In this post, the most influential learnings that the pandemic has brought to our cities will be discussed, and subsequently, two European cities’ will be used to highlight the resulting placemaking practices that emerged from both a renewed interest for the public space and contemporary environmental concerns. Synergistically, linkages will be made between such learnings and practical shifts using the AfterCovid.City Global Charter, a research agenda and movement that positions the pandemic as an opportunity to shape urbanity for a post-covid future by the placemaking community.
It put significant stress on underlying environmental and social issues; this, in turn, became unavoidable to address, especially in less wealthy communities. It also created a sense of shared responsibilities and instigated a sense of urgency in regards to climate and health-related issues. Finally, it showed us that it is possible to imagine things differently, to re-imagine our cities–especially as governments aim to meet the pressing sustainability goals, as stated in the latest IPCC reports.
At the urban-level, the pandemic brought to the fore-front the fact that cities cannot be understood as a single, homogeneous entity. They are highly fragmented and disjointed, and as a result, people have highly differentiated access to services, and therefore, different respective health outcomes. For this reason, during the pandemic, a common characteristic in our cities was the renewed interest in green areas and the value of common spaces, as the heart of communities. This renewed interest towards the public space was one of the public’s main reactions to the pandemic, resulting mainly from denied social gatherings. This aspect indeed brought up a new consideration of identity within communities and various reconfigurations in our streets.
Mobility is, in fact, one of the main causes of pollution and reduced quality of urban life. Moreover, cars occupy most of the public space available. However, even if it is clear that governments should de-incentivise car-use, this is not always the case–and society is left with the consequences of such changelessness.. Nevertheless, there are many tools to curb vehicle use, such as economic instruments, limited traffic zones or workplace/university travel plans… local governments should understand the context and the right measures for their respective cities, since there is no silver bullet solution.
Another important lesson from the pandemic was that it provided an opportunity for more flexibility in local regulations, especially in regards to the creation of public space (pop-up lanes, pedestrian zones, pop-up shops), and this proved that more experimentation and replication of such changes can be assessed more quickly, flexibly and across cities.
Public space is the emblem of mutually shared values and a symbol that humans need both proximity and sociality to feel included and function collectively. During the pandemic, questions in regards to public space ownership arose; ownership not only understood in terms of formal land-ownership, but as a sense of belonging that enables users to interact and modify a shared space in informal, small-scale interventions.
Therefore, during the pandemic, public space further stretched the questions of ‘who owns the city?’ and ‘will new configurations prompt long-term change or be only temporary in nature?’ To exemplify advantageous outcomes catalysed by structural governance changes, case studies from Milan and Barcelona are explored below.
In Milan, which was one of the first cities to be heavily hit by Covid-19, there has been a recent surge in tactical urbanism. This is a relatively new trend for the Italian landscape, nevertheless, it has spread quickly as a cheaper and lighter way to bring localised interventions into being. In fact, in 2018 the municipality of Milan launched the program ‘Piazze Aperte’ together with Bloomberg Associates, NACTO and GDGI in the pursuit to achieve fast and cheap spatial interventions, by including citizens in the process. Namely, such a project has been a springboard for the creation of additional public space, which is prioritised in the city’s regulatory plan, as well as nature-based-solutions. This is especially needed in Milan due to the high levels of pollution and the city’s rapid expansion.
Piazza Spoleto-Venini, one of the sites within Piazze Aperte, has in fact been redesigned to meet the needs of inhabitants, such as the parents of the neighbouring school who needed a safe place to collect their children and a place for the elderly to rest while commuting. It was created with removable curbs, coloured paint, table tennis tables, and benches to allow social interaction in a safer, car-free way.
In correlation with the goals of Milan’s urban plan for sustainable mobility (PUMS), the ‘Strade Aperte’ project was born in 2020, as a response strategy to the pandemic, with the three-fold aim to strengthen sustainable mobilities, ensure that public space could adapt to new needs due to the crisis, and create an even more inclusive transport network for the city. This has been especially successful in terms of creating emergency bike lanes linking the entire city, which was implemented using similar tactical urban planning techniques.
“the interventions linked to the Piazze Aperte and Strade Aperte projects have-and are still- demonstrating how new ways of intervening in public space can be useful in testing new solutions, working with communities for more inclusive spaces and making the city quicker to adapt to the challenges that may come. These are all lessons that we will need to take with us into the years to come as we respond to the climate crisis and design cities that welcome diversity, enhance livable public spaces and listen to various needs.”
The first ideas about the superblocks date back to the 1980’s, when Rueda was imagining a city with lower levels of traffic noise. The Municipality of Barcelona has been aiming to build over 500 superblocks from the 2000s onwards, even though they are an ongoing project, by which the city learns as it goes.
A superblock, within the context of Barcelona, is an area of 9 neighbourhood blocks sectioned off to prioritise pedestrians and cyclists along with restricted vehicle traffic. The goal of such an enormous revolutionary project is to expand the percentage of malleable public space, and through placemaking, promote it as shapeable by the residents and their needs.
Nevertheless, the superblocks do not come without criticisms. Notably, they received loads of critiques from various residents who were negatively affected by the interruption of car traffic. Other critiques revolved around the fact that such a ‘participatory approach’ overshadowed once again, the most vulnerable and excluded social groups from urban participation.
For instance, one of the most controversial examples was the Poblenou superblock, for the reason that it was perceived by the residents as a top-down, quasi imposed experiment rather than a participatory project.
Nevertheless, it proved as a learning point for the city on how to better promote and enable new public space. How to maintain an equilibrium between tactical and structural urbanism was likely the most valuable takeaway from the project. Tactical urbanism, synonymous with fast and cheap, is used to kick-off the process; meanwhile structural urbanism is indeed more expensive and permanent with the intention for a long-term development. In between the two processes, residents have the opportunity to consider and judge the space at hand and truly choose whether to keep it everlasting.
The aim of this blog post was to shed light on some of the trends that developed as a response to the urban learnings resulting from the pandemic. These vary from being moral to behavioural changes and have inevitably marked the built environment and our public spaces, as well. Two rapidly changing cities, like Milan and Barcelona, are proof that city administrations are not only attempting to encourage more participatory modes of city-making, but trying to incorporate them into larger decision-making processes in order to render cities more resilient and responsive to crises.