Revolution of Public Space

Originally published in ARK - The Finnish Architecture Review in 2021.

The Covid-19 pandemic has limited a social interaction and access to public space but at the same time, social activism and new forms of spatial occupation have emerged. Three experts reflect on the impacts of the pandemic on architecture and the use of public space. 

Historically, public space, or agora, has been an important scene for political discussions, decision making, civic activism and societal changes. In 2020, the global pandemic and its restrictions shaped the ways in which we live and interact with each other. Whilst many countries tightened their borders, we also witnessed new forms of activism, mass protests, and public occupation demanding a more just and equitable world.

“The pandemic has forced us to rethink some of our normal assumptions about how cities function. It has provoked questions about how we use our home and our workplace – and forced us to rapidly prototype alternatives. We realised that we could replace previous notions of urbanism very rapidly – if we wanted to”, reflects professor Melanie Dodd, Head of Architecture at Monash University and the editor of the book Spatial Practices: Modes of Action and Engagement with the City (2019).

Cities are much more than the built environment, streets, parks, pathways and buildings; public space is also formed by situations and interactions. In the words of Henri Lefebvre, citizens determine their right to space through social relationships. Urban planning and architecture play pivotal roles in constructing and reproducing identities.

Architect and urban planner Arvind Ramachandran is one of the founders of APAJA, a collective of architects exploring the societal impacts of the built environment. According to Ramachandran, the urban life and use of urban space in Finland have undergone large changes during the pandemic.

“Traditionally, the division between homes and public space in Finland has been strong, primarily due to weather conditions. During the Covid-19 pandemic, homes came to the cities and cities came to homes. What used to be organised at home is now held on streets and forest paths. Instead of eating out, we now order dinner at home. This ability to quickly change how one uses spaces is still a privilege only available to certain groups of society.The notion that a certain space can easily change its function, is a privilege of specific groups of people and social classes.” 

According to Melanie Dodd, one of the most significant changes in architecture has been the realisation of how unequal homes are for different social groups.

“Though working from home is not a new phenomenon, architects and academics have become interested in how homes function as workplaces during the pandemic. The idea of home as a workplace brings up feminist issues of equality, and social justice. The pandemic has exposed a lack of equity. Whether domestic spaces are safe, functional, and adaptable for work and learning varies dramatically”, says Dodd.

Rethinking Historical Monuments

In addition to the concept of home and everyday routines, in 2020, historical monuments and memorials were also re-considered worldwide. It is not a coincidence that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement – which has protested against police brutality and discrimination against Black people since 2013 – changed the built environment, monuments and language during the pandemic. The international movement asks who is allowed to use public space and for whom it is built.

In June 2020, BLM protestors pulled down the statue of the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston, and threw it into the harbour in Bristol. In the wake of the protests, the local Colston Music Hall was renamed Bristol Beacon. After the incident, several controversial statues were spray-painted, leading to discussions of whether historical monuments related to colonialism and wars, such as Winston Churchill’s statue, should be removed in cities. A statue of Leopold II of Belgium, a historical figure accused of genocide, was permanently removed in Antwerp in June.

The Left Youth of Finland proposed that the Equestrian Statue of Marshal Mannerheim should be relocated from Helsinki’s city centre to a park in Suomenlinna World Heritage Site. The organisation questioned the one-sided history relation that distorts and glamorises wars and atrocities. In Helsinki, an anti-racist BLM demonstration gathered more than 3,000 people to Senate Square in early June. 

In the United States, many cities reacted to the movement. The mayor of Washington, DC, gave the 16th Street Northwest a new name –  the Black Lives Matter Plaza. The naming was accompanied by an 11-metre-tall street mural, “Black Lives Matter”, painted on thick yellow block letters on the street. Similar street murals paintings were made in a number of cities and states in collaboration with architects, citizens and artists. 

Local Features and Communities Become Increasingly Important 

RESOLVE is an interdisciplinary London-based collective, constituting of four practitioners working in with public space, architecture, technology and the arts. The collective delivers projects which look toward realising just and equitable visions of change in the built environment. According to the founding members Seth and Akil Scafe-Smith, their projects brought people together virtually, despite social restrictions concerning movement and meetings during the pandemic.

“In the summer of 2020, everyone asked what do community and caring in cities mean. Black Lives Matter proved how a sense of togetherness can mobilise people globally. Technology has enabled us to communicate in ways that weren’t possible before.” 

With the constraints imposed by the pandemic, citizens invented innovative ways to communicate in urban environment using balconies and windows. Solidarity, communality and empathy manifested themselves in new ways; in Finland as neighbouring help groups, in Italy as singing on balconies and in London as with #clapforcarers— the clapping of hands in a national applause of thanks for public health workers on streets every Thursday at 8 pm. 

It is still too early to make conclusions on how the various forms of social activism and the occupation of public space during the global pandemic will affect urban life and architecture in the future.

