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.
As has been my habit in the past weeks of semi-seclusion, I went running again in the park today. I am lucky enough to be living in a city, Berlin, where getting on a bicycle and going to the next park is not a luxury, but part of people’s everyday life. I was shocked to find out that in other cities where green in the city centre comes at a premium, such as Paris or my home city, Athens, the authorities decided to close down public gardens and parks, adding a further burden to people’s confinement. Now, I don’t pretend to know anything about public health, so it is not possible for me to judge the decision on such grounds. I do wonder, however, whether controlling the use of public spaces, making sure for example that people don’t gather in groups, wouldn’t have been a more sensible measure, in terms of both mental and physical health. Indeed, urban green in the 20th century was planned having people’s health in mind (s. blog posts about epidemics and the history of urban planning in the 19th and 20th century here for part 1 and here for part 2).
Berlin is in a very privileged position with about 41% of its total surface green (forests, urban green and agriculture) and water. The city has 2,500 designated green areas, comprehensive landscape and biodiversity plans, and a recently adopted “Charter for Urban Green” – all contributing to a high quality of life for the city’s residents. The protection, maintenance and further development of the urban green is responsibility of the twelve boroughs and the city-state administration (Senatsverwaltung für Umwelt, Verkehr und Klimaschutz or Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection).