2020, the year cities ceased to exist – at least temporarily

2020, the year cities ceased to exist – at least temporarily

Markus Appenzeller

The year is almost over. No time to conclude but to reflect and a time to state where we stand. One of the most striking things to me was, that the future disappeared in a big virus. Any long term and not so long-term plan was subject to the ever-changing catalogue of covid measures that governments and local authorities put in place. We could see how public life was switched on and switched off within hours. And with that came a complete change in the way we experience and use space.

Particularly in urban space, this could be felt the most. The manifestation of what cities are – many people aggregated in a small area, interacting 24/7 in private and public space lost is public component. The result: the physical form of a city without city life. And even when people were allowed on the streets, encounters were different. Keeping your distance after all does not allow for the casual hug, the handshake or the pad on the shoulder. Many of our workplaces also changed with the vanishing of their three-dimensional space. Where we used to meet in space, a meeting now has turned to a two-dimensional soup of pixels. Emotions, body language, informality and the group feeling largely got lost on the way. Distance only matters insofar as a bigger distance from the router has a negative impact on the Wi-Fi quality.

Space as a place to meet is gone. Space as a trajectory to cover for the sensation of arriving somewhere is not more. And space as the determining factor for presence or absence also has become irrelevant. The only aspect of space left is its role as divider – as buffer – against the other, potentially infected and therefore dangerous citizen.

We have learned to live in the city without the city. Once one of the most determining factors of our life, it has ceased to exist in our daily routine. With the disappearance of the future, it seems the future of the city also has disappeared. We do not treat it with the same care anymore. We still maintain its physical environments and we keep adding private space in the form of buildings. But we currently cannot and even must not maintain and foster the urban encounters that go beyond mere space and the last remaining bits in the form of conferences and events moved online suffer from increasing screen fatigue. Speaking to a number of people there seems to be two types of people – those who don’t miss the city and those who do. One could argue that this reflects the motivations that drive people to cities: the search for a job, a partner or education – a pragmatic choice on one hand and the emotional choice – cultural life, encounters, possibilities and opportunities – on the other. Urban pragmatists see the city as a system that best serves their ambitions and in corona times that still is the case almost in the same way as before. Urban emotionalists understand the city as an environment that defines them as persons. For them the aspects that currently do not exist are the essence of city and they suffer. Belonging to the latter, I know what I am talking about.

But where do we go from here? This question implies that there is a future and I believe there is. How it will look like is speculation. Judging previous events that enforced drastic behavioural changes – wars, economic crises or pandemics – once they ended, those who survived turned the aftermath into a party. Literally and as an analogy. The ‘roaring 20s’, the postwar reconstruction rally, the stock market and real estate booms. Often the moment was used to rethink and adjust pre-crisis behaviour and norms.

After all a big party would not be a bad thing this time as well but I hope more for the rethinking of norms and behavioral patterns. We should use the fact that cities come into existence again to radically change how we operate them and how they look. I am not talking about a new stylistic movement. I am talking about taking climate change, mobility shifts away from the car, a more self-sustainable provision with energy and food and letting nature in. If all of this can be achieved, I am sure the urban emotionalists will be happy and feel the suffering was worth it and the urban pragmatists probably will also not mind.

Maybe we should let the city temporarily disappear more often in the future if it can accelerate things for the better. But that reflection I will keep for some year to come – hopefully in a somewhat distant future. I wish all readers a happier 2021!

by Markus Appenzeller

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