“Systemic changes are slow and time-consuming; they don’t happen overnight. We will not see the real impact of social movements until 5–10 years from now. The same applies to public space and our perceptions of it, physically and psychologically”,  the RESOLVE collective reflects.

Some have predicted that the pandemic will increase migration from cities to rural areas and greener spaces. Arvind Ramachandran believes that people will continue living in cities, and recent surveys indicate the same. According to a study by Yle, The Finnish Broadcasting Company, in November 2020, urban dwellers would not be ready to reside in the countryside.

“From the perspective of equality and environment, urbanisation is positive. There are many challenges in cities, but equally, the solutions are formed in cities. People won’t move from urban areas in times of crises; this has been seen in the past, during wars and revolutions,” says Ramachandran. He thinks that architects play an essential role in the change: “As professionals working in the urban environment, we have a chance to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask whose side we are on and for whom we design public spaces.”

If metropolitan cities remain closed for months, it may lead to an economic recession and the city centres may become deserted – forming the so-called doughnut effect. In London, 70 per cent of the city’s office spaces have remained unused and empty during the pandemic.

Melanie Dodd believes that cities’ architecture has changed significantly due to the pandemic, but she also sees many positive aspects in the situation.

“Traditionally, business districts and central cities have been mainly retail and high-rise office spaces. Suddenly these ideas have been challenged. As architects, we are forced to think about whether a return to old ‘normal’ is necessary, and prototype new possibilities.”

According to Seth and Akil Scafe-Smith from the RESOLVE collective, the field of architecture is becoming more varied, open and interdisciplinary.

“We feel that architecture is one tool amongst the others with which we can make cities better and more liveable. We don’t know what the future holds but access to physical space doesn’t prevent us from doing what we do, and bringing about changes in society.” ↙

Exclusivity and Inclusivity in Cities: London Mayfair

Architecture defines and orchestrates the ways in which we navigate in the city and its public and private spaces. Urban spaces have pivotal roles in constructing and reproducing identities; how the citizens perceive themselves, relate to one another, occupy and utilise space and feel a sense of belonging (or displacement). Identities, ideologies and relations also produce symbolic spaces. Historically, cities have been designed by and for able-bodied men, which is still evident today how the public areas and urban innovations are built without considering the cities non-male users. The built environment is not neutral. Women and sexual minority groups navigate in a city that does not meet their needs or safety standards. Intersectional feminist and queer theory encompass a gender or sexual identity and class, ethnicity, and race. To what extend can we as citizens utilize, take over, shape, or even enter into the public spaces? Is there an emergency to claim the city and use it as our own? How crucial has it been, and still is, that cities host and enable places for certain groups to meet? And as the power dynamics shift and become more equitable, what type of spaces are needed today?

In ‘The Pursuit of Pleasure’ Jane Rendell looks at the eighteenth-century architecture through the lens of feminist critique, paying close attention to the private clubs in London West End as stages of displaying exclusivity, public patriarchy and the act of rambling, a form of “incoherent movement or a walk without any definite route or pleasure” (Rendell, 2002). Rendell writes that architecture and the spaces it creates are continuous but that architectural spaces a constitutive element in and not the container of identities. She writes about how the rambling played an integral part in “producing a public display of heterosexual, upper-class masculinity.” According to Rendell, the male rambler represented the shared features of a new kind of urban masculinity: the mobility, visuality and urbanity of a young, heterosexual, middle- to upper-class male consumer. Sex, class, gender, race and ethnicity all intervene together. Further, Rendell talks about the threat of female presence in public space and the male ambivalence (simultaneous feelings of fear and desire towards female sexuality) and how it placed emphasis on “the surface, the tension between display, what was being revealed, and secrecy, what remained hidden.” Places occupied by women, such as the bow windows of shopping arcades, the boxes of the opera, and carriages in the park, were represented as sites of intrigue and deceit.

“The good citizen when he opens his door in the evening must be banker, golfer, husband, father; not a nomad wandering the desert, a mystic staring at the sky, a debauchee in the slums of San Francisco, a soldier heading a revolution, a pariah howling with skepticism and solitude.” ― Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting (Woolf, 1927)

The male rambler or loiterer is the main character in Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Street Haunting’ written in 1927, where she reimagines the lives of the citizens. In the essay, Virginia Woolf describers about the pleasures of discovering the city in central London. As she steps on to the streets in Oxford Street, she imagines the lives of other city’s inhabitants from prime ministers to the homeless and the spaces these individuals occupy. She marvels about the act of walking aimlessly in London, similar to how the male ramblers defined the cities and themselves in the built space. 

