The COVID-19 pandemic is changing how we use public space. This point was emphasized on July 25, when Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order mandating the use of masks in indoor public spaces. It was also evident in the preceding months as public health experts asked us to limit our contact with others. Public spaces now seem hazardous, and people operate in them differently. It’s an open question whether we are seeing the decline of public life. We make the case that public space is experiencing a reinvention during the pandemic. We’ve come to this view through careful study of how people use public spaces along University Avenue, which is explained further here.
In the Twin Cities, people are using public space differently during the pandemic. It’s encouraging to see the expansion of restaurant patios and street closures for open-air dining in parts of the cities. Yet, this raises concern about the appropriation of public space for private use. Outside of these hotspots, many public spaces feel dormant or abandoned. Mobility tracking data show that during the stay-at-home orders, people visited parks and open spaces in greater numbers than in past years. At the same time, fewer people visited neighborhood main streets and business districts.
Work-from-home trends and business closures contribute to this, as do the cancellations of the festivals and fairs that bring us together. But even when the economy began to reopen, overall street life activity was still a fraction of what it was a year ago. In the seven intersections along University Avenue that we studied during June, we also noted that people there primarily moved through public spaces. Most people were physically distanced, and about one in four used a mask. As a result, public space can feel less social and important. Are we witnessing the end of public space?
Against these trends of privatization, restriction, and abandonment, acts of popular political expression and solidarity have re-appropriated public spaces and reinvented them in the process. Streets, parking lots, and open fields in many locations have served as sites of mutual aid, where food and vital household supplies are redistributed to people in need. The appearance of murals and protest artwork in response to George Floyd’s death especially speaks to the vital importance of public space. The artwork along the storefronts of University Avenue (and elsewhere) serves as a form of civil speech and as a strategy to remember the past in the struggle to create a future that does not allow history to repeat itself. Many of the art pieces incorporate hashtags, including #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeForFloyd. Although it is impossible to click on a painted hashtag, these references link a particular street corner to an ongoing vibrant movement throughout the world.
The artwork also changes the physical environment, at least for a while. Rallies and marches transform spaces when they are ongoing and perhaps for a period of time afterward, but the artwork installations transform the storefronts of University Avenue indefinitely as long as they are present. None of this is to understate the importance of in-person protests. Yet, the protest art is a highly visible and durable form of expression. It is uniquely attuned to the anxieties surrounding being in public spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. It represents the re-purposing of public space for popular expression to influence collective thought and action.
Will this reinvention outlast the pandemic or be confined to it? Regardless, the ongoing use of social media by popular movements is fraught with concern. Are these privately controlled platforms simply another vehicle bringing us to the end of public space? Surely, these social media platforms offer little support for civil conversation, yet they are conducive to sharing and consuming information, and that may be enough to frame an issue as a matter of public concern and expose people to different perspectives.
Still, these platforms are problematic; they are prone to disinformation campaigns and can amplify falsehoods. The platforms’ dependency on advertising revenue also makes them susceptible to control and regulation in the name of profit. Nevertheless, these platforms help movement organizers, using them to advance their agenda and engage more and more people. At the same time, the online activity is a bridge to street-level action. Images and messages associated with these demonstrations and activities are disseminated online and may further inspire on-the-ground action in another place, continuing the cycle.
In this we see that public space continues in and through the ongoing struggle of popular movements to prod collective action, however and wherever that takes shape. COVID-19 is not prompting the end of public space, but it is spurring its reinvention.
Dan Trudeau is a professor of geography at Macalester College. Elliot Wareham is a senior geography student at Macalester College. Together, they completed an intensive study of how people are using public spaces along University Avenue during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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