The world is enmeshed in a significant health crisis. The daily briefings, projections, regulations, and profiles of those on the metaphorical frontlines prompt us to think that this is not normal. They make us think what life will be like after the coronavirus. They force us to reconsider what counts as normal.
Cities are once again at the centre of political public debate. Some commentators cast them as threats to public health and social order. Will there be a mass exodus from cities accelerated by home working? Others suggest that city living can be redeemed by small changes: pedestrianising streets, altering zoning codes or rolling out new ‘smart’ technologies.
Six experts — three architects and planners, and three social scientists — met on Tuesday, 30 June — to discuss ‘urban normality’, the ‘normal’ that cities could and should offer. The conversation gravitated towards three questions: (1) what did we learn about normality under the lockdown?, (2) how did governments use and abused the sense of normality that citizens desire?, and (3) what lessons for professional designers and architects does the pandemic offer as they work to create a normal, lovable city?
Architect Enric Massip-Bosch, professor at UPC-BarcelonaTECH and the co-director Building The City Now!, spoke about the dichotomy between the interior and the exterior, the latter cast as dangerous in the pandemic. It left urban professionals with the task of reconquering public space, normalising it, bringing its safety back. Marguerite van den Berg, a sociologist from the University of Amsterdam, picked up and pushed this point further. The pandemic reveal a dangerous vision of the interior, the home, as a realm of bourgeois privacy, heteronormativity, and the ultimately anti-urban life-style. She spoke about how lockdown regulations recognised the family as a legitimate unit that could be and move together through the city, and not student housing or other self-organized communes. Inés Aquilué Junyent, who is a regional planner from UPC-BarcelonaTECH with a strong interest in urban conflicts and urban complexity, pointed out a loss of spontaneity during the lockdown, a key feature of the ‘normal’ urban life. Access to the outside, the city, now has to be purposeful, and the city itself is reduced in its complexity and unpredictability to be efficiently managed. Anastasiya Halauniova, a scholar and activist from the University of Amsterdam interested in the political implications of urban design, simply and powerfully stated: the feeling of normality is a privilege. Migrant laborers, sex workers, precariously employed, and other similar groups have hardly ever had such a feeling. Crisis is more of a normality for them, not the other way around. Finally, Daniyar Yusupov, an urban planner who teaches at St. Petersburg University of Architecture and Civil Engineering, spoke about the emptiness of the city, which revealed that architecture and space do not constitute the urban. He also addressed the ‘new normal’, which now comes, in the case of St. Petersburg, from Karelia and the small towns of the region. All speakers agreed that social norms, either revealed or further reinforced by the pandemic, is not the same as the normal. That the duality of the exterior and the interior in the city should be radically re-thought and possibly abandoned. And that professionals might find positivity in the attitude of not planning (for a pandemic, a crisis or a disaster). This attitude does not imply inaction, but by focusing on father reaching higher goals, it safeguards professional action from reaction.
The discussion was moderated by Olga Sezneva, an urban sociologist from the University of Amsterdam and the co-director of BCNow! Is an innovative, transdisciplinary pedagogy with the goals of de-centering urban design and research, and training specialists to think responsibly about making cities livable. The discussion was organised in a collaborative exchange with Oleg Pachenkov, Center UP (Urbanism & Participation), EUSP, and Lilia Voronkova, Open urban lab.