As I stepped on to the streets of Mayfair on my quest to research the site surrounding the May Fair Hotel, I discovered the absence of loiterers. The area’s soundscape is filled with the sharp sound of high heels on a concrete floor, honking horns, posh accents, and rolling suitcases. What is evident is the area’s exclusivity and closeness, which the dweller is reminded around the area in multiple signs stating ‘Gentlemen’s Only’ ‘No Smoking’ ‘No Entrance’ and ‘No Parking’. Even many of the area’s art galleries have a ‘Closed’ or ‘Appointment only’ signs at their doors. The Mayfair area, only a stone’s throw away from Oxford Street and St. James that Woolf and Rendell both describe, is known for its thick fabric of high-end hotels, private clubs, fine art galleries, and auctions. Historically, there have been many places in the city where women have not been allowed to enter. Today, still such clubs exist in London. 14 of the 54 private clubs in London are exclusive to men only. In recent years, and since the opening of the first female workspace AllBright in Mayfair, there has been a boom for the female exclusive workspaces in the city. At first glance, the same-sex spaces may seem like taking a step back in time. Haven’t our mothers and grandmothers and ancestors fought hard for the right to enter and access all places? In an ideal world, all spaces and environments would be inclusive, equal and equitable. From an individual perspective, equity and inclusivity perform with different aspects of urban living where we navigate, discover, take part, and belong to spaces, sites and areas. We perform, rehearse and reimagine our roles continually as citizens.

An occasion like this happened to me on one Sunday afternoon during my site-research in Mayfair. After walking through Berkeley Square, a public park, I passed by an enormous glass-windowed building, which seemed like a private gallery. Inside the space, I could see a painting by one of my favourite artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat. I slowed down to take a peek of the space through the glass windows. Unconsciously, I didn’t even think about entering in. The size of the building was monumental; the entry echoed of exclusivity and wealth. They would not let me in. After walking around the corner, my curiosity took over. Who am I to tell myself I wouldn’t belong somewhere? I turned around and walked back to the entrance door. The vinyls on the window read, ‘Public Auction on Sundays.’ Still, I hesitated. Public auction by appointment, probably? As I walked closer, a security guard opened the door and smiled, letting me in. I quietly thanked myself for wearing high-heel boots and black leather gloves—the semiotic details of class or status. After walking through the metal detectors, I was quickly followed by a gallerist who kindly told me she was there to help me, whether I had any inquiries. I felt like playing my part in a role-play; me, pretending to be someone who could potentially invest in a Basquiat—feeling both included and excluded at the same time. 

In cities, the lines between public and private areas blur. The terms ‘public’ and ‘private’ do not exist as mutually exclusive categories; instead, their relationship is dependent and open to changeIn London, many parks, courtyards, and shopping malls are both public and private in the ways which they allow and monitor the users of these spaces. For example, in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, a person can enjoy the park’s facilities at any time of the day or night under surveillance; however, one cannot fly kites, take photographs, or smoke a cigarette in the area, according to The Park’s Bylaws. Moreover, even when we are allowed to enter a space, we may feel intimated. Cities and neighbourhoods have hierarchies and forms of urban islands. Having exclusive spaces does not mean automatically that all exclusivity is wrong, bad or discriminatory. The pockets of micro-communities are the very fabric that constructs metropolitan cities. It makes the cities able to function and form places one can call home. The communities thrive with football and bookclubs, playgrounds, gay clubs, and caring homes. In London, one can always be an observer and get a sense of non-belonging by visiting different neighbourhoods and getting leisurely lost in a new area. Safety is another critical aspect of exclusivity; queer and women-only spaces make both the women and LGBTQIA+ community safe, vital and able to survive, outside of the heteronormative society and its rules. Until we fix issues of violence, rape, and discrimination, the spaces are needed. There are places where exclusivity and same-sexness are necessary and vital to reveal society’s inequity that does not provide the same opportunities for all. 

Claiming space is crucial to our existence, especially in cities built by and for white-able-bodied cis men. Gentrification has made the everyday lives of women, especially low-income women, even more difficult. (Kern, 2020) Women get paid less for the same jobs, and still, women do the vast majority of the world’s unpaid care work. According to the book Invisible Women, (Criado Perez, 2019) 75 per cent of the UK families on low to middle incomes work outside standard hours. Many companies, especially global chain restaurants and cafeterias such as Starbucks, use algorithm-produced scheduled tools to plan their schedules. The book points out a case study of a woman with two small children living in San Diego, involved working until 11 pm on a Friday, starting at 4 am on Saturday and starting again at 5 am on Sunday. The work shifts leave a little (or no) room to schedule and plan childcare. The work conditions are precarious for all, but especially when you add the invisible unpaid care work at home. In addition, women on irregular or part-time/zero-hour employment contracts have been found to be more at risk of sexual harassment. The current work conditions work in favour of the white man. The list is long: from unpaid work to sexual harassment, unfair conditions to unpaid work, and lack of leadership positions and visibility and inclusivity of women, especially women from Black and Ethnic Minority backgrounds. In this light, exclusive spaces play a crucial role in women, gender-conforming and sexual minority and ethnic groups. 

