On June 4, experts in the fields of architecture, urban planning, art, tourism, and health gathered in Plovdiv, Bulgaria to discuss The Future of Cities After Covid. The discussion panel was the pilot event of the AfterCovid.City festival and presented the challenges and opportunities arising from the coronavirus pandemic in the urban context. The event, organized by BG Be Active Association, was dedicated to issues, connected with healthy urban environment, inclusive urban spaces, culture, tourism, digital innovations, sport and wellbeing of the citizens. The event was held as a discussion panel where all the participants had the opportunity to give good examples from their professional field and occupation, to observe the problems they stumble upon and to propose decisions for their solution in the future. The event is part of the activities оf Partnership for waste free and beautiful Bulgaria, implemented by the support of Coca Cola Foundation. and part of the long-term program of BG Be Active – The_Spot.
During the first part of the event, titled “Sustainable and Ecological City for the People,” the panelists discussed the role of social infrastructure, transportation, alternative and green public spaces in the post-pandemic city. All of the speakers agreed on the power of the COVID-19 crisis to accelerate already existing processes: “The pandemic influenced many different aspects of the cities: education, cultural events, mobility, workspaces. I don’t think that it created new processes but it certainly drastically accelerated already present trends such as working from home. And although the pandemic is currently gradually dying down, we can certainly say that there is a “new normal” way of life in the cities,” commented Ina Valkanova, architect and urbanist at Gradoscope. For the chief architect of Plovdiv Dimitar Ahryanov a compelling thing about the pandemic is how it taught us the importance of access to green spaces: “The most interesting change for me and for my family is that we found a new meaning of the closest green spaces to our homes, where you could spend some time for rest. Whether this was for some their green balcony, the nearby park, or the public spaces between the residential buildings, we all searched for and rediscovered those green spaces.”
Ljubo Georgiev, architect at Sofiaplan, pointed out the need for reconsideration of how we design transport systems in cities: “Covid changed the way we move in the city. The dynamic of urban mobility in every city normally has two peaks: in the morning and in the afternoon when people travel to and from work. The daily commute is used for the transportation plan of the city. But when 50% of the people start working from home or go to the office just every other day or even every other week, the commute is no longer the dominating factor in the daily traffic. Instead, going out grocery shopping, to the park, or going out with friends become the predominant activities, creating completely different traffic in the city. And this traffic needs to be planned and treated in a completely different way. Covid helped us start thinking about the cities as more multifunctional and dynamic instead of just serving systematic and repeated commute.”
“Architects and urbanists are almost always working on a client’s order, so in most cases, the investor plays a key role, no matter whether they are the municipality, a private client or a corporation.” During the discussion, the importance of “empty spaces” was also noted: “Architects and urbanists should experiment and the pandemic made it a perfect time for that, seeing that some things we thought impossible are actually in our reach. You don’t necessarily have to build buildings to be an architect, whereas the opposite is a common misperception in Bulgaria.” The role of the citizens was not left out of the conversation: “It’s important that the local communities know their rights and how to communicate with the authorities. Many times it’s a question of sending an email in order to be heard. In Bulgaria, people often don’t recognize this as an opportunity, instead, they are just complaining,” shared Maya Tsaneva from Safe Playgrounds. It was added that the municipalities should make materials and information not only available but easily accessible and understandable online.
The second part of the event invited art, culture and tourism experts on the stage to discuss the creation and acceptance of alternative urban spaces for cultural events, the digitalization of mass cultural events and the impact of COVID-19 on tourism in the cities. In terms of the changes in cultural events’ organization and conduct in the context of the pandemic, Gina Kafedzhian from Plovdiv 2019 Foundation shared that “the culture is inevitably connected to the changes that happen in society and everything that people learn in the process. It’s interesting to see whether in the future there will be a come-back of cultural events with mass audiences or we will turn towards cultural events in smaller and more intimate spaces as we are doing now, during the pandemic.” “The evolutionary step when it comes to cultural events happens when the culture takes on its main function: to be an integral part of the rest of the world. When we talk about digital content in culture, we should be very careful because it never had a goal to replace live experience but instead to elevate the already existing forms. VR walks around the city is a good example of that practice. Digitalization won’t replace cultural events as we know them but it may make them more attractive. We might also change the communication and the way we target new audiences,” commented her colleague Viktor Yankov on the issue of digitalization of cultural activities.
What’s more, the municipality turned to the use of alternative spaces, some of which already employed for cultural events such as the old tobacco warehouses, but also building stages on the hills of the city and turning them into open venues for theater, opera and concerts. In terms of tourism, Viktor shared experience from the Plovdiv 2019 EU Capital of Culture program: “Plovdiv was probably the last “normal” EU Capital of Culture for the near future. We were used to hearing 2-3 foreign languages when walking around the city. In this regard, we will see a change in cultural events when it comes to their target audiences: events will target national audiences, simply because international events are riskier and harder to organize during the pandemic.” He also pointed out that experts in cultural activities should turn to the production of new content, import, and export of cultural content, research and development, and innovation.
The third and final panel of the discussion focused on the implications of the pandemic and the urban environment on the physical and mental health of the citizens. When asked about their definition of a healthy urban environment, the panelists identified accessibility, safety, clean air, and healthy citizens as the crucial elements of a healthy city. Milena Hadziivanova from H Vision noted the importance of mental health: “We may remember to go jogging or to the gym once in a while but it’s not that often that we think of taking care of our mental health.” In terms of the changes COVID-19 led to, Laska Nenova, founder of BG Be Active Association, pointed out that before the pandemic people were looking at sport mainly as a way of improving their physical health and appearance, whereas since the pandemic restricted their social life, they have now started to see and seek physical exercise as a chance for social interaction. “Many people with obesity and chronic diseases didn’t pay attention to their condition before the outbreak of the pandemic and later it made them realize how vulnerable they are and how they should change their daily life to improve their health, which is actually a very good tendency in the long-term,” shared Boryana Gerasimova, founder of NutriGen and Re:Gena. She believes that green and healthy infrastructure should be an integral part of the development of a city: “If big cities don’t transform, their citizens will leave them. Many jobs can now be performed from almost anywhere, so if a city doesn’t develop to become more healthy and cleaner, people will choose to live elsewhere. The sooner cities realize that, the better.”
At the end of the discussion, Laska stressed the significance of a holistic approach for the future of our cities: “We are the future of our cities and we should work together for them.”
Many thanks to BG Be Active for organising the event and providing the event recap.