Published in February 2021.
The sudden shock
The pandemic turned the world upside down within a few weeks. The fight against the virus has made European nation-states stronger, both in relation to the EU and against their own regions and cities. Since February 2020, national borders have been closed and key decisions have been taken in single centralised power centres in each country.
Local municipalities have suddenly found themselves in a peculiar and difficult situation. On the one hand, they have become ever more subordinated to the higher levels of their national administration and political power. On the other, they are facing unprecedented levels and new forms of social and economic problems which they have to react to.
Besides the direct health impacts, the economic and social consequences of the pandemic have also been extensive. Many sectors of the economy have come to a standstill in lockdowns, as a result of which unemployment has increased dramatically. The different types of confinement policies, introduced to slow the spread of the virus, have radically changed the livelihood of citizens, exacerbating pre-existing social problems while also creating new ones.
Although ‘everyone is affected’ by the lockdown policies, it is clear that people are withstanding the difficulties from vastly different positions. The most affected individuals are those who were already at risk of poverty and social exclusion. Types of employment and housing conditions are key determinants of the ability to maintain income, health and quality of life during the quarantine. While most white-collar workers are able to survive in remote employment or home office, a large share of blue-collar workers have either lost their job or face the risk of getting infected at work.
The immediate reactions of cities
Given the constrained competencies of municipalities under the crisis, the most visible interventions implemented related to the use of public spaces. It was clear that the rules of social distancing could not be implemented in car-dominated open spaces (left picture).
The enforcement of social distancing necessitated the reorganisation of public spaces, with the aim of “democratizing” access to the streets and terminating the dominance of car use. It has now become common practice for cities to designate new cycle paths, first on a temporary basis but with the potential to keep them permanently. In Budapest, for example, one of the larger-scale interventions was the temporary closure of one of the banks of the Danube for the weekends, handing over the otherwise busy road to bikers and pedestrians.
Milan decided to undertake radical interventions to extend its cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Streets totaling a length of 35 kilometres have been redesigned to reduce car traffic by widening sidewalks and creating new cycle lanes. In parallel, a 30 km/h speed limit was introduced for greater safety of pedestrians and cyclists. In the short run, city officials hope this will prevent a resurgence of car use once residents return to work. The first aim was, therefore, to manage the short-term crisis of 2020, and only later would the urban management start thinking about how the provisions could be prolonged and eventually incorporated into longer-term plans.
Brussels was taking similarly radical steps, opening all roads in the entire city centre to pedestrians and cyclists in order to facilitate the compliance with social distancing regulations. In the new traffic order, all vehicles are subject to a speed limit of 20 km/h, while pedestrians and cyclists have priority in the city centre. According to the municipal administration, the aim of this measure is not to ban cars from the downtown area, but rather to distribute the available public space more rationally.
Besides the very visible reorganizing of public spaces, cities also introduced many other interventions to tackle the problems afflicting the worst affected population groups. To mention a few:
Housing: many cities have introduced measures such as a moratorium on evictions, limits on rent increases (while supporting tenants and landlords), help for mortgage holders, and measures to prevent cuts to amenities. See examples collected by the ‘Arena for Journalism in Europe’.
Homelessness: cities’ efforts have focused on increasing the capacities and safety of shelters, and also offering alternative accommodation - even, in some cases, hotel rooms for the poorest. Examples have been highlighted by the Economist, EU Observer, and El Pais.
Food: among others, there are many URBACT cases of cities responding to support food production, home delivery services and/or emergency interventions to prevent hunger amongst the poorest.
Inclusive education: some cities have improved the quality and inclusiveness of online education by improving services and offering wider access to digital tools. Examples were collected by Eurocities and also the School at Home! platform.
Elderly care: many cities are battling to fight the health risks faced by elderly people in care settings (where large numbers are a major risk factor) and in their own homes (where the contrasting challenge is often isolation). For example, Bilbao is collaborating with citizens to protect vulnerable members of the community, especially the elderly.
Tactical interventions: quick decisions about complex issues
Many of the changes introduced in spring 2020 under exceptional conditions and in extraordinary ways could be labelled as ’pop-up’ or temporary measures. The methods of municipal decision-making were, therefore, closer to tactical urbanism as to the usual way of municipal planning. However, the ambitions were quite high: in the drawings about the future, cars almost completely disappeared from the streets – as in the pictures below.
To achieve such dramatic changes would, in the case of normal municipal decision-making, take a lot of time and effort, as lengthy planning processes have to be accomplished with extensive public participation. This can be illustrated via the case of the centrally located Mariahilfer Strasse in Vienna.
The top picture, taken around 2010, shows the street dominated by the 12 thousand cars using it daily. Then came the vision of the car-free street, followed by 2 years of intensive public consultation process, during which the city knocked on 31 thousand doors to connect people. The final decision was taken on the basis of a local referendum. 53% voted for the change, and since the completion of the project in 2015 (bottom picture), the share of satisfied city-dwellers is much higher.
During the spring emergency, this method of municipal decision-making was not possible for two central reasons:
1) Changes had to be introduced very quickly (the patience of people locked down in their flats was quickly evaporating), and;
2) The normal governance mechanisms were not functioning, it was not possible to organize lengthy council debates, nor to ask the opinion of larger groups of residents.
The case of the Budapest Danube embankments is a great example. The discussions around changing the embankment started with the new mayor after the October 2019 elections. In January 2020, the opening of the embankment was still being negotiated slowly, but the virus massively speeded up the process: only 3 months later in May, the embankment became car- free every weekend.
