Urban life/lives and COVID-19

Presented on the Journal of Public Space webinar, 6 August, 2020.

There’s been a lot of talk about the future of cities and COVID-19. A simple Google search for “post-COVID public spaces” will show us results about adapting the world to “the new normal”: to summarize, we are talking about design, smart cities, technology, sustainability, masks, restaurants, bicycles, tactical urbanism, etc.

Also, a lot is said about how we are now realizing how vital public spaces are, how necessary it is to adapt our lives to the “new normal”, about how our lives have changed.

Google brainstorm of post-COVID urban futures

A question then arises: what lives are we talking about?

The dominant discourse of COVID 19 and cities is built around a singular narrative, assuming the crisis has been more or less the same. It establishes an ongoing story in three acts: Business as usual, disruption by a lock-down revealing empty streets and transformed routines, and a gradual return where we are rethinking the role of public spaces (as depicted in this composed image of the Arc de Triomphe before, during, and after lock-down in Paris).

Three-act structure and an iconic Parisian street: les Champs-Elysées

However, the Champs-Elysées is not every street in France (or even Paris), Paris is not France, and this three-act narrative is not the global narrative of urban life in a health crisis.

This discourse fails to take into account other street lives and urban cultures that exist for a large part of the world and the most vulnerable populations, who are dealing with the hardest aspects of the pandemic. Due to economic and social inequalities, other ways of organization of everyday life in public space already took place way before the COVID-19 crisis, and for these sectors these three acts didn’t happen as neatly, if they ever happened.

For some populations, COVID-19 measures didn’t imply a change, but only another constraint to deal with, along with preexisting complications of street life.

For some, public space was never accessible, inclusive or safe to begin with.
Others already used public space for more than leisure out of preexisting needs.

The pandemic, along with lock-down measures, exacerbate ongoing structural inequalities (class, race, income, gender).   

We can observe this at a micro level (individuals that coexist in any given city) such as women, informal workers, racialized individuals, the elderly, essential workers, and homeless individuals. And at a macro level, at countries of the Global South.

Women, the pandemic, and public space

Women have a very poor perception on security on public space, due to sexual remarks, touching, rape, gender related killings. Conditions of everyday life in public spaces such as poor lighting, low pedestrian traffic, and walking alone present greater risks.

Where lock-downs were enforced, activity on the streets dropped drastically during the day, and streets were desolate at night (except for informal workers). Some streets turned off public lighting since there was no activity outdoors. In some cities, connectivity in public transit networks was reduced, which represented longer distances of walking on empty streets.  

Moreover, new empty spaces blossom due to businesses closing during and after lock-downs.

Une femme portant un masque traverse une rue déserte de Paris, le 21 avril 2020.


Thus, sexual violence in public spaces didn’t stop during the crisis. Cases in Chile, UK, Canada, Nigeria, Kenya, the Philippines, India, the US, France, and Mexico have registered cases of sexual violence against women: Exercising outdoors, working in public work settings, living in the street, traveling to and from work, such as essential workers –female doctors and nurses have been harassed, verbally and physically attacked or denied access to public transportation– and informal workers who couldn’t afford to stop working. This is especially significant when we consider that female informal workers, account for 95% in South Asia, 89% in sub-saharan Africa, and 59% in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In late June, UN Women published a brief that addressed the matter of gendered violence amidst the crisis titled “COVID-19 and ensuring safe cities and safe public spaces for women and girls” which is available here.

New crisis and old urban issues in the Global South

Lock-down and social distancing have proved to work in diverse contexts as measures to prevent the spread of the disease. Certain conditions facilitate following these protocols, such as:

  • Housing (mostly formal)
  • Clear differentiation between private and public space, home and work
  • Access to digital tools and technological literacy
  • Access to water
  • Formal employment

These conditions are common in the North, and in the elite neighborhoods in the South. A large portion of the population of the Global South has to deal with:

  • Reduced, shared, and unaffordable housing (informal and/or auto-constructed)
  • Shared basic infrastructure (toilets, kitchens, water taps)
  • High rates of informal employment (as a reference: informal workers represent 10% of total employment in France; in Mexico, they represent 53%).
    • Citizens earn their livings in public space.
    • Livelihoods depend on mobility and contact with others.

