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Culture and the public realm
COVID-19 has shifted attitudes to public space, and cities are adapting with unprecedented speed

Piazze Aperte a Dergano, Milan - Michela Laudadio
Piazze Aperte a Dergano, Milan - Michela Laudadio

Pandemics have reshaped cities throughout history – prompting investment in sanitation systems, cleaning streets and expanding open space such as parks. And COVID-19 has been no exception. Cities are adapting at an unprecedented speed, and some of these changes are now becoming permanent, presenting new opportunities but also risks for culture in urban life.

With less movement across cities, there has instead been a rise in hyperlocal activity. A study by Gehl looks at the use of public space in Copenhagen and other Danish cities. And while there has been less movement from residential districts to city centres and between residential districts, more people are moving around their neighbourhoods and using the public realm. New cultural activity has also emerged. What was previously private and indoor has now become public and outdoor. For example, Berlin have granted permits for new, independently organised open-air events across the city’s green spaces.

Cities have adapted fast, relaxing conditions around permits and taxation. Businesses have been allowed to take over pavements and parking spaces in cities including Paris, Madrid and Rotterdam. Cities have also enabled temporary uses of public space, switching use rapidly to meet urgent needs. San Francisco opened up the Presidio golf course to the public during a ‘shelter in place’ order to help with demand for public space and alleviate overcrowding elsewhere.

However, disadvantaged neighbourhoods in many cities are often poor in public space. And work still needs to be done to make the public realm more equitable. New infrastructure programmes are addressing some of these issues, making space on the streets. There has been a rapid roll-out of new infrastructure, particularly for active travel such as cycling – such as Milan’s ‘Piazze aperte’ tactical urbanism programme, and London’s StreetSpace scheme. However changes to infrastructure have also been met with opposition in many cities, particularly from the car-lobby. City governments must be brave, and continue pursue immediate solutions to generate longer-term acceptance.

Changes to the public realm present opportunities but also risks for culture in our cities. Culture can make the public realm more welcoming and accessible. And imaginative uses of space are bringing culture to people’s doorsteps. This autumn the Greenwich and Docklands Festival in London was spread across 19 outdoor venues, including residents’ streets. Neighbourhood programmes such as Buenos Aires’s ‘Cultura puerta a puerta’ and Helsinki’s ‘Gift of Art’ app also bring culture directly to citizens. But with a rise in the hyperlocal, and workers and tourists staying away from city centres, organisations in the centre dependent on visitors and tourists are hit hard. And will require further support to survive.

While adaptations have been quick, cities must now consider how to make changes sustainable, and integrated into a new way of city life.

The full WCCF COVID-19 Impact and Policy Bulletin can be downloaded here.