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


The Impact of the Pandemic to Street Life, Urban Culture and Beyond

Thursday 6 August 2020  /  Series 4 (August) - Webinar 1

>>> 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 Maurice Harteveld (Delft University of Technology, Urban Design | Public Space, The Netherlands). This webinar is part of the series “2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID19 Pandemic” and explored how the pandemic and its social distancing measurements have impacted street life and urban culture across the globe. Insights were provided from scholars, practitioners, and experts from The Netherlands, Greece, France, and the United States.

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



Maurice Harteveld, Delft University of Technology, Urban Design | Public Space, The Netherlands

Maurice introduced the topic of this webinar by sharing the situation of The Netherlands, which saw the peak of the pandemic in late March. The spread started in the south-eastern part of the country and hit the urban cores more seriously. The country responded by a call for public responsibility, such as work at home, physical distancing, crowding avoidance, and the closure of public amenities, no formal lockdown took place. Maurice attributed this to the country’s universal values of moral ethics and the value of health, and at the same time, social ethics and value of the freedom of the will. The response first resulted in empty supermarket shelves, abandoned public spaces, reduced mobility, support to medical aid, yet parks and beaches gradually got crowded, triggering the city of Rotterdam to impose the rule of masks. Recently, the infection cases increased but affected mostly younger population. Maurice shared his observations of how the pandemic has affected the streetscape of Rotterdam so far: streets opened up for pedestrians, revitalized public spaces and pocket parks, and the catalysed planned large-scale pedestrianisation and greening of Rotterdam inner city, increase in shops and offices vacancy rate, all of these are forwarding trends that were present for a long time, such as streets appropriations and online shopping, and he expected an increase of domestic and local life in public space within people’ neighbourhoods. In the future, Maurice foresees challenges to designing urban public spaces for domestic and local life, particularly for generic ‘global city’ infrastructure, high-rise, dense neighbourhoods, and areas of newcomers. 


Insights from Speakers

Angeliki Anagnostou, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands

“Despite the readjustment on the proxemics, it seems that COVID-19 made people more social in public space.” 

Angeliki shared the case of her hometown, the medium-sized port city Alexandroupolis in Northern Greece with a population size of 57,000. Lockdown was imposed and citizens were only allowed to leave home for proven and restricted purposes, including exercising, triggering an increase of people who run and stroll, an interesting scene for a country whose citizens were normally not active. Recently developed waterfront, local places and undefined open spaces were utilized more than before, every bench was occupied and people also became creative to create sitting places, pedestrians and cyclists outnumbered cars. Sidewalks became the place for takeaways coffee as cafes, bars and taverns were closed. Despite the physical distancing imposed, Angeliki felt that people became more social with each other in public space. Streetlife was greatly impacted by the measures imposed, most notably on 22 March when the lockdown was announced and all non-essential movements banned, young people in groups of two and elderly on their own decided to walk and sit on benches. On 4 May, the rules relaxed, groups of 3-5 residents headed out and children went back to playgrounds. Gradually, cultural and recreational amenities reopened, streets and beach were filled with people again. Angeliki believed that the economic crisis had actually made the Greek community more resilient and better prepared for yet another crisis and state of alert.


Fabiano Micocci, Department of Architecture, University of Thessaly, Greece

“For whom is the public space created for, what are the kind of policies that should be implemented in a way that all classes and all people can be protected from the on-going effects of the pandemic or the new normal we may find in a few months?”

For Fabiano, the first images of the pandemic were the photos of many empty famous sites around the world, as some would say, ‘the end of public space as a space for sociality’. He considered public spaces as spaces that allow different configurations to take place at different times of the day, spaces that can be appropriated, and spaces of conflict or democratic participation. One of the permanent consequences of the pandemic is the diffusion of mass surveillance in public spaces via mobile tracking of movement, the presence of cameras in the urban landscape, with China’s 2008 Olympics and 2010 Shanghai Expo being good examples of such. The current state of emergency allows restrictive measurements, yet Fabiano cautioned that these should be lawful, necessary and proportionate to the specific conditions. At the same time, gatherings and protests took place in Italy and Berlin against the temporary restrictions and measurements. Media freedom violations were also on the rise and there were recently many cases of journalists attacks in public spaces by the police or demonstrations, public spaces were used as spaces for demonstrations but also spaces of conflict. Fabiano also observed schizophrenic management of the Greek government during post-lockdown period, as reflected by the disparity in treatment when it came to the gathering at public space; citizens gatherings were intervened by police, yet official events and openings of the government could take place as usual. The Greek government passed a law to restrict public demonstration, limiting how public space can be used for different needs by different users in society. Police, in general, intervened people’s small gatherings on the street, mostly executed with violence instead of advice-giving. Such management style also impacted the refugees, who had to go through a longer lockdown period than other citizens and face eviction. Fabiano also noted how a recent large-scale urban innovation in Athens was disconnected from smaller streets and life of people in general. 