How would the urban spaces look and function if it were to consider women and gender-conforming citizens’ needs? And not only consider but to actively work to change them. What does a safe city look like for all its members? Is it possible to establish a city where the invisible, queer, women, and Black and Ethnic Minority groups, become central? Perhaps by challenging the power structures, we can sense what truly inclusive cities look like. Whether it happens by temporarily claiming space through walking or occupying the city in ways that we are not used to, we can start revealing layers of prejudice and invisible hierarchies. By creating cohesive, consistent and constructive changes, we can become a part of the public spaces’ planning and from exclusivity and draw the attention to inclusivity. Cities may not be neutral, but they belong to us all.  

(Listen to my ‘Mayfair Soundscape’ here.)


Perez, C. (2019). Invisible Women Exposing Data Bias In A World Designed For
. Chatto & Windus.

Kern, L. (2020). Feminist City.

Rendell, J. (2002). The Pursuit of
Pleasure: Gender, Space and Architecture in Regency London
. The Athlone
Press London.

Woolf, V. (1927). Street Haunting:
A London Adventure

Artists Are The Missing Link in Community Planning

“Artists are at the heart of London’s creative success and the centre of many of our thriving communities. Only by incorporating artists’ workspace in strategic planning for the city, will we maintain our competitiveness and achieve the Mayor’s ambition of becoming an international “capital of content.” Mayor of London, “Creating Artists’ Workspace” (2015)

I moved to London three years ago. Three years ago I also found Hackney Wick; an artist-built warehouse zone in East London.

When I walked into the first live-work space in a converted warehouse, I knew I had found something exceptional. Seeing the wonky, self-built units, large communal work areas and industrial yard where all the neighbours were sharing a meal together outside, I said aloud “I’m going to move here.”

Now this community, known as the densest concentration of artists in Europe, is under threat of demolition. Bulldozers are replacing artist studios and cafés have signs stating “Development of luxury apartments.”

I’m one of the campaigners of Save Hackney Wick, because I want to ensure that the current developments take into consideration the existing community: local businesses, residents, artists, families and youth.

Why should anyone care where the artists go?

London, as it stands, is in crisis. According to a Just Space study, Towards a Community-Led Plan in London (2016), London has the lowest levels of well-being and life satisfaction on record, and the highest levels of income inequality – only to name a few of the city’s socio-economic crises. London has been known as Europe’s “capital of culture” for years, with over 35,000 people graduating from Art and Design colleges every year. According to the Mayor’s Creating Artists’ Workspace (2014) case study, culture is a key driver for London’s economy, attracting tourists and contributing £21 billion to the city’s economy. According to the same study, at least 3,500 artists are to lose their studios in the next five years. Around 600 of them are based in Hackney Wick.

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, is now to amend the London Plan. He has promised to celebrate London’s vibrant culture scene and to make the capital greener, healthier – and he has vowed to offer more affordable housing and highlight the positive impact of community planning development.

Save Hackney Wick is, at least in theory, in the core of Khan’s plan. The area could become a flagship example of cultural, social and community planning in London, where taxpayers’ money would go back into the community. Hopefully it’s not only wishful thinking.  

Recently, Khan released his new vision of London, which underlines the importance of creative workforce and artist spaces to London’s future:

“My plan for Creative Enterprise Zones is designed specifically to assist the artists and creative workers who may otherwise struggle to work in London, and I also want to explore innovative financial models to support small creative businesses.”

Positive regeneration?

Rapid urban changes are a threat to diverse, multi-ethnic communities and the independent art scene — qualities for which London has been known and celebrated for centuries. These are the same qualities why I, as a Finnish artist, fell in love with the city, and decided to make a life here three years ago.

This is a part of a global issue that follows the simple cycle of gentrification: first arrive the artists, then come the developers. As soon as the artists have made the area “attractive,” rents will rise and the artists will be pushed out, along with the pre-existing community. The same “hipster-led gentrification” has happened in Kreuzberg in Berlin, Williamsburg in New York and Shoreditch in London.

But could this be stopped? Could we say “no” to the constant uncertainty and “no” to the luxury development that is only affordable for investors? I’m not against regeneration, as that is the nature of cities, but these developments should value existing, vibrant communities.

Without independent culture and artists’ work spaces for artists to work, cities will become only fragile eggshells without content. London will lose its soul.

But instead of demolishing these existing communities, homes and cultural hubs, we could integrate artists as part of community development, thus strengthening the neighborhood’s well-being.

The cycle could be stopped — or even used as a positive recycle model.

Instead of treating artists as disposable waste, artists could be “problem solvers” as well as links between cities, people and communities. We should connect the dots together.

Now is the time to act.

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