The current crisis has made a number of issues concerning cities and their morphology emerge as critical. Density is a good example: it’s something that has been valued and considered as a positive factor in the scientific and public debate about cities for years. But it rapidly became a critical issue as the pandemic was taking the stage, mainly due to health reasons, with proximity and crowds, etc. being seen as factors favouring the spread of the virus).
On the other hand, in my city Torino (Italy), during the lockdown, the densest areas - in terms of population, but also activities, services, shops, etc. - were also those in which the most vulnerable demographics had better access to help and support. Neighbourhood shops and local services provided food and other goods via door-to-door deliveries; social mutual support groups in apartment buildings and courtyards sprang up, and so on.
When it comes to density, then, we need to better figure out what we really mean by the term. Is density, per se, bad? Or is it rather the type of density we’re talking about? We need to open up the debate about this and undertake further research to find answers.
The current pandemic has taught us about the importance of informal networks, mutual help, and small-scale relationships – whether human, economic, social, or, indeed, environmental. During the lockdown, many of us began to “re-value” the possibilities offered by proximity. We not only rediscovered our neighbourhoods: we also discovered anew our neighbours. “Neighbourliness” came to the fore for the first time in decades.
More deprived areas, those lacking diversity and density in terms of services, shops, public spaces, and so on, suffered more during the lockdown, and are now also experiencing worse recovery conditions, compared to more socio-economically privileged zones. In other words, the pandemic taught us many things about the inequalities and fragilities of our cities - and the need for a more just society.
As we move (potentially) towards a second wave, I really hope that we start planning more seriously for a post-Covid city that will look different to what we have now. My main hope is we will be able to achieve a different framework of use for our public spaces, and that we will be capable to use the space we already have to build a more equitable and democratic society.
Public spaces can and should play a key role in the recovery plans. They are spaces for experimentation of temporary, provisional solutions to the emergency and can act as a “generative” tool, showing practically – as a form of performative evidence – how we can make change now.
Through providing more space for action by citizens and community organizations; creating forums for negotiating community rules for such spaces; and establishing new types of partnerships (public-private; private-NGO; social-private, etc.), we can foster economic prosperity without forgetting about local communities – and, in particular, their most disadvantaged members.