The Great Reclamation: urban space in the pandemic

29th April 2020 - city mobility | mobilité urbaine / city writing | écritures urbaines / PhD - Cycling-as-a-Service in NL / uncategorised | non classé / urban notebook | cahiers urbains

In a recent Twitter thread, I tried to put down some thoughts about rapid and widespread rise in cities allocating hundreds of kilometres of streets from cars to everything else, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic – link. I’ve pasted it here for now, retaining Twitter format, and will hopefully neaten up and refine this argument later.

Social distancing in an early part of the Coronavirus lockdown in the Netherlands – new bicycle parking outside a supermarket in Jan Everstenstraat, Amsterdam, 29 March 2020

The Great Reclamation: I am losing track of the number of cities that have moved suddenly and ambitiously to reclaim hundreds of kilometres of streets from the car monopoly and reallocate these public commons for people walking, cycling and using wheelchairs.

It is like watching decades of activism happen in a month. Like watching generations of ‘cycling and walking plans’ or ‘sustainable mobility plans’, which have always been aspirations, turn into facts (literally) overnight. The fight for urban space has turned competitive.

It has taken a crisis that is new, sudden, total and full of unknowns to break, albeit briefly, the car monopoly on urban space which has been in place for 70-100 years in the rich West, and far less time elsewhere, but which has been profoundly successful in legitimating &

…reproducing itself. This has produced, as @_Anna_Nikolaeva et al call it, an artificial abundance of space for private cars both moving and stored, and an artificial scarcity of space for everything else – walking, cycling, sitting, wheelchairing, assembling, markets, etc.

Maintaining this divide requires immense resources. The consensus by which people driving cars have the right to abundant urban space, while everyone else fights over the margins, has been built up over decades, but like the Death Star, it *does* have a flaw.

That flaw was always a potential systemic shock that broke, for a moment, the spell by which building our urban public realm around cars-first, everything-else-in-the-space-left-over has lasted this late into climate change. That spell is now broken, everywhere, for a bit.

This lull means that the car-petrol-suburbs-malls-steel automobility complex has briefly left the arena in which physical urban space is fought over. Some cities have rushed in to reallocate space in the way they’ve been promising to do for generations…

Briefly, the power dynamics are more equal; cities can mobilise the force of this emergency to unfreeze their decades-overdue response to the deeper emergencies that have lost their power to shock us: physical inactivity, motorists who kill, cities voided of collective life.

Proviso: This systemic shock we’re in has brought lonely deaths and frantic suffering to most of a planet at once; it has precarised or immiserated thirds or halves of entire societies at a stroke. Everything that can be done to fight it, should be done.

Personal space is newly and visibly political under this pandemic, especially in cities. It has always been, but well-resourced lobbies have been highly incentivised to make us forget that; to frame new images of children cycling freely in streets look like “the 80s”…

This obscuring of the spatial needs of motorists into building regulations, even heritage regulations (!), has worked until right now, when the wide river of tarmac is empty and we all squeeze past each other on the crowded banks, wondering why that is necessary.

These new thoughts are powerful. The sudden necessity of 1.5m-2m distances between people, has produced by fiat an enormous and powerful ‘walking lobby’ of a kind that has always been (1) missing or (2) outgunned by the car lobby in the past, in most (esp. rich) countries

Suddenly this walking lobby is all of us, as if we’d received membership badges in our postboxes, at the exact moment when the car lobby is weaker than it has, perhaps, ever been, including the Oil Crisis of the 1970s. This is the moment to seize space and not give it back.

There is a brief window in which is it non-obvious that people should ask permission from cars to cross a road, rather than the inverse. It is briefly non-obvious that there should be lots of free parking but never free public transport.

It is briefly non-obvious that one person driving a car should know, in advance and without checking, that they can drive it to the heart of any community; need no permission to pump smoke into nearby strangers’ lungs; that most of our city commons should store cars.

Most especially, it is non-obvious that the huge river of tarmac in front of your home isn’t for children to play in or people to sit in or trees to grow in, that all those activities should continue to be physically risky, while piloting a car at speed is the sole OK use.

If you live in a city that is doing this, please loudly and brightly support it. If you don’t, please frame radical demands and disseminate. This is the moment in which it is non-obvious that you and the people you care about should (continue) not (to) have these things.

If this thread is of interest, there are resources/writers that can provide orientation/insight. The first and best port of call if you have time and want to learn is a free online course, the Cycling Cities MOOC… by @fietsprofessor & co-conspirators.

Recently, readable and (justly) provocative histories of street space allocation and the fight for cycling have been written. In my own research I use Peter Norton’s ‘Fighting Traffic’, David Prytherch’s ‘Law, Engineering & the American Right of Way’, and, for me, the gateway book, Ruth Oldenziel et al’s ‘Cycling Cities’, an account of a century of these struggles in European cities

And of course, the Bruntletts’ Building the Cycling City (2018) @modacitylife… for a comprehensive account of how Dutch cities, in particular, have succeeded in charting a different course. Much, much more can be found at @Cycling_Embassy.

Lastly, if you can access journal articles, some very pragmatic ones are @NelloDeakin asking, What *is* a fair space allocation? and Anna Nikolaeva’s work on ‘commoning’ urban mobility @_Anna_Nikolaeva

And finally, for all other questions, run, ride or wheel yourself to the Urban Cycling Institute, where the most beautiful templates for action and provocation have been carefully assembled by @georgeintraffic, @dutch_ish and others already mentioned. (end)

› tags: pandemic / public space / space allocation / urbanist politics /


  1. […] bried Twitter-based discussion of urban space under the Corona pandemic is here. My most recent academic publication, on business models for bike share in the Netherlands, is […]

  2. Will Marks says:

    Hi Brett, thanks for the great article which I wholeheartedly agree with all your sentiments, and being a regular commuter cyclist in London I understand and appreciate the gross inequality when it comes to public urban space in our cities. As the lockdown endured and I’ve watched other cities actively providing means and ways to walk and cycle safely with the hope that London may finally follow suit. What I can report though is depressing. Its only been in the last week or two that councils were granted power to make changes and (I think) only two councils have done anything. Roads were delightfully quiet in the first weeks of lockdown, now they are worryingly busy. Ironically the BBC published an article this morning warning how the Tube will be overrun when the lockdown is eased. I find it remarkable how city planners cannot see the solution…. I know this is a bit of rant, and I apologise but I feel so strongly about this and want to help instigate change. Do you have any suggestions as to the best way to go about this? Thanks

    • Brett Petzer says:

      Hi Will, thanks for your comment and sorry for the slow response – I get so much spam on my otherwise quiet website that I don’t check the comments section as often as I ought to.

      And thanks for your rant – when I lived outside the Netherlands, they were part of my daily life too, and probably will be again in the near future. I have trouble following the situation in London because it’s so hard to keep track of boroughs, which seem to have enormous autonomy where cycling provision is concerned, but Waltham Forest seems to be the gold standard. I know that the London Cycling Campaign (lcc . org . uk) have continued to do excellent work in this area – I would suggest contacting them to see how you could add your time and resources to the joint effort.

  3. I would love to see a list of the cities, with links to what they are doing. Locked in our countries of origin, it’s easy to imagine the grass being greener elsewhere that it is. I mean, I could take some stunning photos of my city, but overall, thrust me, it’s shabby.

    • Brett Petzer says:

      Hi Steven, sorry for the slow response – I agree that a list of cities and worldwide actions would assist in separating spectacle from substance. I am working on something in this direction, but to prevent duplicating more rigorous efforts by NACTO and others, I’m just going to be focusing on looking at a few European and perhaps North American cases in greater depth.

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