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


Cities Learning from Pandemics

Thursday 20 August 2020  /  Series 4 (August) - 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), part of the series “2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID19 Pandemic”. This session invited experts and scholars from Hong Kong, South Africa, United Kingdom and Ecuador to reflect upon the pandemic so far, and shared learnings from their respective cities, followed by a commentary from Cecilia Andersson, Manager of the Global Public Space Programme of UN-Habitat and is based in Nairobi.

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


Luisa first opened the webinar by introducing Italian situations under COVID19. As the first country in the European Union to be hit by the pandemic, Italy had a total of over 250,000 cases (as of 20 August), 17th in the world of total cases, and over 35,000 deaths, 6th in the world. This is considered the most serious event after WWII, the country was in 2 months full lockdown till May, commercial activities reopened and public life restarted in June. Luisa felt that the country only adopted standard hygienic really late, government’s instructions were unclear, and it’s difficult for people to follow distancing restrictions as the Italian culture emphasizes a lot on socialization and sharing; the country underestimated the pandemic. Italy has the largest elderly population in Europe, the second-largest in the world, they were most vulnerable at the beginning of the pandemic. As it spread and reached a second wave, the younger population and medical staff were seriously affected as well. What’s more, Italy has an insufficient number of ICU beds, only 8.4 beds for every 100,000 people. Italy had experienced another pandemic, the Black death hit Medieval Italy and took the lives of more than a third of Europeans, 1918 was the year of Spanish flu where similar rules of face masks were imposed. Such tragic events prompted urban designers to question density and to develop urban squares, parks, promenades. 


Insight from Speakers

Ian Morley, Department of History, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong 

Ian started his sharing by putting forward connections between cities and infectious illness. First and foremost, he reminded all that the history of cities is the history of disease, and vice versa. Cities have always been sites of exposure to bacteria and illness, and at the same time as instruments for interventions to safeguard citizens’ health, policies were affected by fear and tragedy. In recent years, Ian noticed that health as a facet of the planning department has been undervalued and such disconnection might perhaps be addressed due to COVID19. Looking back, the 19th century was a turning point for urban planning in the western world, industrial revolutions and urban growth brought along social and environmental impacts, as well as four prevalent elements, factories, railway, slums, and in Ian’s view, municipal parks. The medical knowledge of overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions, and widespread infection was key to new rules in urban planning and regulations. Industrial development led to distinct spatial distributions of urban disease and mortality, and lower urban life expectancy as compared to that of rural locales. Although marketplace and town squares were easily accessible urban spaces during pre-industrial times, public space for recreation wasn’t reachable during the 1800s. These phenomena and newly acquired knowledge resulted in two significant developments, particularly in Britain. In 1833, the Report from the Select Community on Public Walks provided information on the availability of open space for public uses within major urban centres, subsequently leading to a surge of public parks, perceived to supply social, physical and psychological benefits. By the 1880s, more than 180 urban parks were planned and many were substantial in size, with Liverpool being a great example. The notion of public green spaces was positively received and by the end of the 19th century, the garden city concept that focused on low-density living and accessibility to nature also emerged. 
At this juncture of rethinking city planning and public spaces in face of the pandemic, Ian looked back to history and raised a couple of important points to note to avoid moving backwards. First, city planning cannot “make all cities good”. Second, urban planning challenges are not merely technical, but relying on other factors such as politics and culture. Thirdly, there are variances in urban and contagion experiences across social and racial groups. Lastly, public spaces facilitate community resilience and health crises exacerbate existing social, economic and environmental challenges. The history of health crises contributes to the evolution and formation of urban planning principles, and thus while people need planning, planning needs people as well. To conclude, historians’ ability to explain change over time with regards to various urban actors also allow explanations of the layers behind physical forms and the shifts in relationships between built form and its design and use. Such ability should contribute to a more localized solutions approach to public health as COVID-19 shows the flaws in the otherwise global normative strategies. 


