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.” ↙

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