Urban lessons from the pandemic

Ivan Tosics

By Ivan Tosics, on January 27th, 2021

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What did we learn from the responses of urban areas to the Covid-19 pandemic? At the end of 2020, I wanted to take stock…

Immediate ‘tactical interventions’ in the use of public space

The pandemic turned the world upside down. Local municipalities suddenly found themselves in a peculiar and difficult situation: facing unprecedented levels and new forms of social and economic problems at local level; but ever more subordinated to the higher levels of their national administration.

Many changes that took place in spring 2020 were therefore introduced under exceptional conditions, labelled in many cases as ‘pop-up’ or temporary measures. The methods of municipal decision-making were closer to ‘tactical urbanism’ than to the usual way of municipal planning – it was not possible to organise lengthy council debates, neither to ask the opinion of larger groups of residents.

In light of the constrained competencies of municipalities under the crisis, the most visible interventions were implemented in the use of public spaces. With the aim of ‘democratising’ the access to streets, i.e. giving more chances to the active modes of mobility, it became a relatively common practice of cities to designate new cycle paths, first on a temporary basis, but with the potential to keep them permanently.

For example, in the case of the Budapest Danube embankments, discussions had initially started with the new mayor after the October 2019 elections. In January, the opening of the embankment was still being slowly negotiated, but the virus sped up the process dramatically, and in May the embankment became car-free every weekend.

In Milan, streets of a total length of 35 kilometres were redesigned to reduce car traffic by widening sidewalks and creating new cycle lanes. In parallel, a 30 km/h speed limit was introduced for safety considerations.

Brussels was taking similarly radical steps. In a new traffic order, all vehicles are subject to a speed limit of 20 km/h, while pedestrians and cyclists get the priority in the city centre. According to the municipal administration, the aim of this measure is not to ban cars from downtown, but to distribute the available public space more rationally.

An interesting initiative also took place in Berlin, called ‘play streets’: if requested by at least seven residents of a street, the district municipality considered the closure of the street for through-traffic, turning it into a temporary playground. The city also supplied logistical assistance, provided that residents committed to undertake day-care for their children.

Quick decisions about complex issues beyond public space

Besides the very visible reorganising of public spaces, cities introduced many other interventions to tackle the problems of the worst affected population groups. Just to mention a few:

Housing: many cities have introduced measures such as a moratorium on evictions, limits on rent increases (while supporting tenants and landlords), help for mortgage holders, preventing cuts to amenities. See examples collected by ‘Arena for Journalism in Europe’).

Homelessness: cities’ efforts focus on increasing the capacities and safety of shelters, and also offering alternative accommodation, even hotel rooms for the poorest. Examples have been highlighted e.g. by the Economist, EU Observer and El Pais.

Food: among others, there are many URBACT cases of cities responding to support food production, home delivery services and/or emergency interventions to prevent hunger amongst the poorest.

Inclusive education: cities could improve the quality and inclusiveness of online education by improving services and giving access to digital tools. Examples were collected by Eurocities and also the School at Home! platform.

Elderly care: many cities are battling to fight the health risks faced by elderly people in care settings (where large numbers are a major risk factor) and in their own homes (where the contrasting challenge is often isolation). For example, Bilbao is collaborating with citizens to protect vulnerable members of the community, especially the elderly.

Opportunities for a progressive agenda

Beyond immediate tactical responses, several progressive city leaders have considered the new situation as an opportunity to achieve longer-term changes which were unthinkable before the pandemic.

In Paris, as part of her successful re-election campaign, Mayor Anne Hidalgo rolled out ambitious plans to make city life more local and slow-paced. Paris also introduced new bike schemes and reclaimed streets to allow for people to move around without crowding. Besides, the ‘15 minutes city’ idea is further developed, assuming that skilled workers will go to the office only twice per week, or a few days per month. The idea is that with less traffic and pollution, cities can actually become even more attractive. Furthermore, the cheaper rents for office space can attract new start-ups and other types of users.

