With the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, public space was one of the most affected parts of our urban life. With the shut down of shops, parks and other gathering places, public life came to a halt in the past months, leaving scars in our social and economic life. How can we heal as a global community, how do we reorganize our streets, how will we get back to enjoying public spaces, and what do we want our cities to become in the future, so that public space can be at everyone’s disposal while contributing to economic development? How will public spaces in the post COVID-19 phase be adapting between public/community and private/commercial use and interest?
The need to adapt public spaces to safety measures has stimulated many cities to start new initiatives and make policies which could potentially redefine roles and balances in the uses of public spaces. A great opportunity we shouldn’t lose. A big change that should be accompanied by more discussion.
The end of the lockdown and the start of phase two brought public life in the spotlight. To restart many activities the adaptation and reframing of public spaces is key to provide an infrastructure capable to enable safe physical distancing. Experiments are being launched all over the world: City of Milan gained a lot of visibility with its urban adaptation plan, but similar things are taking place in New Zealand (where the central state will finance intervention in cities), in the rest of Europe (Madrid, Brussels, just to name a few cases), in the United States. As they choose to redefine the relationship between the different mobility systems, these initiatives propose new ways to distribute the space of the road and to (apparently) radically rethink the uses of urban grounds.
From an urban planner or an urban designer’s perspective, this is critical and exciting at the same time. Rethinking the limits and the uses of public spaces is unfortunately not always possible (and certainly not everywhere). On the other hand, many agree on the fact that this is a great opportunity to define new priorities and imagine, with a little ambition, more virtuous futures and new balances. What emerges at the moment is great enthusiasm, and a little confusion, with a reduced ability to distinguish and value the different typologies and scales of public spaces (neighborhood spaces, large public infrastructures, parks and gardens are different things and policies should treat them as such). The risk of promoting a one-for-all set of solutions is very high at the moment, with a reduction in diversity, contextuality and effectiveness of solutions, according to the different contexts and societies.
The conditions of use and exploitation of public spaces has a lot to do with economy and economic balances – as opportunities of exchange and movement need to be granted to people for certain activities to happen. Pedestrian streets occupied by tables and chairs, drive-ins, and drive-though services, are recurring images in these days, as the need for economic activities to gain outdoor space is becoming more and more debated – often forgetting about the critical issue of privatizing something that is public, letting some interest prevail among others.
As we go through newspapers declarations, and more in general the evolution of the “public discourse on space”, these initial attempts to redefine our public spaces disclose some critical “weak points” that require further discussion.
Last Friday 27th March 2020 we held our second episode of Cooperative City in Quarantine where we invited experts on food production and distributions systems from different European cities to share with us their perspectives on what are the challenges we face during COVID-19 in relation to food and what are the emerging practices we see.
We invited Marcelline Bonneau from Bruxelles, director of Resilia Solutions and expert in various EU as well as local projects on food systems, Igor Kos from Maribor in Slovenia, part of the WCycle Institute and working on the Urban Soil 4 Food UIA project focusing on circular economy and Francesco Paniè from Rome, part of Terra! Onlus that focus on transparency within our food system.
What are the main challenges you see in the present moment?
Marcelline: We have been in full lockdown for ten days and there has been a rush to the supermarkets to buy most basic goods. Currently, the whole food system is being disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis and containment. Our eating and consumption patterns have been modified, e.g. an increasing number of people go and buy from the local shops, in short food supply chains (doubled or tripled in most cases). People cook (healthily) at home. Yet, won’t this add to the mental load of women? Do they actually have time for it as in most cases will be the ones in charge of the home and education or children (in addition to working from home)? Will these become new long-lasting cooking and eating habits? At the same time, FAO underlines the risks of increased hunger and malnutrition of vulnerable groups. It can be so, for example, as the rush to food in supermarkets has concerned primarily cheap food, making it unavailable to those in need. Competition to access food surplus is fierce between charities. Discount lunches in public canteens are not available anymore, food aid has had to adjust its practices. Those the most at risk and isolated cannot go and shop anymore.
As a passionate urban cyclist, disguised as an academic working on sustainable mobility, there are few things that caught my attention during these dramatic, absurd, but utterly thoughtful quarantine days. At this moment the current object of my study – human movements – is on pause. Movements are dramatically reduced. Cancelled. Banned. Prohibited.
We are experiencing a stop that would have been unimaginable in normal circumstances. Something that we would have called “impossible” to realize until a few weeks ago. It’s more than 70 years that Europeans do not experience similar limitations to movement for precaution or imposition. And this is forcing us to live a very prolonged and spread “Traffic-ban day” – except the fact we cannot experience the positive consequences of re-appropriation of streets and public space, if not once a week in those few meters to go to the supermarket (even if cycling those few meters is so glorious right now, with the crosses and streets empty, and without the fear to die in a car accident every now and then).