No Time for Small Steps: Urban Change in the Pandemic

This is the first in a series of interviews by Random Walks with urban initiators, activists, artists, theorists, designers, planners, and critics. We have decided to start it off with a talk that reflects the changes in our use and construal of urban space during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 health, economic, social, and cultural crisis.

We spoke with Oliver Hasemann from the ZwischenZeitZentrale (ZZZ) in Bremen, a collective initiative of architects and urban planners that aims to discover emptied spaces in the city and re-activate them temporarily for socially beneficial purposes. They wake up unused buildings and premises from their slumber by liaising between local authorities, owners, and creative urban project initiators, as well as offering continuous guidance and support throughout the interim use of the space. Their current project aims at re-purposing an old racecourse and adjacent facilities with an area of 30 hectares, which has been operated by the Bremen Racing Club since 1857. Other projects have included a nursing-home-turned-exhibition space, and transforming the administration building of a former sausage manufacturing plant into a shared office and theatre space under the name Wurst Case.

Photo: Team ZZZ – ZwischenZeitZentrale Bremen in Wurst Case, (c) 2019 Lukas Klose

Random Walks: The coronavirus pandemic forced us into a rapid change of the ways in which we make use of our public space, and how we perceive and interact with it. It made us become aware of habits we had taken for granted and tested our ability to question and change them. Have you observed these changes in the use of public space in the city, in Germany and beyond? Which are the most glaring ones?

Oliver Hasemann: What I observed the most was an increase in the use of public spaces, especially parks and paths. Those spaces had been and are still in use for a lot of leisure activities, sports, cycling, trips or children playing. In popular spots this nearly led to situations of overcrowdedness, where criteria of hygiene measures were difficult to follow. The same counted for forests, seas or spaces of public interest like monuments. In the first period of the lock-down, this was more like an outburst and individual enjoyment of freedom. Right now people are starting to meet and exercise, do sports and other leisure activities in public spaces as well as in outdoor sports utilities.

In Bremen, the changes in traffic behaviour within public space were less significant. Of course in the first days there was little traffic, but car traffic did not decrease in the last weeks and there weren’t any significant changes in use of traffic infrastructure for other purposes in Bremen, unlike Brussels or Milan or other European cities. In order to avoid heavy use of bars and restaurants the opportunities of using outdoor space for gastronomy were facilitated and this might even lead to the closing of streets, as so many people gather in the streets that distance rules can hardly be observed.

Random Walks: In light of the lockdown and our limited mobility out of our dwellings, the respective debate in German media now seems to have centred on issues of ‘public life’, while pushing ‘public space’ to the margins. What is your take on this? Does such a debate threaten to minimise the role of urban space in our lives or does public space become subsumed under a broader sociological category?

Oliver: Until now I have got the impression that the discussion about the importance of public space is not as visible as it should be, while the discussion about public life is an ongoing subject on all channels. That’s kind of surprising as accessible public spaces had to replace those parts of public spaces that hadn’t been accessible before. These were in many cases places of consumption like shopping, clubbing, cinemas. Their shutdown is of course of relevance for jobs, economic welfare. This may be one explanation why public life got more attention in the public debate. 

The discussion on public space will therefore start when the results of the crisis are definite. The close-down of many “Galerie Karstadt Kaufhof” stores and other branches of national and global companies will lead to a discussion on the future of inner cities. How will the public places in those areas be used if the consumers are missing? Many of those places already become abandoned in the times when shops are closed.

Random Walks: The limitations on movement have emptied out some of our favourite public spaces: parks, playgrounds, squares, quays, to name a few. On the other hand, they have brought about changes in the use of transitional spaces like hotels, as some authorities in the USA provided housing for the homeless to move them away from the streets and from risk. What does this tell us about re-appropriation and re-purposing of space, especially for the marginalised and endangered? Does it mean that seemingly unsolvable problems can receive rapid solutions when the authorities act with benevolence?

Oliver: Times of crisis seem to accelerate decision making. This was the same after the nuclear disaster in Japan in 2009. But right now solutions are in many ways reached to keep the status quo alive and not so much to change structures and implement long-term strategies. In many cases already decided projects and shifts in technologies have been hastened, as have many developments (like online business and the decay of regular shopping). These challenges have to be addressed in upcoming decision-making processes. For the moment, the crisis has increased public acceptance of extensive changes and these opportunities should be used to act bravely and should not be kept in a policy of small steps*.

