdisciplinary Research Centre for Education and Development, Universidade Lusófona, Lisbon, Portugal

Carlos centered his research around public open space and shared two projects, cyberparks and C3places. Cyberparks explored the concept of mediated space by blending nature and ICT to generate hybrid experience and enhance the quality of life. Examples included using QR codes to disseminate information to tourists and street furniture that serves as WiFi and battery charging stations. Carlos proposed that ICT can be applied to public space three-fold: for analysis of place, to enhance people’s experience in place, for community engagement about place. The project has gathered a great pool of examples and contributed to a few publications analyzing how technology helped address specific user needs in public space. The pandemic heightened the demand of public space for physical and mental health benefits, Carlos thus explored the added value of ICT to create responsive, accessible and attractive public space, and used technology to engage people with their environment to co-create public spaces, leading to the next project C3places. C3 stands for cooperation, coordination, and co-creation. The project engaged teenagers in the co-creation process of public space as they are often not involved in city-making, and discovered their specific needs, such as dedicated space away from surveillance of adults and social space to hang out with friends. 
Carlos concluded his sharing with learnings from both projects, reminding us that technology only helps when there is added value, smart city also requires involvement of its people, and the virtual space is not a substitute of the physical space.   


Franziska Schreiber, Department of International Urbanism, University of Stuttgart, Germany

“Digital neighbourhood platforms are hyperlocal social networks that seek to connect people in a geographically defined area - both online and offline - and ease the exchange of local information and services.”

Franziska focused her sharing on the role of digital neighbourhood platforms, which initiated many of the physical solidarity actions during COVID-19, and took on a prominent role in fulfilling what used to be traditional functions of analogue spaces. Emerged a decade ago, these platforms exist now in different countries, and have become important sites for social interaction, public debates and civic engagement, allowing communities to share information, ask for help and connect. Franziska zoomed into Germany’s context by illustrating the example of Nebenan.de, Germany’s biggest social network with more than 1.6 million users. As a social business, the platform generates income from voluntary contributions and cooperation with local businesses and city authorities, who pay fees for so-called business or organisational profiles. COVID-19 led to quadrupled daily registrations and a 30% increase in weekly activities on the platform. Content on the platform moved to childcare, education, groceries buying and more. It also set up a coronavirus hotline and help page in partnership with city authorities, providing crucial information and assistance, improving community resilience and users’ capacity to cope with the pandemic. Franziska suggested that it’s difficult to conclude whether these platforms enhanced social cohesion: while earlier research suggested that users enjoy a greater sense of belonging and generally expand their social networks, these platforms usually are represented by users with higher socioeconomic status. Certain social groups could easily fall through both digital and analogue neighbourhood support systems, leading to the issue of “doubly disadvantaged”. 
To conclude, it’s important to treat digital neighbourhood platforms as digital public space that should be carefully designed and managed like physical spaces in order to create an inclusive environment. As many of these platforms operate commercially, the rise of such digital infrastructure also raised questions regarding data privacy, sustainable financing and maintenance, and the role of the public sector in the long run. 


Federico Bastiani, Social Street, Bologna, Italy

Started in 2013 out of personal urge to connect with his neighbours after moving into a completely new neighbourhood, Federico wished to recreate the sense of community through Social Street, which started as a closed Facebook social group. Those were the days when prominent digital neighbourhood platforms were not nonexistent. Unlike those platforms which run commercially, the importance of this network does not lie in the number of users and the data it could gather, but the ability to ultimately connect with neighbours offline and foster authentic connections and bondings, through events like street parties, or the gradual formation of interest groups and small hands-on projects. What started as an idea has grown into a huge network and gained attention from New York Times and alike without any financial investments. The pandemic affected Social Street greatly as physical connections were halted, yet Federico is confident that sociality would make its come back in the long run. He observed that at times filled with anxiety, people yearned for community and connection via small acts of support such as mending a neighbour’s shirt, interaction on Social Streets surged 300% during this period. 


