COVID-19 and the end of public space

An exploration of how public space is changing during the pandemic

by Dan Trudeau and Elliot Wareham

By the end of March, 2020, cities across the world were shuttered, bracing for the tsunami of the SARS CoV-2 virus, better known as COVID-19. In the hardest hit places residents were instructed to stay indoors to halt the spread of the deadly virus and city life was transformed. This was captured in photographs of eerie scenes of empty streets or wildlife moving into the city. It was as if our cities were in hibernation. As restrictions have been lifted in cities around the United States, the new normal of life with COVID-19 demands people remain physically distanced from one another, cover their faces, and refrain from gathering with others. For a while, public spaces of our cities became dormant. Amidst the distancing decrees and gradual re-opening of businesses, houses of worship, and other places of public association, what has happened to public space in our cities? Are we seeing the decline of public life? Or are the ways we use public space shifting along with all the other adjustments we are making with living in a pandemic? 

Demonstration signs posted to a fence in front of the Minnesota State Capitol, June 19, 2020

This essay explores these questions through a study of people’s behavior in the public spaces at seven intersections along University Avenue. We selected these intersections to capture a number of different settings that appear on this street as it runs through Minneapolis and St. Paul. “We” are urban geographers – a professor and student at Macalester College – who felt called to unpack the dynamic changes taking place in and through the streets of the Twin Cities during May. Reflecting on our observations, we grapple with the “end of public space” thesis, which raises concern about how government’s or big business’ control over public space squeezes out opportunities for popular political expression and thus threatens democracy. We find that the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly prompted a decline in the use of public space. And yet it has also led to new ways of using public space, as seen in the uprising for racial justice that erupted in our cities at the end of May, 2020. Indeed, on May 25th, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. The horrific event was captured on video and posted online, leading to protests in dozens of cities across the United States. Several parts of University Avenue were transformed through the days of protests that unfolded in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul. We examine how people use public space in the wake of these changes and focus on a series of popular memorials and art pieces that call for the end of systemic racism and violence against Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Public spaces in our cities have been transformed through this and other forms of action to the point where we cannot say that we are glimpsing the end of public space. Rather, we see a pressing need to re-think what public space is and where and how people operate to spur collective action amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.