The fate of tactical interventions in the longer-term
The spring 2020 emergency seemed to let up by June and the situation became relatively normal during the summer. Discussions about the tactical urbanist interventions sharpened by late summer when the return to ’normal life’, with people going to their workplaces and kids going to schools, seemed to be possible. August-September brought huge discussions in most cities: on the one hand, car drivers wanted to terminate all interventions that limited their freedom to use the roads; on the other, the increasing number of people cycling and walking wanted to preserve their newly-gained opportunities. The hotly debated question was: which of the ’pop-up’ tactical urbanism interventions could be ’regularised’ for a longer time?
Besides the obviously contrary interests at stake here, there were new facts of urban life observed by the end of the summer. Due to the increasing share of people working at home, everyday mobility needs decreased. On the other hand, the general fear of using public transport has pushed many people towards using their cars. The outbreak of the second wave of the pandemic has only strengthened these trends.
So what happened in European cities in the autumn?
In Athens, the mayor took the bold step of re-allocating around 50,000 square metres of space to walking and cycling as a ’once in a lifetime opportunity’ to clean up the city from the effects of space-consuming, polluting cars. At the heart of the scheme was the long planned four-mile long ’Great Walk of Athens’, uniting archaeological sites in the historic centre.
In the spring there was political consensus around the bike lanes. But the implementation of the project was ad-hoc, disconnected, haphazardly done, and lacking the comprehensive ideas needed to form the basis of the implemented plan. Moreover, very few people cycled in the 40 degree Athenian summer. Thus by autumn, both large parties and the media turned against the project and public enthusiasm also decreased. In late autumn, the local government promised to make more planned interventions. The future of the great walk remains unclear – the bike lane is still there, although faded...
In Budapest, the municipal government introduced bike lanes in the busy Grand Boulevard in May 2020, reducing the available lanes for cars from 2*2 to 2*1 lanes (left picture).
By autumn, this bike lane became the second busiest used by cyclists among all the Budapest bike lanes. Even so, car drivers were furious about it. A central government politician even issued a public statement that ’the oppositional Budapest mayor should stop chasing car drivers’. Finally, the city had to make changes, giving back one part of the Grand Boulevard fully to car drivers and redirecting the bike lane to the busy pavement (right picture).
Without having detailed proof, it seems that in Milan, Vienna and London, there is a better chance that the temporary projects introduced in the spring might survive in the long run.
Different views about the future of urban life
The changing use of car-dominated public spaces is only one, though the most visible, of the consequences of the pandemic. In a broader sense, the non-spatial interventions - the housing, homelessness, food, etc related urgency measures - are also still being debated. The question remains: to what extent can cities defend these in the longer term?
It is clear that the emergency measures implemented were not (or could not be) decided in the normal way, based on broad participation processes. Even so, progressive city leaders consider the new situation to be an opportunity to achieve changes that were unthinkable before the pandemic.
In Paris, as part of her successful reelection campaign, Mayor Anne Hidalgo rolled out ambitious plans to make city life more local and slow-paced. Paris also introduced new bike schemes and reclaimed streets to allow for people to move around without crowding. The "15 minute city" idea is also being further developed, which assumes that skilled workers will go to the office only twice per week, or a few days per month. The idea is that with less traffic and pollution, cities can actually become even more attractive. Furthermore, the cheaper rents for office space can attract new startups and other types of users.
Barcelona aims to assert the “digital sovereignty” of its citizens by emphasising civic participation, social impact and public return. Decidim, an online platform, is of central importance, enabling citizens to participate in decision-making. The data of the city remains the property of the citizens themselves, while opening up the civic data sets helps to stimulate local businesses and civic initiatives.
In Budapest, the local government aimed to open several vacant properties to host homeless people, including even some properties within the city hall – this has been, however, prohibited by the representative of the central government.
In UK cities and in many other European cities, street homelessness virtually disappeared with the opening of new sheltering places, even hotel rooms, for them.
In many European cities (including also Vienna, Berlin, and Amsterdam, to name only a few) new opportunities seem to be developing in terms of changes in the real estate dynamic – empty shops or even whole office buildings could theoretically be turned into different uses, better serving the interest of the whole society.
Many analysts, however, remain sceptical about the chances of such a social turn in urban development really happening, arguing that market actors will regain power and will keep their dominance over the valuable inner city real estate stock.
What are the chances for more equitable urban development after the pandemic?
The pandemic highlighted the huge contradictions and crises of the present economic model. Following the model of tactical urbanism, new efforts are needed also for tactical economic and social interventions, and later for their normalisation. This means that cities should be much braver about using the rights they do have: zoning, taxation, determining the conditions for public procurement, etc. They should find ways to favour local businesses over multinationals via public space management, smart zoning and planning policies. They should also do much more to solve local social problems that are not handled under normal market conditions.
The exceptional conditions of the COVID crisis might contribute to the development of new, progressive municipal policies. These have to be – after the initial, experimental phase – participative and inclusive. Residents' needs and opinions can be gathered via active communication. Cities experimenting with such new policies should also be in alliance with their neighbouring settlements, expanding the new policies to the metropolitan level.
The examples shown in this essay prove that cities can do a lot. However, long-lasting changes can finally only be achieved if cities develop a cooperative, multi-level government framework with their own national administration. The case of Budapest shows how limited a city's capacities are if it is crippled financially and politically by the national government.
In order to achieve success, progressive cities have to develop close links with each other, launching international cooperation. One such example is The Alliance of Free Cities, launched by the Visegrad 4 capital cities, which has now developed to include a much broader circle of large European cities that aim to convince the EU to support their efforts towards new types of urban policies.
In this essay I have used some ideas I have heard from Oleg Golubchikov (Cardiff), Thomas Maloutas (Athens), Ramon Marrades (Valencia), Corrado Topi (Stockholm), Levente Polyak and Cili Lohasz (Budapest). I have also used quotes of some of my recent publications.
This photo-essay has also been published by the URBACT blog here.