Franziska Turber, Foresight Consultant, Z_Punkt, Germany

"With Corona we face an acceleration of major transformations. We face an acceleration of the ongoing digital transformations of everyday life that comes along with a significant concentration of power on a few digital platforms. It is now more than ever necessary to critically reflect the tech-deterministic mindset that drives those firms and envision alternative human-centered futures."

Franziska set the context of coronavirus as an experience of ‘subjective deceleration’ - at least for people that do not work in system-relevant jobs and have the possibility to work from home. She referred to the philosopher Armen Avanessian, that explains the current situation as ‘paradox between the complete standstill of everyday life and an actual acceleration of major transformations’. Which path we take right now will therefore largely impact our future. Corona acts as a catalyst for the digital transformation of everyday life. Deprived from using public space freely, we more than ever depend on using digital technologies for communication, entertainment, or shopping. Within recent years, the lines between the digital and analogue space have been increasingly blurred. Augmented and virtual reality applications provide entirely new experiences of social interactions in everyday life as well as in public spaces. For the near future, Facebook for example envisions lifelike avatars to meet in creative VR worlds. Nevertheless, the digitalization within the last years implies a major shift in power towards digital platforms such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. The rise of those platform companies also comes along with significant spatial consequences: The strong competition from e-commerce firms, for example, displaces many small retail shops, which leads to increasingly desertified inner cities. A problem particularly small towns face. Besides that, as the business of those tech firms mainly relies on the extensive and permanent extraction of data, they increasingly expand beyond the mere digital context and seize new opportunities within the urban realm. In this market logic the city turns into a growth model and the citizen respectively into a user and source of data extraction. Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs recently terminated the urban planning project in Toronto and gave a glimpse of how urban planning might change with those new players entering the scene. It revealed the mere solutionism and trust in the omnipotence of technology, quite well. For instance, it was intended to sense the citizens’ every step and draw urban planning decisions accordingly. Franziska points out the underlying danger of this kind of post-political algorithmic planning and stresses the importance to take agency in urban development approaches that first and foremost put democratic values and human reason at the center. Within this people-centered vision, digital technologies should rather act as enablers.  


Tat Lam, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, School of Architecture, Hong Kong / Founder, CEO, Shanzhai City;
Jessica Cheung, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, School of Architecture, Hong Kong / Shanzhai City

Tat founded Shanzhai City, a civic technology company which focuses on blockchain and AI solutions for grass root community development. Via sharing two case studies, Tat and Jessica raised the idea of the alternations of data flow, capital flow, supplies and goods flow, and the concept of digital citizenship and identity. 
The first case study illustrated was a digital marketplace that used time-based currency to create a self-organised community mutual support system both online and offline. Local NGOs initiated the time voucher programme and brought the idea of ‘time bank’ into Hong Kong in  response to the financial instability triggered during the 2008 financial crisis, building local economic resilience to combat the global instability. Time spent in community services turned into credits, which could be exchanged for goods and services, contributing to dynamic local economy ecosystems which vary as per neighbourhood. However, such systems relied on manual administrative and bookkeeping efforts, creating a huge workload and limiting scalability and impacts. Shanzhai City digitalized the system and turned it into an online market, facilitating larger volumes of exchanges, as well as cross-district exchanges. A new public space emerged in the digital market. Moreover, Shanzhai City created digital decentralized identification (DID) for the grassroots community based on one’s identity, assets, ability, and need, and is privately protected by blockchain. During COVID-19, the platform became a place to crowdsource materials, skills and time to produce masks for people in need. The vision is to turn the platform into a social impact marketplace that facilitates the matching of validated social needs from community with trustworthy service providers and businesses.
The second case study related to community finance and a digital townhall for villages in Myanmar. MM Community Bond attempted to bridge the government’s infrastructure investment gap. It crowdsourced identified needs from the community and allowed locals to validate the success and completion of projects. This project advocated community participation and transparent funding deployment, democratizing the process of community infrastructure building and development.
Tat concluded the sharing by highlighting the essence of creating local economic resilience, particularly against the backdrop of global uncertainties. He also advocated the need for a paradigm shift for community development, shifting from a centralised distributed system to a decentralised system composed of small cell units, which became prominent during this pandemic crisis. Over the past six months, there was a ten times increase in the users of time vouchers in Hong Kong with interesting usage such as users crowdfunding vouchers for others to exchange food in food banks. Final takeaways from the communities were micro-design for agile adaptive change, micro-services for local economy, and micro-policy for new public space. 