In these conditions, lock-downs and social distancing have been hard to enforce, or at most, it happened in elite neighborhoods. Technology has been hailed as a way to keep going forward while on lock-down. But access to technology is still an unaffordable luxury for many people. For example, the Mexican government announced on early August that classes would continue by TV. In this same context, home office is not possible for many, so people still have to go to work, and many others have lost their jobs, forcing them during this crisis to informal employment (meaning, contact with people and the public space).

Life in the public space didn’t stop. It continued…with masks and gloves, amidst violence from common and organized crime, and from law enforcement.

For these populations that don’t exactly fit into the three-act structure we saw previously, COVID-19 didn’t reveal new vulnerabilities. It intensified those that were already there.

It is our responsibility to take into account other narratives, other urban lives into our considerations of the present and the future of the pandemic.

How to improve urban security in times of crisis

Crime prevention in Europe and public space

Glad to announce that the Cahiers Palladio invited me to publish an article in Réflexions immobilières. This article is titled “Villes européennes : innover pour des espaces public surs” (“European Cities: innovation for safe public spaces”). You can read the publication here: http://www.fondationpalladio.fr/download/04_2020_CAHIERS_PALLADIO_N%C2%B091_Edna_Peza.pdf

And you can read the English version here:

Couple walking down the street at night. Bucarest, Romania.

(in)tangible – fear in the city

The Festival des Idées Paris, organized by the Université Sorbonne Paris Cité. For us young researchers, it proposed the opportunity to showcase our research in an original way. And so, I was invited to organize this exhibition. What better way to know what cities are like in terms of security than to consult directly with its inhabitants?
In a close collaboration with the Festival organizers, we created a call for participation for international amateur and professional photographers. The catch: the submitted photographs had to include a caption commenting on how they perceived issues of insecurity and violence in the depicted setting.

This experience not only allowed us to create a space to communicate with a general audience about state-of-the-art research, but also to connect and give the floor to other young researchers and explain what they have seen and done in this area, as well as to develop further on the use of photography as a tool for citymaking.

If you want to see the catalogue of the exhibition, you can download it here: https://cityciteciudad.wordpress.com/intangible-fear-in-the-city/

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Wall of photos! #cityoffear #intangible

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Divided cities

Once, a city was divided in two parts. One part became the Good Half, the other part the Bad Half.
The inhabitants of the Bad Half began to flock to the good part of the divided city, rapidly swelling into an urban exodus.
If this situation had been allowed to continue forever, the population of the Good Half would have doubled, while the Bad Half would have turned into a ghost town.
After all attempts to interrupt this undesirable migration had failed, the authorities of the bad part made desperate and savage use of architecture: they built a wall around the good part of the city, making it completely inaccessible to their subjects.

The Wall was a masterpiece.

Originally no more than some pathetic strings of barbed wire abruptly dropped on the imaginary line of the border, its psychological and symbolic effects were infinitely more powerful than its physical appearance.
The Good Half, now glimpsed only over the forbidding obstacle from an agonizing distance, became even more irresistible.
Those trapped, left behind in the gloomy Bad Half, became obsessed with vain plans for escape. Hopelessness reigned supreme on the wrong side of the Wall.
As so often before in this history of mankind, architecture was the guilty instrument of despair.

Exodus, or the voluntary prisoners of architecture
Rem Koolhaas, Madelon Vreisendorp, Elia Zenghelis, and Zoe Zenghelis (1972)

City of fear

Urban problems have roots in much more abstract issues than only urban design. To understand this, we must cross the approaches of sociologists, politicians, historians, psychologists or criminologists, to name a few. This project analyzes the transformations of practices, policies, and environments of a city in the face of fear.