by- Sudeshna Roy, Bidisha Chattopadhyay*
Covid-19 has led us to question and rethink the distribution, design and function of public space. Though phase-wise opening up of public spaces has happened, and under the second wave of virus surge in India; intermittent zonal lockdowns, night curfews and weekend lockdowns have been reintroduced, there are multiple questions that emanate from this unforeseen situation.
Whether web-space, home-space would replace the public space in future? Can people socially adapt to the changing framework of urban liveability? Will the social isolation promote individualism in public spaces? Will normality return or are we in middle of a reimagined world order?
Newer spaces and patterns emerge
(a) Focus on home spaceThe perception of public space is in for radical restructuring. With the virus scare expected to linger around in people’s minds in future notwithstanding the vaccination drive initiated globally, the value of home space has escalated largely. People have enhanced their socio-ecological interactions and created newer ‘spaces’.
The realm of personal space has got much needed boost of creativity with people harnessing their hobbies. to revitalize the ‘mind space’ and keep the psyche free from stress and anxiety. People have found ways to cope with physical disconnectedness within the home precincts via increased familial and virtual interactions.
Needless to say, that the current norms of quarantine have disrupted public life and has shifted the locus from public space to ‘home space’, but it has additionally deepened the gender bias that has been existing. There has been rise in domestic violence incidences globally (Peterman et al., 2020). Similarly, the burden of unpaid work has become more skewed with women bearing the maximum load alongside the paid work (Guterres, 2020).
(b) Evolution of virtual public spaceThe idea of public space is no longer tied to the physicality of the land; being a social construct, it has invaded the digital spaces. Social media revolution has changed the structure and pattern of socio-political organization along with physical forms of protests (Vuolteenaho et al) thereby drawing wider participation and opinions from public not physically present at the protest site. Amidst the second wave of Covid-19 with virulent strains on the prowl in India, social media has become kind of last resort for people looking out for hospital beds, medical oxygen and pharmaceuticals for the infected relatives.
With absolute strangers jumping in to help in forwarding information on life saving drugs, verified supply chains and scouting for plasma donations, virtual space has transformed into a mammoth humanitarian and philanthropic space. Various video conferencing applications and Over-The-Top (OTT) platforms has seen surge in usage for work, online tutorials, entertainment and social networking during lockdown.
Religious institutions have gone online to stay connected with devotees; live streaming rituals and even conducting marriages. Educational institutes have switched onto online teaching while many have started hosting and participating in hobby classes opening up avenues of income generation (Mahajan 2020).
This also has had its flipside; a study found that the youngsters of middle and upper middle-class families were spending more than six hours per day on social media during the lockdown, leading to increase in stress levels in nearly half of them (Shukla, 2020). In the ‘learning space’, the surge in the number of webinars being conducted during the lockdown has been phenomenal. Poor internet connectivity, financial incapability to afford gadgets has been cited as reasons for the online model to be exclusionary in nature though.
(c) Transformation and re-structuring of public utility spacesPhysical transformation of public spaces has been rapid and accommodating for sheltering the quarantine population. Many five-star hotels and government schools in India had stationed and isolated Covid-19 suspects during lockdown. The Indian railways had kept more than 5,000 coaches and 85 stations as make-shift Covid-care centres. Wipro had proposed to convert its Pune estate into a 450-bed centre.
Wuhan, Rio de Janerio, Manila, Kolkata, New York saw their sports complexes being altered into hospital (Gregory, 2020) Sports facilities have become the relief centres storing medical inventories and managing the shortfall of hospital beds. Furthermore, shopping malls, stadiums and skating arenas have utilized the built-up vehicle-parking space for running drive-in Covid-19 test centres.
Sheer lack of space and tsunami of Covid-19 deaths since March 2021 in India has upturned the compartmentalisation of designated spaces for specific uses. Shockingly, bereaved families in Delhi-NCR are being compelled to cremate their departed family members in parking lots, parks and empty spaces.
The desperate search for additional burial spaces for the ‘exponentially rising’ number of dead persons has witnessed desperate alterations in public space use. The city’s funeral grounds had been stretched far too thin overwhelmed by the rush of dead bodies resulting in conversion of vacant land into funeral pyres on ‘war-footing’.
Flexible working hours and remote work regimes have led to reimagination of office space usage and are likely to bring in restructuring of urban land use. The city of London has envisaged the conversion of central commercial office buildings into residential spaces.
Thus, the City Corporation has planned to ‘use a mixture of new schemes and refurbishments of old buildings to meet its housing target’ which would accomplish 35% of their affordable housing demands. This way in post-pandemic city planning newer trends would emerge keeping in mind a hybrid ecosystem of working and residential spaces.
Thoughtful utilization of public spaces has emerged as people discover new avenues for creative space. Artists in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, Chennai, Jalpaiguri town, West Bengal and Hubli, Karnataka painted the pitched road surfaces with giant murals creating awareness about Corona virus during 2020. Colourful wall graffiti are adorning the public architectural spaces expressing pandemic support and dissent in global cities; Seattle, Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin.
Implications of new spaces on the future
Covid-19 has brought fore the need to integrate the transformations into policies, urban planning and technological innovations. Multi-functional public spaces that have the ability to adapt to changing demands are the need of the hour. Presumably, beautification of public space will take a backseat and focus will shift to ensure physical distancing, sanitation and hygiene facilities through design.
There may be anticipated rise in demand for houses with dedicated room as office space, cheaper communication devices and affordable technology. The social fabric is under transition threatening the cohesive social milieu that public space germinates. Virtual social networking, though easy to organize and manage, lacks the momentum and vitality that face-to-face interface has. Public spaces represent ‘shared values and common assets’ (Rosmarin, 2020) and are integral to social integration. Given the pandemic induced disruption of the spatial-social order that the world has been used to, it is now up to judicious, inclusive, economic resource utilization and priority-based planning for restoring and restructuring of spaces.
*Dr Sudeshna Roy is PhD and Independent Researcher; Bidisha Chattopadhyay is with the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi