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


Future Safe and Sustainable Urbanization

Expert Group Discussion with the Audience

Thursday 23 July 2020  /  Series 3 (July) - Webinar 4

>>> 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), part of the series “2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID19 Pandemic”. Responding to previous webinars in the series, speakers and practitioners from the United Kingdom, United States, United Arab Emirates, and Tanzania reflected upon COVID-19 experiences in different parts of the world and shed light on the future of safe and sustainable urbanization.

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 speaker

Charles R. Wolfe, Seeing Better Cities Group, London, United Kingdom

“Imagine if the city around you disappeared and everything familiar in your daily life and routines suddenly ceased to exist... how would you reinvent your city?” 

Charles started his sharing with the idea of Place Healing, a manifesto to be published in the summer. He viewed the idea of a safe and sustainable city more than just a physical environment. The pandemic is not a standalone case, but relates to the broader topics of environmental justice and equity, the Black Lives Matter movement and more long-term social issues. With the emergence of an accelerated bikeable walkable city based on the pandemic, made possible by road closures for pedestrians, al fresco dining, measures to discourage the use of public transport, Charles questioned the plausibility to impose a pattern that lasts. He argued that it would require a unity of culture and character, creating relevance for local reality. 
Adaptations are also part of Place Healing. Also known as tactical urbanism and pop-ups, these simple solutions appeared extensively during the pandemic. For instance, at Kew Gardens, card cables and signage were used to regulate entry. Bobtail Fruit, a fruit stand at subway station that was no longer sustainable survived the pandemic and expanded its delivery services from high-end food and fruits to office to residential areas in new postcode areas. Healing does not necessarily have a physical manifestation. Taking the example of Isleworth’s plague plate and the mass burial of the 1665 plague in London, Charles concluded by stressing on the continuity in tactical times and highlighted the lessons one could still learn from history. 


Dhanya Rajagopal, Design Trust for Public Space, New York, United States

Dhanya argued that safe and sustainable urbanization lied greatly in redefining public space as critical infrastructure for social networks, physical spaces, and emergency preparedness. Design Trust for Public Space took the approach of long-term policy implementation through short term pilot testing, bringing different stakeholders together in conversations that would have been impossible. EL-SPACE looked at the underutilized elevated infrastructure in New York, for instance, how run-off water from flyover drainage pipes could feed into planter boxes, the project suggested policies that were adopted by the Department of Transport. Future Culture looked at the past, present, and future of Staten Island’s North Shore via artists’ interpretations.
Dhanya illustrated five key public space pain points, namely water, safety, accessibility, health, and urban commons via the case of Chennai, a city with only 0.81 sp.m of open space per capita. The right to access for urban commons should particularly be managed well in this extreme case. Local self-governance and strengthening of urban local bodies were keys in the pandemic, reaching inner neighbourhoods with health resources when the state and city could not. The key question here is to further decentralize local institutions and capacity building. Dhanya shared the example of how a university, nonprofit and public utility company in Tennessee collaborated to create drive-up Wifi sites, contributing to much-needed connectivity and accessibility. In addition to the lack of public spaces, safety is also an issue in India, impacting women’s workforce participation, yet the city does not have funding to bring about necessary policy and infrastructure changes. Moving onto the issue of water, Chennai announced Day Zero last year, with pollution, droughts, floods taking place in the city. Dhanya is working on a crowdsourced database for India to highlight the shared use of public spaces that served as critical infrastructures during COVID, such as playgrounds and transit hubs as markets, stadiums and even railways coaches converted into isolation wards, and emphasized on the importance of governance and space coalition for safer cities in the future.


Gregory Scruggs, Seattle, United States

Gregory focused on Seattle's recent protest occupation, the radical reawakening of public space, and the vision of a safe city that does not involve armed police officers. In June, followed by the murder of George Floyd, the public health crisis was superseded by people who took the streets. They adopted the language of the virus with slogans like “racism is the deadliest virus” and occupied streets in defiance of public health orders that limited large gatherings. A week-long standoff of police and protestors clashes at Capitol Hill neighbourhood resulted in the police abandoning the police station. The facade of the station was “redecorated” to “claim the police station for the people”. The protestors also occupied the surrounding six blocks and created the ‘Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone’ with repurposed barricades used as demarcation, turning it into a micro-neighbourhood and alternative police-free society for a few weeks. Pedestrianization, barricading the streets in this case, became a radical and extreme tactic to block the police as they relied on vehicles to commute, changing the social contract around policing fundamentally. Basic infrastructure for traffic management and tools were repurposed into tools to open up the space for pedestrians. With an official Stay Healthy Street Initiative sign also being repurposed, Gregory noted how the deeply rooted issue of racism had superseded months of public health initiatives to shut down streets. The shutting down of streets also opened up opportunities for dialogues of issues like systemic racism and racial identity, and spaces for memorials, events, community gardens calling attention for land loss issues, and an unsanctioned and unofficial Black Lives Matter street mural.


Yasser Khalil, Ajman Municipality, Ajman, United Arab Emirates

Yasser felt that the pandemic had first and foremost affected people’s confidence in their original set of principles and values of globalization and personal freedom, and turning to concepts like localization and isolation. Urban planners had failed to recognize the aspects of safety and security, and this would be the focus post-COVID. 
Yasser further provided the context of Arab countries, consisting of 22 countries spreading in two continents, although speaking the same language, there is a huge diversity in urbanization rate, culture, lifestyles, socio-economic and political conditions. He agreed that COVID is an opportunity for a sustained recovery in the Arab region, especially to diversify localized industries so as to reduce vulnerability to global shocks, the same goes for urban planning. Yasser was concerned about how architecture would shape the understanding of public space and thus how people feel in the city. He also quoted from a UN Policy Brief, echoing that we should ‘envision a realistic way forward towards achieving the 2030 Agenda’, and the importance of SDGs for ‘building resilience against shocks and avoiding backslide into poverty’. After all, the pandemic shows that health comes before the discussion of politics and the economy. Applying these lessons to the municipality, Yasser would focus on three actions: more health care services, reduction of high density, and more public open space, and these would require revisions of standards and regulations accordingly. 


Furaha G. Abwe, Urban Planning for Community Change, Arusha, Tanzania

Furaha opened the sharing with the pandemic context of African countries, with over 769,000 cases, there were surprisingly three countries with no deaths at all. Similar measures were taken to prevent the spread of COVID in Africa, such as lockdowns, curfews, and physical distancing. Furaha noted that these measures might one way jeopardize people’s mental health and livelihoods. People were allowed to go to local food markets during the pandemic as they are considered essential services, yet they had no access to green spaces as these are not considered essential, which led to mental health issues. 
Furaha’s NGO conducted studies on the quantity and quality of green spaces and local public markets in Arusha, Tanzania in 2014 and 2019. The study revealed huge spatial inequality of locations of local public markets; they are mostly situated in the centre of the city, which require users to travel at least half an hour on motorised transport. During the pandemic, the governments installed handwashing facilities at the entrances of the markets. Green spaces were assigned as per town planning requirement and so there is an adequate amount, but municipalities did not develop them, many open spaces do not have any city facilities and infrastructure. The well-maintained ones are privately owned, and users have to pay to enter (at least US$3 per day per entry). Furaha suggested that in the future there needs to be an integration of urban planning and public health principles. Small neighbourhood-based markets should be established so that users can avoid the use of public transport. Furaha’s NGO is planning to also develop a green space as a pilot project to advocate similar projects for low-income neighbourhoods. Last but not least, he also planned to work with city councils to advocate for budget allowance for public green spaces. 


Roundtable discussions

How should we address the holistic idea of safety while dealing with the broad complexity of sustainable development?

Charles highlighted the spirit of mutual help as shown in recent protests and in the pandemic, people cross the line to help each other in the community. As he proposed in the Place Healing Manifesto with elements such as ‘emphasis on communication’, ‘understand differences and limitations between different classes’, ‘embrace the front porch’, ‘mutual understanding and education’, Charles felt that we are accelerating everything we knew via this pandemic, it’s a golden opportunity to examine the issues and amplify existing tools, to embrace co-creation and be inclusive at a distance.

Gregory observed the emergence of concepts of mutual aid and solidarity, contrasting to the US individualism. In the wake of protests, there was a more serious form of solidarity around the issue of racial justice, fiction-like solidarity during the pandemic became more real in the occupation of public spaces. Charles gave the example of the ‘war of moms’ taking up the troops in Portland. 

In response to the protests movement, Dhanya brought up the anti-CAA protest that had been going on for 101 days and is the longest protest in modern India. The protest had created solidarity among different religions and caste, and was also led by women, portraying a picture of women of different age groups who could occupy public space, a stark contrast to the usual one. The protest also showed the possibility of creating sporadic self-governing entities, speaking to the concepts of urban commons and right to the city, and decentralising existing structures. 

Yasser suggested that the next step should be to look at how public spaces can promote human universal values regardless of race and religion. Given the many restrictions to connect with people during the pandemic, it’s important to secure small quick wins to increase the area of inclusive open space while making it safe and avoiding too many restrictions, and embracing the fundamental value of freedom. 

Luisa raised the concept of control during the pandemic, for instance, many countries developed mobile apps to control health conditions. This in turn raised concerns over data protection and management, yet the apps were only effective if they reached a critical mass. There were also discussions regarding the prolonged period of lockdown and how the government limited freedom in movement. The control for our safety in turn created a problem of social life; a difficult balance to manage and decision to make for individuals.


Given the complexities, how do we plan new societies and create confidence between people, and know that we are safe in the public domain?

Dhanya stressed on how adverse situations amplified the concepts and possibilities of community building, solidarity and social cohesion. People realized that they do not need to only rely on the governments, social and community initiatives emerged such as farmers’ markets. She also commented on how density is not necessarily a bad thing and that it would bring about easier access to food, markets, and other services, leading to a more livable future. Dhanya also shared the example of Dharavi, a hugely dense slum with 1 million residents, how it had been very successful in containing the virus due to a strong mutual sense of community. 


How much do you feel that the pandemic discourse has disrupted or advanced our conversation about sustainability and ecologically progressive change in public spaces? Do you think one or the other tasks priority where the discussions do not overlap?

Charles raised the dilemma of how public transport became less safe and some people who couldn’t walk or cycle thus drove more. He thought that it required neighborhood groups and the government to discuss specifically where these two topics conflict, and generate policies and structural changes. Gregory added that the pandemic had shown how a reduction of economic activities led to improvements in air quality, once again revealing the tradeoffs and the conflicts. Yasser echoed and stressed on the importance for the government to balance between the economic situations and the need of sustainability.


Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Marvin Ronsdorf on Unsplash