Public Space & Public Life during COVID-19

Public Space & Public Life during COVID 19

What can be said about Covid-19 that hasn’t been said already? Rather than simply talking and writing about the pandemic we at Gehl want to share the lived experience of it. With the support of Realdania and the City of Copenhagen, we worked with 60 surveyors in 4 cities in Denmark to observe and understand how our streets and public spaces, our parks and our playgrounds are serving the very unique needs of our communities during this pandemic. The first results are listed here both in terms of snapshots of public life during the “lock-down” as well as highlights of the collected data.


Will things ever go back to the way they were?
Probably not - and nor should they. Major global crises, such as pandemics, economic depressions, and wars shape our societies and the way people experience everyday life. A lack of sun and fresh air (not to mention a tendency for civic protest) of the mid 1800’s catalyzed the wide boulevards and grand parks that still define Paris today. The events of September 11th, 2001 and subsequent urban terror attacks continue to shape the way we travel, access democratic institutions and inhabit civic meeting places. For better or worse, design decisions made in the days and months after crises often continue to impact our lives in the decades that follow. We believe that those design decisions should not only be informed by a broad cross-section of society, but unite around one common goal: to deliver people-first public spaces. This project is a first step in understanding and guiding how the public realm can help us achieve that goal; a foundation for collective action that will allow us thrive beyond one of the most drastic crises in a generation.

The Danish Approach?
The way the Danes and Danish cities handle the COVID-19 pandemic is largely based on trust and civic responsibility. Compared to many other countries that have closed urban spaces or limited outdoor activities, public spaces and public life are a vital part of Denmark’s strategy to collectively care for one another, allowing for physical activity, fresh air, and socializing at a distance. Such an approach has proven a popular strategy - there were more people spending time in the observed public spaces in Copenhagen during the “lock-down” of March and April 2020, than in the fall of 2019 before COVID-19.

1 Snapshots

What are Snapshots? Impressions of public life.
The Snapshots in this survey are results showing how people use public space in selected places from four cities we have collected data previously; Horsens, Helsingør, Svendborg and Copenhagen on April 3 and April 4, 2020. We call them snapshots, because they are basically “first impressions” that can help demonstrate how everyday life is being played out in the different Cities. The snapshots are formulated and made accessible as objective as possible, without any further knowledge about the exact context, other than data collected before in the same Cities.

Note: At this point, we have not looked into other elements, such as e.g. on-going construction work, pausing or reprioritisation of cultural programs on a City-level or general strategic decisions that might have had an effect on why public life took place as experienced during the registration.

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There has been a significant drop in downtown activities - especially on commercial shopping streets.
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The city is being used more for recreation, play, and exercise.
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Use of public space is more or less the same as before, while movements from A to B (and mobility) have decreased significantly.
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Local places that already offer a public activity (such as a playground) are even more popular than before.
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Some places are too popular where social distancing rules are difficult to follow.
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The search for essential outdoor and climatic human needs is now more valuable.
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New activities and forms of urban life are emerging in many cities - our public spaces are being used like never before!
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More children and older people are using the city's space than before.
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Women use public space differently than men. Women are often seen in pairs, and men are often seen alone or in groups of 4+.
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Overall mobility has decreased in the city, but pedestrian movement is increasing in neighborhoods outside of the city center.

What are the snapshots based on? Understanding the fundamental to people’s wellbeing.
During the last couple of years, Gehl has developed a digital Public Life platform, that enables people to efficiently observe public life and collect fine-grain data about the life between the buildings. The platform allowed us to plan and quickly mobilize 60 surveyors in multiple locations in 4 cities to collect data of the lived experience in a way that is comparable to one another and to data we have previously collected in these locations. By knowing more about how people are using the city during Covid we can get a better sense of what is essential and how the public realm might best suit people's needs on the other side of the pandemic.

Note: The comparison data is based on surveys collected using the same methods. But they were collected at different years and different times of year. So while they provide some insight, keep in mind that some differences will be shaped by seasonal tendencies as well as new development occurring since the study took place in addition to several other factors.

1.1 More Snapshots of Life

While we have tried to measure and quantify public life in neighborhoods and communities we know that not everything that counts can actually be counted. Here are some images of Public Life during Covid-19.

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Israels Plads (Copenhagen) in 2014

2 Highlights from the Data

Here are some of the main highlights comparing public life data collected prior to, and during the COVID-19 pandemic. These include general activity trends, people behaviour and user groups, shedding light on changing dynamics across public space

Gender There has been a significant gender redistribution of people spending time in public space

Exercise and Play Exercise and play in public space has changed dramatically

Daily Flow In general there are fewer pedestrians and the peak usage times have also shifted.

Main Activity The dominant activity observed in public space has changed

Age Group The amount of children and elderly in public space spending time in public space has increased

3 The Data

Below you will find interactive data visualizations for the four cities we investigated.
Our collected data is open and free, to acquire a copy, please email send us an email.

Each city has three Dashboards, an overview, one which focuses on the people spending time in an area (Stationary) and one focusing on people moving through an area (Movement). These can be accessed by the tabs on the top of the visualization.

The button in the lower right corner lets you enter fullscreen mode.