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

Our Future Cities: public space initiatives, innovative policies and creative actions to recover during and after the pandemic

Thursday 24 September 2020  /  Series 5 (September) - 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). As the last webinar of the series “2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID19 Pandemic”, scholars and professionals from Scotland, Austria, South Africa, and The Netherlands shared their insights on the outlook of our cities in the recovery phase of the pandemic, with regards to public space and relevant policies.


Insight from Speakers

Husam Al Waer, University of Dundee, School of Social Sciences, Scotland

Husam kicked off this discussion by stressing the importance of locality and neighbourhood, defined as a collective fixed at a physical location, a sense of place with capacity for local social interactions, and possibly a mechanism to fix the local economy and capital. Echoing Gehl, “the neighbourhood is not a place, it is a state of mind, one in which our hearts are open, we connect to others and care in ways perhaps could be called love”. The pandemic has further amplified the sense of pride in neighbourhoods and their social interactions. “Neighbourhood” is also at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with cities gradually translating the SDGs into neighbourhood level and improving their quality of life through urban design. Husam called for systemic change in our mindset of designing and planning a neighbourhood, moving from the technocratic approach to a value-driven systemic approach in dealing with the adaptive environment, and to think beyond the political cycle. While each neighbourhood has its localized challenges, they in common share the issue of poor accessibility, particularly in deprived areas, which affected the facilitation of services, and the poor quality of public spaces, ultimately leading to the decline in public health. Limited investment, congestion, social isolation affected empowerment and public participation. 

The mayor of Paris launched an ambitious plan for the 15-minute city, improving walkability and turning it into a convenient and comfortable catchment area. Husam also raised the example of Friedberg in Germany, where the concept of neighbourhood is embraced, a contrast to the UK, where resources are heavily invested in only the city centre. He advocated that “city must be a city of connected vibrant neighbourhoods”, which requires decentralized governance and services. Husam also reminded us of the difference between density and crowdedness, particularly during the pandemic when this was at the center of many debates, he suggested the concept of “gentle density” and its relationship with diversity and proximity. He emphasized the idea of “people first” in the realm of public space, like how it used to be in European historical centres. Public space does not only serve as a backbone of a city but should be managed by the public, like a common and public good, with the sharing mentality at the heart of such, including the local economy. To further strengthen the local economy, there is a need to increase local inputs and balance that with top-down control. Lastly, Husam brought attention to the significance of creating value and creating a city of human experiences. 


Sabine Knierbein, TU Vienna, Interdisciplinary Centre for Urban Culture and Public Space, Austria

Sabine responded to the topic of the webinar with a discussion of four concepts. Firstly, Sabine considers Lefebvre’s concept of “everyday life” to be underacknowledged, but it has been playing an important role and evolving already before the pandemic, reminding us that the pandemic is rather a catalyst for analyzing and understanding change rather than a transformator itself. Everyday life and everydayness constitute a constant process of emancipation, liberation, and innovation. This is where structural social issues, but also where solutions lie. 

Coming to the second concept, Sabine alerted us to the increasing critique of the current use of public space, citing a line from Ali Madanipour’s paper “The idea of public space has moved from a critique to an orthodoxy, embraced by most stakeholders as an important part of urban development”, she also pointed out how public space has been undergoing privatization, commodification, commercialization. Coming from a post-colonial critique, Sabine shared how public space could also be a modern institution that excludes many who don’t have access to the required resources. She felt that it’s important to relate this critique to the concept of everyday life and bring back the dialectical relationship with lived space and use such as a corrective, to revisit and reconstruct the narrative of public space, particularly under the ongoing fragmented urbanization and inequality. Lived space allows a conversation between both public and private spheres. 

Everyday life also has the ability to transform the conventional political conversation around the role of civil society, and the relationship between and top-down and bottom-up approach, into a more circular one, as the study of public life via everyday life is one that fuses the levels of micro, meso, macro.

Responding to the innovative policies and creative actions posed in the topic, Sabine raised that with the recent austerity measures in place in many countries, there has been a huge effect on social infrastructures, with the UK and Austria being prominent examples. Sabine thinks that it’s important to connect public space with these social issues, but even more essential is the links to social institutions during pandemic times, so as to build governance and support these institutions. She reminded all to recognize different agents as equal players and try to achieve equal power distribution and co-production to stand against social inequality and destructive capitalist urban development.


Rashiq Fataar, Our Future Cities, South Africa

Rashiq started by throwing out the provocative thought that the actual tasks of the current times lie in defining and understanding the real challenges, creating new processes, and asking the right questions, rather than jumping straight into solutions.

Rashiq then dived into the context of Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg, where apartheid planning and policies have deprived people of public space and divided the cities by race for decades. Unfortunately, the pandemic is reinforcing such inequality; the stark difference in the quality of life is put in the spotlight, with people being forced to stay in their neighbourhoods that might be dangerous. He further illustrated the issue by sharing the plan of a train station terminal in the 1960s, where two terminals were created to separate the movements and routes of different races, or a former law that stated non-white people weren’t allowed in downtown after 5pm. These contexts play a big part in the urban fabric and public space.