Melissa Permezel, UN-Habitat, Innovation Unit

Melissa raised several common themes which weaved through the presentations. She suggested that the presentations raised questions about how we now envisage public space, that there are a myriad of dimensions to public space we now have to consider that reach beyond the typical streetscape and town squares but are now virtual spaces often involving new digital platforms. At the same time, these spaces raise some similar challenges around inclusion. For example, whether it's a public square or a virtual platform, some groups, such as women, remain vulnerable in these spaces. For example, women’s safety is still an issue on digital platforms. Melissa also felt that there’s a wider realm of understanding place and space that we can now imagine, as opposed to the duality of digital and physical space. This is particularly important when COVID-19 pointed to health risks in public space and raised a variety of dichotomies. Overall, the presentations raised questions around power: who is included or not in public space and how there are real questions of inequality in considering new virtual public spaces given the glaring digital divide found in many cities around the world. Lastly, Melissa commented on how the time voucher system highlighted the often overlooked economic value of public space. This needs to be rectified and all economic dimensions operating in public space, including the informal sector, need to be accounted for. 


Roundtable discussions 

How can digital technologies be effective in helping to promote better spaces in very unequal realities such as Brazilian big cities, where a great part of the urban population lives in the outskirts without good or any access to this kind of technology?

Drawing from the experiences of a project in northern Brazil which also used technology to collect data from ethnic minorities, Tat deemed the situation inevitable, believing that the future of poverty would be caused by digital inequalities. He suggested the types of solutions would depend on the fundamental concept of data literacy. In some occasions, organisations would send decentralised agencies (known as data intermediary) to the frontline to onboard and assist communities. 


Given the digital divide, Franziska, would you foresee similar situations of digital neighbourhood platforms in other countries? 

Franziska raised examples of other platforms that focus on semi-urban areas and villages. Instead of connecting people, they facilitate crowdsourcing information and knowledge to deal with issues like lack of infrastructure. Experiences from the outskirts of Munich and two smaller cities also revealed that digital platforms fulfil a sort of introductory function as they lowered the threshold of connection and would later lead to happenings in analogue space. Franziska also suggested that the users of more locally-centric platforms had more elderly than one would expect, with an average age of about 45 and a lot of the users reaching age of 70. While digital literacy is an important factor to consider, language barriers should also be addressed.


Are the users aware that you are using the decentralised identity platform in contrast to other platforms that might be subject to surveyance?

Tat thought that there are two sides to consider, one is the increasing concern for technology firms to design sustainable and trustworthy platforms to handle data, the other is the aspect of capacity building to avoid data labour and data exploitation, educating on topics like data sovereignty, where data is an individual asset. In Federico’s case, the online platform serves as an instrument to facilitate better offline experiences, and users would at their own comfort switch to private conversations. Jessica further explained how the digital decentralized identification system worked with a protective key that can accessed only by the user, thus this single intervention could help educate users about their data ownership. 


Are we afraid of switching too much to online public life instead of analogue public life?
Franziska Turber argued that the analogue space remains very important, as social beings, we yearn for human touch and connections despite the emergence of VR and AR technologies. She remained critical of the strong reliance on tech giants as they draw us into a future no one is certain of, but noted that there are open source platforms that paid huge attention to data privacy. 


Reading materials

Cyberparks website

C3places website

Social Street website (scroll down for translation in other languages) - Read about Social Street in Bologna and about Federico Bastiani’s story here.

(German) / Franziska Schreiber, Hannah Göppert (2018) Changing neighbourhoods in times of digital networking: How does digital media impact  social cohesion and participation in neighbourhoods, Adelphi, Berlin.


Photo by Marcus Andreas