Public Space after COVID-19: Enriching the debate.

by Prof Ares Kalandides

More than six weeks have passed since WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. While we are all trying to cope with our everyday lives, some in more critical conditions than others, there are already discussions about how we shall live together “the day after” – in particular conversations about the future of public space. I would like to share some thoughts here, in the form of questions and work hypotheses, that may help us move forward with the debate. Let me start with three propositions about how to think about public space and we can take it from there:

(1) The way I understand public space here, is as space where chance encounters with the ‘unknown other’ is possible. Let me explain: You do not expect to see an uninvited stranger in your private space (and if you do, you’d be alarmed), but you take it for granted that you will bump into strangers in streets, squares, and parks – but also in pubs, shops or buses. Indeed, following Simmel, that could even be the constitutive element of urbanity. Public space, in this particular understanding, is less about property and access rights, but rather space that has the potential to confront us with people we do not know – not by design, but by chance. Today, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic (it is true for other epidemics, too) it is precisely this chance encounter with the potentially contaminated other, that is perceived as a threat. And this could be a threat to urbanity.

(2) The pandemic reminds us that we have bodies. The ‘encounter with the other’ is not abstract; it is very physical. Proximity and distance are key. The distance between cars or the proximity of commuters in the bus are very different things with dramatically different health outcomes. It is our bodily functions – which we so much like to forget – that make us a threat: our cough, our sneeze, our breath, our sweat. Encounters in public space are encounters of bodies. And bodies have abilities and disabilities, bodies have genders and desires, they have age and they have ailments. The abstract ‘person’ of policy-makers is not so abstract after all. The pandemic makes this painfully clear.

(3) It is impossible to understand public space without its counterpart, private space. Helplines for domestic abuse have seen an important increase in calls since the beginning of the pandemic (for the UK see The Guardian article from 9th April 2020 here), once again demonstrating what feminists were telling us all along: that while the private space of the home is a safe place for some, under certain conditions, it also presents a threat for others – mainly women, teenagers and children. Whilst uncontrollable stress, existential insecurity and other factors are certainly some of the causes of this other epidemic, confinement and the relative or absolute exclusion from public space are surely acceptable explanations. People’s relation to public space depends on their relation to private space and vice versa.  The two are contingent on each other.

Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy. Photo by Samuli Lintula – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=699616

What the above propositions make clear is the deep, structurally uneven importance of public space for different people and social groups. Rather than being the great equalizer, as we often read, the pandemic exposes and aggravates society’s existing fault-lines, and space, both private and public, is where this all manifests: Families living together in tiny flats have a very different need for a public park than a family in a suburban villa; siblings who share a single computer at home in order to be able to follow online classes need the public library more than those who have one computer each; people who can’t afford a car are more reliant on public transport than those with two cars in the household; women who live under the constant threat of violence at home, may experience public space as safer than the privacy of their home. And for those who do not even have a home – public space is all that’s left.  

If the pandemic can teach us something (and I’m not particularly optimistic), is that we need to reconsider the importance of space, not just as the big void that surrounds us, but as something that we ourselves make with our everyday practices, in interaction with others. But what could it mean – concretely?

It could mean that all those public spaces need to be treasured, funded generously and treated with great care: the park, the square, the street, the pub, the shop, the bus, the train, etc. It could mean that they need to be upgraded and maintained; they are those spaces that the weakest in our societies need most.

It would also mean that concentrating on public space, without consideration for what happens behind the four walls of the home, will always have limited effect. As an urban planner, I do not feel at all competent to talk about private spaces – but this is proving to be a huge gap in my education. No wonder that most planners are men. The home is the realm of the woman – or so we are told.

And finally, if we take the idea of ‘chance bodily encounters’ seriously, it means that we can no longer plan and manage places for abstract ‘people’ with unknown characteristics. Rather we should be very conscious of the different bodies with their different needs and design in a differentiated way.

It is too early to make any predictions about the exact form that public space will take after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. But spaces don’t just form naturally. They are products of our images, our relations and our actions. It is thus important that we ask the difficult questions, too.