Rashiq stressed that there is a need to move away from huge infrastructure projects that are costly and car-centric, and neglect the improvement of landscape and the experiences of commuters who rely on public transport, to friendlier streets, as he has been trying to roll out pilots in Durban, but to also connect these pilots and look at cities via systems that can improve connectivity and accessibility for public transport users. Rashiq went on to share two projects: a Cape Town parklet that took 5 months to go through complicated applications and approvals, but only 2 days to install to provide a free and safe place to sit and access wifi along a 1.5km stretch. Another study revealed how people were just transiting through what’s supposed to be high-quality space in the city centre because of the lack of shade. He stressed that the quality of space should be defined as what brings people together; with the installation of artwork and grass rugs, the project hugely increased park’s usage. Rashiq noted that it’s a lot more difficult for city governments to work with other sectors in acupuncture and tactical pilots than to just invest hugely in infrastructural projects. 

The pandemic and the concept of neighbourhood also interlink in other aspects. The banning of Informal trades did not only destroy people’s livelihoods, but also street safety and vibrancy. Rashiq posed the challenge to not only do huge investment in one project and focus on physical design but invest in the process of creating neighbourhood identity, and hence the value for investments, dealing with a range of issues like waste, access to critical services like public transport and spaces, food gardening, night safety. Ultimately, public space is the strength of the community networks, it gives a platform to connect local knowledge, allows collaboration, and build resilience.



Frank D'hondt, Secretary General, ISOCARP, The Netherlands

Frank avered to Sabine’s comment on contested spaces and depend hugely on political and societal context. His working experience in Kabul showed how space is a contested concept also in the gender perspective, such that he had to create female-only parks; or in Palestine in West Bank, where under Israeli occupation there’s no notion of public space, but only semi-public place on private ground. 

As the birthplace of agora, Athens’ current squares have however become unusable and turned into government spaces, which are different from public spaces. Frank felt that we have to be more articulated in understanding the differences of these spaces and hence the different urban design and mobilization tools that should be used; but also the nuanced difference between public space and public place, the latter referring to a common that belongs to everyone. 

At ISOCARP, a cyber agora was recently created as a virtual public place for planners and beyond to discuss, raising the attention to e-participation, and the need to explore new ways of public involvement in placemaking and planning, and thus new rules.

Lastly, Frank admitted that the planning community didn’t pay enough attention to public space in the past but the topic is receiving increasing attention and collaborations among planners, designers, place makers and researchers. In particular, the placemaking declaration was signed in Wuhan Placemaking Week in 2018, showing that the concept is in place, but it depends on the political context and the maturity of the place leaders to ensure implementation is not only an “urban design play game”. 


Roundtable discussion

How’s the situation in the Middle East and Global South compared to Northern Europe, can we see these places as not only having needs but with assets that we can focus on?


Husam: Although historically 4-5 floors are friendlier, there’s no one answer on density. Barcelona’s superblocks are most dense but vibrant,  the public space in the area is the asset, providing vibrancy and access to local shops. Regarding the Middle East, the housing market is driven by a top-down approach and profit-driven, with few people making the decisions, including that of density, giving rise to the gated communities in the outskirt area. 


Rashiq: We tend to invest in the physical side immediately, but the pandemic has shown the importance of investing in soft infrastructure, exploring what’s the best way to collaborate between government, business, and people in areas like social networks and technology, and weaved it back into public spaces. The biggest challenge is to combine the traditional public space investment with the seemingly invisible software infrastructure, it requires more flexibility and openness in the government’s policies and a mindset shift to be more responsive to do quick and tactical responses.


Other comments and inputs from speakers

Sabine: Rashiq’s comment reminded Sabine of the difference between symbolic and material inclusion, and to overcome increasing social inequality, you need both. Recently, there’s also been a new group focusing on the foundational economy approach, which is based on everyday needs and infrastructure, provision of services and goods.

Planning for public spaces is always political, it is thus important to build our knowledge around contextualized public spaces, rather than exporting this like a Western product and apply universally. This is how the concept of lived space comes in, as it means recovering from the context at all fronts, practically, empirically, and theoretically. Via the example of studying the refugee movement between the train stations in Budapest and Vienna, Sabine shows that it requires a different geopolitical reading of public spaces in the studies of migration and refuge to offer global and trans-local views.


Husam felt that the issue of inequality at all levels was a key in the pandemic and among the sharing of all speakers, and agreed that public space has a huge role to play not in the physical sense, but in the soft values and soft infrastructure as Rashiq had raised.


Have you changed the way of research and applied new forms of research tools due to the pandemic situation?

Sabine: The planned ethnographic fieldwork for students turned into remote research that started looking from the private realm and explored further into people’s reach in the public realm, revealing interesting findings where public and semi-public realms were actually redefined during the pandemic. 

Sabine suggested that perhaps there should also be more crossovers and translations between the theoretical field of architecture and urban planning and the practical field of urban studies and social sciences.


Husam: The importance of tactical urbanism has increased, particularly with budget cuts in many countries during the pandemic. Husam reminds all that if the tactical projects work after piloting, they must lead to permanent improvements and changes eventually. It is also necessary to think about places and cities with a time frame of 15-20 years to better cope with changes and evolving places, but not only focused on short-term changes.


Rashiq: The tactical and placemaking movements sometimes are anti-design and anti-architecture. Without the budget to keep on piloting and testing, Rashiq agreed that the tactical projects should lead to mindset and permanent changes, and there’s a need to think in the long-term perspective.


Greenwich, Greater London, United Kingdom. Photo by Fas Khan on Unsplash