Vaso Trova, University of Thessaly, Department of Architecture, Greece

“We have to do this because streets and public squares are cornerstones of democracy, it’s the areas where everybody can exist, everybody can be together with other people.”

Greek cities are dense combinations of urban blocks and streets which lack open green spaces. With one of the lowest green spaces ratios among European cities, the main public spaces are streets and public squares, which Vaso referred to as ‘locus of the urban life’ of Mediterranean cities that see co-presence, strolling pedestrians, and coffee shops for meeting friends and families and informal work. At the same time, dense areas have limited pavements, lack public transport and parking spaces, so people rely heavily on private vehicles. Like many cities, Greece introduced metrics to public co-existence and co-presence for COVID, 1.5m between moving people, or 15 sq m. per customer in shops. Vaso thought that this kind of proximity is a major issue in public life in the Mediterranean area and Greek cultural context as busy streets make it safe and friendly, referencing Jane Jacobs’ ideas. She further elaborated how the metric could lead to two very different outcomes: agoraphobia, i.e. fewer people on the streets, due to the restrictions and fines, or spatial enlargement to accommodate more people.
Great walk of Athens is a recent typical project of tactical urbanism implemented by the Municipal of Athens, transforming some traffic lanes into pedestrian and bicycle routes in only limited parts in the city center. It’s an example of low-cost pedestrian-friendly intervention perhaps common in other cities, but a continuation of a paradigm shift in Greece. At the same time, restaurants and coffee shops are allowed to expand into parking lanes, spaces that were meant for private cars. Vaso reminded all that we have to consider and handle conflicts that are omnipresent in city planning: pedestrian-friendly projects diminish the traffic and parking spaces in cities that depend on private transportation. Another possible threat is that eateries’ temporal expansion into pedestrian areas might become permanent and eventually eliminate pedestrian spaces. Vaso concluded with the urgency to persuade or shape the decision-making bodies towards practices that support all kinds of people to have access to streets and squares and put environmental friendly models of urban life. 


Edna Peza, Université de Paris, France

“The pandemic has not made citizens newly vulnerable. The urban majority was already  vulnerable.” 

With a simple Google search on “post-COVID public space”, Edna highlighted some keywords such as adapting to the work and new normal, resilience, sustainability, smart cities, tactical urbanism, and in short, how COVID made people realize the importance of public spaces, especially in this new normal where our lives changed drastically. She thought that the dominant discourse was established with a single narrative, assuming that crisis is the same for many, and composed of three acts: business as usual, disrupted by lockdown, and a gradual return to streets, revitalizing and rethinking the role of public space. Such discourse failed to take into account other street lives and urban cultures that exist for vulnerable groups, for instance, economic and social inequalities led to other ways of using public space for everyday life already before the pandemic. “For some populations, COVID 19 measures didn’t imply a change, but only another constraint to deal with, along with preexisting complications of street life.” Edna pinpointed complications on both micro and macro levels, such as inaccessible public spaces that are unsafe and non-inclusive, uses other than leisure, and how lockdown measures exacerbated ongoing structural inequalities. 
Further elaborating the micro-level, Edna illustrated how women were subject to a higher risk of sexual violence in public spaces already before COVID. As traffic dropped drastically on streets during the pandemic, some streets turned off lighting and new empty places emerged as businesses closed down, making spaces dangerous. Violence persisted during this health crisis for women in these new empty public spaces, particularly for female essential and informal workers, as the latter take up a huge percentage of that workforce across the globe. Via the case of Global South, Edna explained how conditions that facilitate the execution of the health protocols are only common in global North and elite neighbourhoods in the Global South. The reality of urban life in the Global South presented shared and unaffordable housing, shared basic infrastructure, high rates of informal employment which meant that citizens rely on public space to earn their living and their livelihoods depend on mobility, these are all conditions that do not allow social distancing to take place. With the lack of access to technology, classes in Mexico can only continue with TV instead of tablets, home office is impossible for many, public life continues with masks and gloves. Edna concluded by reminding all that it’s experts’ responsibility to not only refer to the major narrative and discourse but take vulnerable groups into account. 



UN Women (2020), COVID-19 and ensuring safe cities and safe public spaces for women and girls

Society and Space Magazine (2020), The Pandemic, Southern Urbanisms and Collective Life

Wiego (2020), For World’s Street Vendors, Life May Never be the Same after COVID-19

(French) / France 24 (2020), Covid-19 : en France, les femmes en proie aux agresseurs dans des rues désertées



Vikas Mehta, University of Cincinnati, United States

“The hope is that this contraction which is leading to an expansion in different places can be adapted and it might generate an augmented public space.”

Vikas thought that the loss of public space and street life in terms of occupancy, contraction and emptying of formal and celebrated public space and institutions, is just one kind of narrative. Parallelly, there are many cases of adaptation and adjustments, and even expansions in ‘parochial space’. There’s a drastic change in behaviour, emerging interactions and occupying of both private and public neighbourhood spaces, even in inner cities where streets are actively used for play and socializing. Vikas noted that in the U.S. context, this adaptation also brings an expansion of agency, steering away from highly designed, programmed and institutional public spaces that are mostly part of the neo-liberal structures and public-private partnerships. Non-programmed spaces emerge, reflecting a rare transfer of agency to the common people in their ability to occupy, adapt, use and interpret public spaces. Children’s use of streets is a great example of such and reflects our ability to invent and be creative, such expansion takes place both spatially and temporally as these places are now closer to homes. Vikas referred to this change from vacated institutional spaces to the active use of natural spaces and neighbourhood streets as a typological switch. He hoped that this case study sheds light on the future of U.S. cities where both physical and psychological health is of concern. Particularly, increased social interactions could help alleviate mental stress and depression through the expansion of neighbourhood public spaces and the regaining of agency through the use of non-programmed parochial spaces. Vikas argued that “the availability of spaces around us can be put to use for other sorts of public interactions” as there is a vast amount of parochial space in the residential neighbourhoods (e.g. parks, play areas, residential streets, community gardens). These are not foremost public spaces for political actions but have the ability to serve as social glue in our societies which lead to healthier lives.


Roundtable discussion moderated by Maurice Harteveld

Vikas, do you think this hope you observe in the U.S. could be embedded in Mexico City?

Vikas referred to Dehli where he grew up and Greek cities, explaining that this is the way people normally use spaces and that parochial spaces outside of homes are basically public. In India, a lot of private behaviours occur in public streets. Therefore, the key lies in our ability to recognize these parochial spaces near homes as public spaces and provide the required infrastructural support and funding that are normally available in typical public spaces. 


How do you think spaces of public mobility, such as bus terminals, can be changed after the pandemic? For instance, some cities provide special areas that are under camera monitoring for women and minorities to ensure their safety. 

Vasa felt that it depends on how long the situation continues, the prolonged situations will result in a change of typologies of public spaces and the reduction of waiting spaces and buildings, perhaps even more bus lanes and increase frequency to reduce wait time.

Edna alerted us that it’s important to first think about the availability of public transportation and bus stations, which may be non-existent in the Global South. In many Mexican cities, people are using more of their cars, to begin with, public transportation was expensive and deficient, it did not take people to major places and was dangerous, under pandemic, people naturally chose private transportation services such as taxi and UBER. Therefore, not all cities are moving towards more sustainable transportation options, some are actually moving backwards and the pandemic has eroded the improvement steps that were taken. Edna avered that context is essential and it’s inappropriate to impose concepts directly.   


Angeliki mentioned the change in behaviours, have you also seen a return to cars, a prominent behaviour in Greek cities?

Angeliki observed a return of the cars like the old days, thus doubted if there’s really a change in behaviour. Vikas shared that during late March and early April, bicycle sales spiked up in the States, it was also impossible to get bikes repaired and serviced. Yet in mid-May, car sales skyrocketed, thus echoing Edna regarding the return to bubbles. Maurice agreed that the increase in the use of cars would contradict the creation of local public spaces and the search for new typologies of urban spaces


Fabiano, could you reflect on the challenge of the conflict of technologies and a kind of hope we share, who’s in charge?

Fabiano noted the importance to be aware that these technological changes and many problems that emerged during the pandemic are problems that had existed for many years. The pandemic bloated these urban issues and exposed them quickly due to the state of emergency, when powers and differences are strongest, so as a system of controlling spaces. He agreed with Vikas’ idea of staying away from other designed spaces and thought that it’s not only a matter of designer but also a matter of using spaces. He referenced the city centre as an example that’s designed for tourism and where the original inhabitants were pushed away to give space to Airbnbs. Enlarging of public space is about enlarging the design and the physical space, as well as the ways that different people can appropriate and use it with more imagination, the possibility of living in a different way and of many gathering together at different times of the day, the spaces of democracy and representations of the global community inclusively. Highly controlled public spaces cut off these possibilities not only because of the surveillance, but due to how urban landscapes are designed in a way that highlights the presences of surveillance tools and limits our potentials. Fabiano thought that this idea of enlarging potentials is the main idea to consider for the future of public spaces. 


Image created by Catherine Cordasco.