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New Report: Public Space & Public Life during COVID 19

report_cover_publicspace_gehlWhat can be said about Covid-19 that hasn’ t been said already? Rather than simply talking and writing about the pandemic, Gehl staff wants to share the lived experience of it. With the support of Realdania and the City of Copenhagen, they worked with 60 surveyors in 4 cities in Denmark to observe and understand how streets and public spaces, parks and playgrounds are serving the very unique needs of the communities during this pandemic. The first results are listed in this report, both in terms of snapshots of public life during the “lock-down’ as well as highlights of the collected data.

This crisis has shown us the power of behavior change ‘“ both how adaptable humans are, and how much of an impact that adaptation can have on our society ‘“ socially, environmentally, and of course economically. The key will be to build on the sense of community and social cohesion while overcoming the current economic crisis, in a way that catalyzes the start to a sustainable and climate-ready transition.

Major Events and their Long-term Effects

Major global events, such as pandemics, economic depressions, and wars have shaped our societies and the way people experience everyday life. For less than a decade, the after effects of 9-11 and our response to terror has had the biggest physical manifestation – with multiple security measures in airports and air travel shaping our behaviour.

From the panopticon in prisons being adapted to hospitals, the Napoleonic widening of streets to make space for the military movement, to modernist architectural principles based on health & nature, all of these are functional physical approaches to urgent and major needs. As pandemic regulations are being implemented throughout the world, the question of what will be the future measures. More importantly, how can we ensure a post-COVID19 people-first implementation and adoption of physical measures that can inform a future sustainable public life. To inform these future measures, understanding how people are behaving outside their homes – primarily in public spaces and streets – is paramount for future adoption.

That is why Gehl is collecting data, through an inclusive approach, giving public life and people a voice before experts shape the response.

Different Approaches and Public Life

Different preventive and reactive measures are being enforced with various degrees of rigidity. From Peru, Chile, Italy, India, the USA, to Denmark and Sweden. The danish approach has been built upon using public space to actively fight the virus while keeping our democratic humanity alive. The way the Danes and Danish cities handle the COVID19 crisis is based on trust and civic responsibility.

Compared to many other countries that have closed urban spaces or limited outdoor living, public spaces and public life are a vital part of Denmark’ s strategy to collectively care for one another and at the same time enjoy physical activity, fresh air, and socializing, but from a distance. With no vaccine or cure available, physical space has now become the mechanism to fight, prevent, and control the spread, while providing the benefits these places have.

In many cases, there are more people spending time in public spaces in Copenhagen now, than before COVID19. It is paramount that private and public organizations understand the value of public spaces, to not only help fight a pandemic, but ensure a better future quality of life.

Big Data vs. Thick Data

Google, Apple and others have collected macro-regional trends. All of these are trying to give a glimpse of the impact COVID19 has had on cities. Although these datasets and approaches work well to get a high level, almost global overview, they in some cases overlook some of the things that are happening in the public sphere. Each form of data has strengths and weaknesses but together they tell a much more complete story. Gehl’ s data provide complementary insights at eye-level and from a lived experience perspective – people observing people. This study sheds light on the micro-stories that can get lost in the noise of big-data.

COVID might push urban data sets and mapping more into the mainstream – maps of outbreaks, statistics over new cases, the correlation between things like air pollution and COVID cases all help us to make sense of the pandemic. Yet no single piece of information tells the full story. It is in fact the formulation of data into stories is what really helps us to see the invisible and understand the hidden side of things like how a micro virus much smaller than individual human cells can bring the entire world to a grinding halt. Yet focus on the development of tools and skills needed to help us to see, then understand and then act on such difficult to comprehend realities might be one of the silver linings of the pandemic.

An overview of the results of the study conducted in 4 Danish cities. Source: Current report

About the report

The Studies have been planned and coordinated by Gehl and executed by a combination of Gehl staff, collaborative partners, City staff and paid surveyors. This work is conducted with financial support from the philanthropic association Realdania and The City of Copenhagen, Health and Care Administration and in-kind contribution from Copenhagen Solutions Lab.