In Budapest, the municipal government introduced in May bike lanes in the busy Grand Boulevard, reducing on this main road the lanes for cars from 2*2 to 2*1 lanes. By autumn, this bike lane became the second busiest used by cyclists in Budapest.

In Athens, the mayor took the bold step of re-allocating around 50,000 square metres of space to walking and cycling as a ’once in a lifetime opportunity’ to clean up the city from the effects of space-consuming, polluting cars. At the heart of the scheme was the long-planned four-mile long ’Great Walk of Athens’, uniting archaeological sites in the historic centre. In the spring, there was a political consensus around the bike lanes.

In UK and many other European cities, street homelessness virtually disappeared with the opening of new places, even hotel rooms, for them. In Budapest, the local government aimed to open several vacant properties to host homeless people, including even some properties within the city hall – however, this was prohibited by the representative of the central government.

In many European cities (including Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam…), new opportunities seem to develop with the changes in the real estate dynamic – empty shops or even whole office buildings could theoretically be turned into different uses, better serving the interest of the whole society.

The fate of tactical interventions in the longer run

Many analysts, however, remain sceptical about the chances in the longer term of such a social turn of urban development, arguing that market actors will regain power and will keep their dominance over the valuable inner city real estate stock.

Already in late summer – when the return to ’normal life’ seemed possible – huge discussions arose in most cities around which of the ’pop-up’ tactical urbanism interventions could be ’regularised’ for the longer term? Establishing and maintaining public support for these measures has not proved easy.

For example, many cities saw heated disagreements between car drivers, who wanted to terminate all interventions which limited their freedom to use the roads, and the increasing number of people biking and walking who wanted to preserve their freshly gained opportunities.

In Athens, by autumn, both large parties and the media turned against the Great Walk project and also public opinion became increasingly ironic because people saw a haphazard implementation and not many people biked in the summer in 40 degrees. Whilst the local government has promised to make more planned interventions, the future of the Great Walk in unclear. The bike lane is still there, although already faded…

In Budapest, despite the success of the bike lanes, which car drivers were furious about and a central government politician issued a public statement that “the oppositional Budapest mayor should stop chasing car drivers”. Finally, the city had to make changes, giving back one part of the Grand Boulevard fully to car drivers, redirecting the bike lane to the busy pavement.

What chances for a more equitable urban development after the pandemic?

The exceptional conditions of the COVID crisis still might contribute to the development of new, progressive municipal policies. Following the model of tactical urbanism, new efforts are needed also for tactical economic and social interventions, and later for the regularisation of these.

This means that cities should be much braver in using the rights they have: zoning, taxation, determining the conditions for public procurement, etc. to address local social problems which are not handled under the normal market conditions. For example, they should find ways to favour local businesses over multinationals via public space management, smart zoning and planning policies.

Cities experimenting such new policies should also be in alliance with their neighbouring settlements, expanding the new policies to the metropolitan level.

The examples shown in this essay prove that cities can do a lot. However, long-lasting changes can finally only be achieved if cities develop a cooperative, multi-level government framework with their own national administration. The case of Budapest shows how limited the chances of a city are if crippled financially and politically by the national government.

In order to achieve success, progressive cities will also have to develop ever closer links with each other. In this context, the Alliance of Free Cities, launched by the four Visegrad capital cities and now developed to a much broader circle of large European cities – aiming to convince the EU to support their efforts towards new types of urban policies – is a positive development.


The blog post is an edited version of a longer photo essay I wrote: Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste – Urban Lessons Learnt from the Pandemic published in full on the website of the Metropolitan Research Institute.

In this post and the original photo essay, I have used some ideas I have heard from Oleg Golubchikov (Cardiff), Thomas Maloutas (Athens), Ramon Marrades (Valencia), Corrado Topi (Stockholm), Levente Polyak and Cili Lohasz (Budapest) as well as content from some of my own recent publications.


Cover photo: Budapest, Danube embankment, closed for cars.

Source: Mónus Márton / MTI

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