Ayanda Roji, City of Johannesburg’s Parks and Zoo Agency, South Africa

Ayanda felt that the pandemic presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine our spaces so that they can be place-specific, inclusive, equitable and community-oriented, and take community building into account. Some of the key lessons learnt in South Africa include the spotlight on societal inequalities and systemic challenges that were deeply rooted in history, planning and health, the worsening of situations such as homelessness and domestic violence for vulnerable groups, and the reintroduction of residents to neighbourhoods due to the lockdown. These lessons led to the key question of the role of public space in addressing these challenges and contributing to the necessary changes while not sliding back in other issues such as climate change. The concept of “green apartheid” surfaced recently, where lush suburbs housing white and rich were adjacent to informal settlements of mostly black residents, revealing the huge discrepancy in the distance to and accessibility of open space. Zooming into informal settlements called us to rethink the relationship between public and private spaces. Ayanda highlighted the role of tactical urbanism and small scale improvements in developing a sense of community, and stressed on the need for city officials to change their attitude of only favouring huge infrastructure programmes and fearing smaller experimentations. Furthermore, a disproportionate number of women are working in the informal economy and were burdened during the pandemic as schools were closed. Ayanda pointed out how the informal sector, which serves as a buffer between the formal and informal sectors, is undervalued and not supported by the cities. The pandemic also exacerbated food insecurity and highlighted how critical informal workers are for food security, in particular the informal food traders who are responsible for food distribution.
Exploring the future role of public space, Ayanda referred to Madagascar and Kenyan urban agriculture examples which demonstrated the possibilities of urban farms, rooftop and vertical gardens. Small farmers worked with the private sector and schools and went beyond simply beautifying the spaces, playing a role in the issue of food insecurity. Also, an integrated approach between departments should be created instead of viewing public spaces as separate projects and building silo parks which contribute to an urban fabric that lacks connectivity. Two good examples are Ethekwini’s linear parks that are starting to integrate hard surfaces and sidewalks with parks and conservation nodes, and LAGOS, which also applies the linear park concept, connecting various urban public spaces with wetlands. Going forward, Ayanda suggested the need for a new way of governing and emphasized the role of non-state actors as the pandemic showed how government projects faced difficulties cascading to the ground and reaching vulnerable groups. NGOs bridged the gaps and have successfully built solidarity during COVID. They were able to utilize public art to communicate important messages, sheltered homeless, dealt with food distribution and more. Governments have to be cognizant of languages and be place-specific. To get started, Ayanda suggested to first understand the situation and the disparity by conducting community-led mapping of public spaces to develop long-term city-wide public space strategies, which would lead to positive spin-offs of community building and connectivity, ultimately restitching and restoring the city's inclusiveness. One tip was to make use of UN-Habitat’s KOBO toolbox and to work with universities. The governments have to apply alternative tools of community engagement and go beyond only having community meetings, this requires humility and compassion. Some examples are UN-Habitat’s Minecraft programme in Johannesburg that helped channel the needs and visions of street kids and women, and PlacemakingX’s kuja-kuja customer feedback system in Uganda which reflected real-time needs during the lockdown.
Ayanda concluded by sharing a recent project of building the African regional network and hub for public spaces and placemaking to foster knowledge sharing among African cities, to revise universities’ curriculum, to influence budget allocation, policy and planning, and to capacitate city councils. The goal is to design place-specific and equitable spaces for all.  


Ana Medina, Universidad de Las Américas, Ecuador

"The term informality is usually associated with irregular activities, so spontaneous, occasional, unfinished and so, all related to the economy and habitat."

As one of the countries that is hit heavily by the pandemic, Ecuador was also one of the first in the region to impose strict measures, including a lockdown that lasted over 70 days. In the biggest city, Guayaquil, many people live in informality and under precarious conditions such as the lack of water and electricity supply. Social housing has in general a minimum of 42 square metres for a nuclear family. However, reality shows that multi-generational or two families are housed in one unit, resulting in an average of nine people living under the same roof. The government’s stay-at-home suggestion did not take these overcrowding situations and the hot and humid weather of this city into account. The pandemic revealed and exposed the prevailing social issues and took many to surprise. Meanwhile in Quito, given the friendlier weather, staying indoors was feasible and it was possible to go to the streets with masks and social distancing rules. However, hospitals and the health system soon collapsed, while the country’s unemployed population reached a million within this workforce of 8 million people. One of the actions people did was to raise red flags outside their houses, indicating that they were hungry and needed support, but also, it caused to make these social situations visible. Such a display was indeed a continuation of how culture in Latin American has always manifested itself in public spaces, people are accustomed to taking, occupying and inhabiting the public space. The lack of leadership, coupled with corruption and decisions that did not improve the situations triggered spontaneous protests trying to reflect the need to disrupt the new normality. Many also started going out to pursue economic activities as they lost their jobs, the public space became the only space for them to receive any kind of income, a serious reflection of social injustice. There was a sharp rise in the number of street vendors in Quito, from over 10,000 registered by the local government in 2017, to 22,000 in 2019 and as far in 2020, over 26,000 street vendors including children and teenagers are registered. The response to the local reality was so inaccurate that five months after the COVID outbreak, the government launched an official mobile app to track the infected population, which made it not only impractical as it should have been launched in the first months if not weeks of the pandemic, but also the population in general sees the government with serious distrust, meaning that this would simply not be feasible. Moreover, international institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank, have contributed by producing COVID manuals in relations to housing, basic services, social security, education policies and more, but they are more top-down policies rather than community-based solutions.
It is in this scenario that Ana explained the situations and responses on the ground. Streets in Latin America are filled with commerce, informality and social inequality, the proliferation of such during the pandemic has triggered more conflicts among different stakeholders. The government’s formal interventions in public spaces mostly disregard society as an active actor in urban life, ignoring the capacity of public spaces to adapt to new and uncertain realities, often through informality. Ana felt that informality can actually be used as a tool through social appropriations that respond rapidly to the city and often can fight for equity. The occupation of public spaces during COVID and turning them into, for instance, bike lanes is a great example, and also, community trade in neighborhoods, let it say, at a small scale but across the city. Ana also advocated an increase in collective spaces that are sensitive to people and contribute to the soft city, rather than managing the extension of public space.


