Recently, a municipality in the state of Berlin invited residents to choose the trees they would like to see planted in their street, as part of a new tree planting programme. The meeting took place in a neighborhood cafe that gave them space; residents were presented with three options with trees suitable for the location, and after an introduction by experts about the pros and cons of each option, citizens discussed and voted. This is a simple example of a relatively clear question with no particular controversies or rivalries. Nevertheless, the main questions that should concern us when it comes to citizen participation are already visible here. Some of them are practical and others relate to more theoretical and methodological issues:
“For me, the first step should be the provision of accurate, accessible, and continuous information – not advertising.”
First, citizens were asked to choose in the last phase of the process, after the decision at a higher level to place trees in this street. Alternatively, the residents of the street could have been asked whether they wanted trees in the first place or maybe something totally different, such as benches or a playground. In a similar way, all residents of the municipality could have been asked if they prefer trees on that particular street or somewhere else. The municipality, however, had already decided, based on wider environmental planning, that trees on that street were important for the climate of the whole area. This raises two questions: (a) At what stage of the decision-making process do we include participation? (b) At what scale does it take place and how does it fit into a wider plan that does not only concern that specific microspace?
The COVID-19 pandemic is already having a profound altering effect on our towns and cities. The restrictions placed on business operations and social interactions have rendered places temporarily incapable of offering many of the functions, and ultimately serving the purpose, that we have erstwhile looked to them to provide. Much of the focus thus far has been on the high street, specifically retail, and the implications for places large and small the pandemic presents. However, equally as important to many places, and a by-product of the structural changes we’ve witnessed over several decades which have increased its significance, is the role of arts and culture.
Almost overnight the travel and tourism industry has gone from focusing on the problems of overtourism to undertourism, and in many cases, the real prospect of no tourism at all in 2020 due to the current Coronavirus pandemic. However, as the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) recently warns that international tourism could fall by as much as 80% in 2020 and as many countries have started to ease their strict lockdown measures, it is time to think about what we want for the future of post-pandemic tourism when we come out the other side of this crisis. By number, well over 90% of all tourism businesses are categorised as Small and Medium sized Tourism Enterprises (SMTEs), and many of these are micro-businesses employing few if any others outside of immediate family. The demise of tour operator Thomas Cook in 2019 hit many of these businesses hard. Now in 2020, tourism business have been hit by the response to COVID-19, an unprecedented global crises that has brought about travel bans, border closures, event cancellations, closure of tourist accommodation, and the grounding of flights all over the world.
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.
A recent post on the IPM Blog has highlighted the importance of urban green space in the time of epidemics (see http://blog.placemanagement.org/2020/04/11/the-importance-of-urban-green-in-times-of-epidemics/#more-2509), in terms of their beneficial effects on the well-being of those city-dwellers able to access them. Indeed, in the UK, there have been media reports bemoaning the fact that so many people have sought such benefits (especially during sunny weather), that the government’s recommended social distancing protocols have not been observed because of the sheer number of people occupying these spaces. In such situations, perhaps we have to find alternative, ‘new’ greenspaces?
In my last post on this blog (see http://blog.placemanagement.org/2020/04/10/look-around-you-exploring-your-locality-during-lockdown/#more-2495), I suggested that during the current pandemic, we need to ‘look around’, and explore more extensively the locales in which we live. In doing so, I’ve certainly found new green spaces that I didn’t know existed close to where we live. More recently, in our local explorations, we’ve investigated another green space that we knew existed only a few hundred metres from our house, but had never ventured on before – namely, the local golf course.
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).
The most recent posts on the IPM blog have rightly addressed the implications of – and possible responses to – the current situation that we all face with regard to Covid-19. It is the fundamental issue of our present time. Indeed, the pandemic impacts upon us all, not least with the lockdowns imposed in most countries. These have involved more or less draconian measures, aimed at curtailing our freedom of movement in order to restrict the spread of the virus. Here in the UK, the Government’s ‘Stay Home’ instruction states that one period of exercise each day is allowed, as long as it is near to a person’s home; indeed, there have been numerous instances of media-shaming of those travelling to tourist districts in order to get their daily exercise quota.
What are the implications of these constraints for individuals and the places in which they live? If our horizons are (at least temporarily) limited, then perhaps we have to try to seek enchantment nearer to home, rather than travelling considerable distances to the usual tourist and other outdoor leisure destinations. So, as a result, let’s explore where we actually live instead.
Recently I was invited by You and Yours, BBC Radio 4’s daily consumer show, to talk about the problems facing INTU, owners of 17 shopping centres, including some of the UK’s largest malls, such as the Metrocentre and Trafford Centre. The interview took place a few days before lockdown, inside an already near deserted Trafford Centre, a mall that normally attracts over 31 million visitors a year.
INTU’s revenue decreased by £38.8 million in 2019 to £542.3 million. A reduction in rent receivable from the impact of CVAs and administrations, and increased vacancy appear to be the main drivers, leaving INTU with £4.5 billion debt. Whereas, in 2011, few questioned Capital Shopping Centres (INTU’s parent company) purchase of the Trafford Centre for £1.6b (at the time the UK’s largest ever property deal), given that by 2015 its market value had risen to £2.2b. However, according to the London Stock Exchange, by December 2019 its value had fallen to less than £1.7b.
According to sociologist Richard Sennett (1994), the architectural emblem of our times is the airport waiting lounge; we are the ultimate lonely crowd, with fragmented and fleeting relations with other strangers; lacking any enduring sense of commitment to one another. This chimes with Augé’s (1992) observation that we are witnessing the spread of what he terms ‘non-places’ across the world, such as airports and shopping malls; homogenous environments in which these lonely crowds temporarily dwell, before dispersing once again.
This idea of consumer societies being characterised by a growing individualism, with fragile and transient social bonds, has become a common trope in academic research and writing. Such sentiments are echoed in Zygmunt Bauman’s series of books exploring what he calls Liquid Modernity; societies in which “…change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty” (Bauman, 2000: viii).
Spring 2020 will be one for the history books as Covid-19 takes hold across the globe. But we need to start the thinking about what we could be facing on the other side, and take advantage of the opportunities where they exist, says placemaking consultant BEN STEPHENSON.
The rolling news cycle is both excruciating and addictive, with small, incremental developments about the spread of coronavirus available at every page-refresh. It’s exhausting and unhealthy to fixate on the immediate problem without also looking beyond, to how we plan for the recovery.