Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Living – Cities in Lockdown: A Few Comments on Urban Decline and Revival under the Covid-19 Pandemic

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Maciej Kowalewski, University of Szczecin, Poland

Writing about possible changes ‘after the epidemic’ shows not only optimism but maybe excessive certainty. How will it end? After all, we do not have any direct observations yet (as we mostly have to rely on secondary data), and we do not see a clear ‘end point’. The favourite topics of urban sociology are collective practices and urban space. But when almost all practices in public space are limited or forbidden, these topics change radically, and all ‘interesting’ topics are suspended. Some of the methodologies we are familiar with, involving contact with space and its users, cannot be applied. It is as if what we are dealing with, and what constitutes our discipline, have disappeared. But contrary to all this, we still have a lot to offer as urban sociologists. Some phenomena are now visible or better perceivable, by reference to the current context and by using our sociological imagination.

Decline: Cities Humiliated
Large cities are not the safest environment in times of epidemic crisis. In densely populated areas, the virus spreads faster. The inhabitants, who believe in the self-sufficiency of the urban environment, have the most to lose, and feel the symptoms of the crisis most painfully. Cities have been stripped of their attractiveness, and the change is visible at first glance: reduced traffic on the streets, tensions, disorganisation in some places, ravaged shops. Reduced traffic in cities also means less pollution, and less destructive impacts of tourism. This, however, is even more depressing, as the return to normality (i.e. the end of the epidemic) means a return to smog and over-tourism.

Everything that determines the attractiveness of the city – a vibrant street, lively public spaces, social activities – are now suspended. Escaping from the city to a rural area and a cottage full of supplies is a tempting strategy, but available only to a few. After all, it is not the representatives of the popular classes who make mass purchases for stockpiling, but the urban middle class. Outside the larger cities, the fear of the effects of the epidemic seems to be less, where everyday life changes to a lesser extent.

Revival: Urban Informalities and Urban Resilience
Cities can adapt to the crisis thanks to the grassroots initiatives of their inhabitants. ‘No urban resilience without urban informality’. Based on this grassroots activity, complementary systems are being developed, and the State and local authorities are being provided with support. Poland is a special case, because here social involvement and the efficiency of formal structures may be different than in other countries. The economy of shortages and austerity politics has influenced the development of urban informality in Central and Eastern European cities. In a post-socialist city, informal urban systems have their own specificity.

Let me list a few features of this: the informal circulation of goods and services in the planned economy before 1989, hyper-privatisation, urban entrepreneurship, and the grey economy in the first years of transformation. Despite intensive urban transformations in the last 15 years (or perhaps thanks to them), old and new informal structures are still in place in urban areas.

It was no surprise to sociologists that, in the face of the crisis, such self-help initiatives flourished, of course not only in Poland. There are numerous such initiatives, beginning with the provision of meals and equipment for local medical personnel (even crowd-funding collections for respirators have been held), and neighbourly assistance (shopping, taking the dog out). Apart from support in the form of new media, completely local and offline activities appeared, such as spontaneous announcements asking for the phone numbers of residents in need of food shopping. We see clearly now that informality is not on the margins, but at the centre of city systems.

Usually crowded shopping mall parking in Szczecin, March 2020, photographed by the author.

But it is not only the city inhabitants and their sense of commitment that are needed. City mayors now (again) have a chance not only to rule, but to save the world. Representatives contacting residents with on-line everyday announcements are a good example of how to combine the "old" need for close contact with authorities together with new digital tools. This reinforces the feeling of security, continuity, and the conviction that "somebody is in control of it all".

We will need the mayors’ wisdom as the economic crisis caused by the pandemic will be most severely felt in cities and regions (especially for those where tourism and services are the main sources of the local economy). In most of the CEE countries, cities have made a major leap in development and have built a significant economic advantage over other forms of settlement. In the Polish case, they have received a strong impulse with the influx of migrants from Ukraine. Recently, however, Polish cities have had to cope with reforms and the results of centralised tax policy. The situation of the cities may now deteriorate, despite the accumulated social capital, and local governments will have to take on the burden of coming out of closure. And that means trouble for whole countries.

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In recent days I have been reading Polish tourist guides to Rome from the 1920s. It is seemingly the least sensible and least useful activity for an urban sociologist during the Covid-19 epidemic. But for me, it is more than just an intellectual retreat, this reading is an exercise in imagination, a journey into historical time and non-existent space, the reality of which is as elusive as the cities we have been dealing with, so far. Someone else may instead reach for post-apocalyptic literature, but I go back to the past and let myself be led by deceased guides to the cities that no longer exist. Thanks to this, I can look more calmly at the cities changing. I can think of the future.

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