Jason Luger, Northumbria University, United Kingdom

Jason focused his sharing on space and place that are networked and rescaled under COVID-19 and authoritarianism. Pink Dot SG is an annual event that expresses support to the LGBTQ movement at Hong Lim Park each June and was established over 12 years ago. With over 25,000 participants last year, it is the largest annual civil society gathering in the country, creating a notable example in a place where restrictions on public assembly are numerous and LGBTQ expressions are restricted. As COVID 19 hit the country early this year, strict shelter-in-place policies and mandatory quarantines for international arrivals with tracking and surveillance were imposed, among other authoritarian responses which were deemed efficient and effective globally. Such authoritarian state-society apparatus is often seen as an alternative model where civil liberties are curtailed to give way to optimized city life, and is often referenced as successful urban development, governance and placemaking agendas. On the other hand, Singapore is a country highly dependent on migrant labour from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and the Philippines, who take up most manual jobs including construction, landscaping, and domestic work. The male migrant workers mostly live in crowded dormitories, generally invisible and absent from public life and public spaces. They are free to socialize on their day off on Sundays, crowding places like Little India to meet with friends. Public spaces, streets, plazas, hawker food centers and shopping malls become essential spaces for migrant workers, unintentionally they have become visible and are forming relationships with and to the city. The outbreak of the pandemic at their dormitories in April meant that tens of thousands of them were forced to quarantine in their living facilities. A dual narrative emerged and was circulated globally: a successful Singapore that conquered the pandemic and has gradually reopened public spaces versus migrant workers removed from public spaces and crowding at dormitories out of sight and mind.  
Jason suggested that authoritarian responses to COVID-19 and restrictions on public space are not unique to places like Singapore and Hong Kong but instead, authoritarianism is a global process. Trends like privatization of public space, hyper-surveillance, police and racialized brutality have become daily life phenomena in the west for a long time. The pandemic has simply accelerated the global processes and made them more visible. In fact, some of the restrictions on public spaces in Singapore were introduced during the colonial era under British Law. Jason also argued that uneven responses took place in many cities, informal settlements were cloistered in similar ways as the migrant workers were in Singapore. At the same time, public spaces are rescaled globally. Although migrant workers might seem invisible within the country, it went viral globally with bigger representation and visibility in the public sphere. Likewise, Pink Dot SG networked online with global sister events and its Facebook attracted over 68,000 likes, much greater than its physical attendance. In addition, social media companies have created another scale of public space that exists within local states and the global market. To conclude, Jason highlighted how Singapore has served as simulacrum and a mediator of the global authoritarian processes between local public spaces and global digital public spaces.



Cecilia Andersson, UN-Habitat, Manager of the Global Public Space Programme

“We need to look at places as assets, we need to make sure that public space is an asset and that the government actually understands what an asset it is.”

Responding to Ian, Cecilia was unsure if we are learning from history, as it seemed that we instead started again to come up with new solutions in cities without actually referencing history and taking into consideration the important technical, cultural and political aspects and the relevant local dynamics. Public life is the essence of our cities and is seriously impacted by COVID, and Cecilia felt that now is the opportunity to direct huge efforts in creating inclusive, healthy and resilient spaces and cities.
Cecilia emphasized on how marginalized communities’ health and livelihoods were impacted by the pandemic, with 60% of the population, especially women, being employed in the informal sector. It’s extremely difficult for them to manage, let alone mitigating the impacts. At the same time, communities are powerful assets with immense capacity to self-organise and tailor cost-effective solutions to the problems. Cecilia shared an example of a slum in Nairobi, where a youth group took the initiative to take actions, first by communicating important COVID messages, then starting an urban agricultural project creatively to support the most marginalized groups with nutritious food. It is important to look at what the communities are creating and Cecilia gladly shared her observations of how governments are listening to and paying attention to what’s going on on the ground, evolving from the initial restrictive reactions and trying to open up. The reality has also forced and challenged governments worldwide to think differently, to be more inclusive, and to embrace the new way of governing. There’s an emergence of city to city learning opportunities, like Ayanda’s African regional network. As Jason pointed out, many of the laws and bylaws went back to colonial times, Cecilia felt that now is the opportunity to revise that and the governments are also trying to accommodate people and react better. Echoing Ayanda’s view on small-scale improvements, Cecilia agreed that governments are sometimes overtaken by large-scale projects and small-scale solutions are good ways to start. Paris mayor’s concept of a 15-minute neighbourhood and Gehl’s recent survey result that showed that 87% of the population stayed within their neighbourhoods pointed to the importance of planning on a neighbourhood scale and provision of small spaces. Also happening is the intention to move towards a more slow-paced city that’s more walkable and cyclable.
Cecilia reminded all that it’s necessary to reflect on a city-wide scale, and to take this opportune moment to employ an integrated and holistic approach as Ian has explained. UN-Habitat recently launched a source book with WHO on the integration of health and planning. Flexible and multi-functional use of public spaces on local levels and beyond, while keeping safe distances, are topics to explore as well and might require a change in regulations and bylaws. Another key topic is the better management of public spaces, which may not be solely the role of governments, but that of community and the private sector. We need to “restitch and restore our cities” by improving connectivity and networks, and ensuring accessibility and better distribution of spaces. To conclude, Cecilia stressed on how we have to look at places, people, and processes as assets, and reimagine our cities in a better way via communication and partnerships.


Closing remarks

Ian said that essentially what we have been proven is it’s one thing to have government and the other to have governance. There are different standards and definitions, and the multiple case studies today showed that those most in need of help through governance are the ones that most failed. We now need to re-approach how we see failure so that we can move forward and make more positive experiences for those who are at the bottom of the scale.

Ana felt that we all are looking at communities as a force that could really activate, while the government would be the facilitator to do that, the communities are the ones that make it powerful. Responding to the question of the difference between collective and public space, Ana pointed out that public spaces are bigger scale spaces that are developed, managed, designed, and provided by the government, while collective spaces are smaller scale intimate spaces on community level that stress on people’s connections. In particular, it doesn’t matter if the space is private property (i.e. POPS) if it possesses public qualities, open to all, and can adapt to flexible needs.

Ayanda felt that the vulnerabilities in cities, whether it be informal workers, homelessness, or migrants, are connected with history and we are not learning effectively from it. We should leverage the experiences and lessons learnt, for example, community health workers were set up to help the government touch the ground due to AIDS and HIV in South Africa. Applying such experiences in the field of public space could mean the deployment of community planners to bridge the government and the community. Lastly, Ayanda thought that this is an opportunity for us to be radical in terms of creating solutions and making our cities inclusive and equitable.

Jason referred to his views of spaces being politicized in the sense that many governments are asking marginalised groups to stay out of public space and stay home, yet at the same time, they are mostly living in high density housing with unsanitary conditions due to underlying structural problems. Besides, there’s policing of public space under the guise of liberalism and collectivism. In addition to restitching and repurposing governments, Jason suggested that it might also be a time to depoliticize public space and rethink that as commons and detach it from systems of political parties and partisan issues.

Cecilia averred that now is the time that we can actually have an impact and change that dynamic as many governments have shown the willingness to grab every kind of opportunity to change and improve. Ayanda added to the importance of regional platforms to learn from other cities as cities tend to compete with each other. She stressed the difficulty to establish relationships between universities and the cities in practical matters, but noted that academia is tired of working in silo as well and cross-sectorally people want to collaborate. This is exactly an opportunity for the African hub of public space to generate knowledge on how to strengthen the curriculum, to bring students to work in communities and for all stakeholders to work together around actual projects. This is the only way to change people’s attitudes and perhaps make changes.


Update 17 August 2020, 11:27:29 AM.