* In planning theory this was the perspective of incrementalism (German: “perspektivischer Inkrementalismus”), invented by Karl Ganser as head of the IBA Emscherpark, 1989-1999. It refers to policy-making that envisions action in small steps implemented over short periods of time, instead of long-lasting masterplans.

Random Walks: During our isolation, at least in places where no curfews were imposed, walking became our go-to activity for maintaining some physical fitness and mental well-being. How has this changed the way in which we interact with our city? Also, how can the experience of urban walking differ between cities with plenty of parks and greenery, those with labyrinth-like street networks, and those consisting of long rectangular streets?

Oliver: Walking tends to make people more aware of their neighbourhood. They may discover new paths and places they have never been to even if they are nearby. In a group there is a possibility of exchanging personal experience with other people while watching the street and the nearby surroundings.

We did a podcast during one of our urban walks to share our knowledge and experience of lesser known places of interest in the districts of Bremen. Our aim was to awaken an interest in people to discover those places by themselves and maybe exchange digitally about this experience afterwards. It´s of course not comparable, but may lead some people to get to know more places in their city.

In my experience, small and narrow streets are more cosy and give a feeling of dense experience. It’s a kind of measurable size, while big, open spaces may make you feel lost. Unless they are green spaces, which can change into a feeling of garden atmosphere. Long streets, especially along big roads are the worst: it’s rainy, it’s loud, it really provides an aggressive atmosphere.

Plans for Corso Buenos Aires in Milan. Photo credit: MilanoEvents.it©

Random Walks: We have also seen changes in urban planning as some cities have embraced the crisis as an opportunity to create more ‘liveable’ cities. Milan, one of the most severely affected cities in Europe both in terms of public health and financially, has kicked off the Strade Aperte** project. Can you reflect on this initiative? Have you seen similar changes that cities adopt? If radical changes can only happen in radical times, how can we make use of this momentum on an international or even global scale?

Oliver: In Ghent we have seen the model of the “living streets,” where some one hundred streets are closed for traffic every summer and neighbourhood initiatives take care of “their” roads. Beside that the whole inner city has been closed for traffic anyway for years already. The now well-known example of Brussels is in some ways comparable to that model, which had already been well established. In some way I guess that a lot of cities have existing plans for banning cars from the inner cities but hadn’t had the fierceness and the momentum of implementing them. With the prospect of decay of the traditional inner city shopping areas new solutions are needed and have the chance to be accepted.

Of course challenges will differ from city to city and from country to country. Exchange on that is needed and good experience has to be exchanged. Everybody is looking at the example of Copenhagen and its positive effects but no other city has taken comparable steps yet. Still, it is the existing best practice that cities now can rely on. Bremen as my hometown for now has at least decided to build “premium” bicycle paths, even as no streets have immediately been closed for traffic.

Random Walks: The outbreak of deadly cholera in 19th-century Paris brought about the domination of utopian architecture under Baron Haussmann. His urban planning was initially driven by attempts to increase hygiene (move gutters to the sides, replace alleys with boulevards, build a proper sewage system), but also to regulate the city and prevent riots. Once again we are faced with notions of hygiene, purity, distance, and hence needs of purification and regulation. How do you think this might be mirrored in architecture and urban design in the future? Can we expect tendencies towards even more ‘sanitising’?

Oliver: The worst that can happen is a society where the car yet again becomes a distinguishing feature. People feel safe there and can use it as a status symbol, and take distance from each other. Not only on street level but also in dwelling in suburbs, at least for those who can afford to live outside.

But as reality proves, I would say people will stay in the cities and get the opportunity to enjoy their cities as there are more existing spaces to use than before. The people will support their local shops and restaurants while the big players (shops) will lose. It´s not like both can’t happen. But I guess we are at a point where we can and will change towards good.

** Strade Aperte (Eng.: “Open Streets”) is an urban transformation project that the city of Milan introduced during the coronavirus lockdown in Italy with the aim of increasing the number of biking routes, minimising car traffic, and lowering air pollution levels. By the end of 2020, 35 km of new biking lanes should be added to the city streets by converting traffic lanes. The project was inspired by the plummeting levels of pollutants in the air in Milan during the pandemic and the positive environmental consequence of the lockdown.

Featured image by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash 

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