The changing of urban habits during the Coronavirus pandemic in Sweden

Ann Legeby, Daniel Koch

Introduction: a pandemic that leaves an imprint on the city
During the Coronavirus pandemic, life in Stockholm has undergone comprehensive changes, and people use spaces in new ways. Starting in early March, several restrictions were introduced that dramatically limited people’s movement patterns and the use of the city (Region Stockholm webpage). Physical distancing was proclaimed to be the most effective measure to curb the spread of the virus (Prem et al., 2020). The restriction that anyone with symptoms should stay at home was followed by a recommendation to work from home and avoid public transportation unless absolutely necessary. Universities and upper secondary schools shifted to distance learning. Gatherings of more than 50 people were forbidden. The fact that physical distancing would inevitably influence everyday practices and routines became apparent in all parts of the city. But the conditions for being able to practice physical distancing and working and studying from home vary considerably, and neighbourhoods characterised by overcrowding and a high dependency on public transportation saw the most obvious negative effects (Hansson et al., 2020). At the same time, access to nature and parks has been shown to be essential, as these spaces offer seclusion and are beneficial to the well-being of city dwellers (Hartig and Kahn 2016, Samuelsson et al., 2018).
To capture the changes in how we use the city, we launched a web questionnaire (PPGIS) on 25 March in three Swedish cities: Stockholm, Uppsala, and Gothenburg, , The informants are asked to describe how their habits have changed in terms of the places they use more, use the same, or avoid by marking places on a map and adding information about what they do there. The aim is to better understand how the pandemic and subsequent restrictions influence habits and to capture what places are used or avoided and why.
This study contributes to the further development of earlier research concerning how the city provides places that may counteract segregation, how unequal living conditions produce and reproduce patterns of segregation (Legeby 2013, Legeby and Marcus 2011), and how architecture, the material and spatial arrangements of cities, and configuration are related to power and representation (Koch et al., 2019). The study also contributes to research into mechanisms of and conditions for avoidance (Koch 2016). Public urban space is seen as crucial for an ongoing exchange and negotiation between citizens (Young 1996, Zukin 2005, Amin 2012), where configurative properties create conditions for various social processes (Hillier 1996, Hanson 2000, Vaughan and Arbaci 2011). Architecture and the built environment create a landscape of opportunities where the living conditions that are created in different neighbourhoods are influenced by access to various societal resources. Groups with fewer resources are especially dependent on amenities and resources found in close proximity to their neighbourhoods (Fainstein 2010, Tonkiss 2013). As a result of the outbreak of the pandemic and the restrictions that followed, many have been homebound, for example as a result of distance working, distance education, unemployment, or being laid off. As people are advised or forced to stay at home, they become highly dependent on the services and opportunities that are locally accessible. The crisis has made inequalities an even more urgent issue, placing people with limited access to societal resources and services at an even greater disadvantage.
This paper will specifically look at places that people have started to use more frequently according to self-reported data from a web questionnaire. The results show that during this pandemic, people are still visiting places, for example to access services, but they have also sought out other places to access nature, to visit parks and other green areas. The informants report that one reason they visit these places is that they are easy to access. The results illustrate the importance of having services in close proximity to one’s neighbourhood and having easy access to parks and green areas. We argue that this calls for a need to reduce inequalities in urban areas and to ensure the creation of a walkable or bikeable city where people can access services, workplaces, and societal resources just a brief walk or bike ride away.

The results of the survey, which was initiated on 25 March, cover the first month of the study in three cities  and include 2,297 answers. The informants responded by marking where they live on a map, what places they still use, what places they avoid, and places they have used to a larger extent than before the Coronavirus outbreak and the restrictions. For each place respondents marked, they have reported what they do at these places or what they normally would do at the places they now avoid. A comparison between the three cities shows that the share of places used to a greater extent is rather similar. However, in Gothenburg, the share of places avoided is smaller compared with Stockholm and Uppsala, which also means that the share of places that are still visited is larger in Gothenburg. This indicates that the changes in habits have been more evident in Stockholm and Uppsala, cities that have seen a much greater impact from the COVID-19 outbreak. [Fig.1]
This paper will primarily focus on the survey responses from Stockholm, which includes 895 answers. The majority of the informants are women, and the dominant age group is between 25-64 years.
Of all the places reported, 44% are places that people still visit. The main reason given for visiting these places is to access a service (e.g. shops, health care, restaurants, etc.). Other reasons reported to a notable but lesser degree are, for example to work or study, participate in an organised activity, access key functions at the destination (e.g. playground, bus stop, etc.), and to find seclusion.
Places that people report that they avoid or use less constitute 42% of all places reported. Similar to places that are still visited to the same extent, the informants report that these destinations were normally used to access a service or a location where they worked or studied. To a lesser degree, respondents report that places they avoid are locations where they would normally meet friends and family, participate in an organised activity, seek urban life, or use facilities such as playgrounds and bus stops. [Figg. 2-4]
Places respondents reported that they used more constitute 14% of all places. These places are primarily visited to find seclusion, but the fact that these places are also easy to access is another factor. Thus, new everyday routines include using places in proximity to where people live. In the written comments, respondents frequently note that they seek out these places for a walk, contemplation, to access nature, access the forest, or for recreation and relaxation, hiking, or excursions. This indicates that parks and other green spaces have been important during the pandemic. We therefore performed an analysis of where the reported locations are in relation to green areas. Of all the 434 places noted, almost 2/3 are located within a green area1. Of those places that are not within a park or a green area, 43% are located less than 100 metres from a park or green area. [Fig. 5]

It is evident from the results that people have changed their habits due to the pandemic. Respondents report that they still visit places to access certain services, while they avoid places they normally visited for work, studies, or to access other. The fact that ‘service’ is an important category in all three response alternatives suggests a reconfiguration in who is using which services (for instance shifting closer to home) or a shift in what types of services are prioritised. In a smaller share of the answers, respondents report places that they visit more frequently, mainly to find seclusion in places that are easy to access. These places that have now become a part of peoples’ everyday routines are, to a large extent, located within or in proximity to urban green spaces, parks, and natural areas.
This means that cities or neighbourhoods with poor access to parks and green spaces provide unfavourable conditions for people to cope with the pandemic and restrictions. This implies that people in these areas will be more negatively affected by limitations to their movement patterns, self-isolation, or practicing physical distancing, which restricts their ability to access services and make use of secluded public spaces, or forces them to travel longer distances—potentially by using public transport. Thus, we argue that cities and neighbourhoods that provide access to parks and green spaces are more resilient towards these kinds of crises. But the results also illustrate that the use of services is still important to residents, suggesting that access to amenities, such as grocery stores, health care, and playgrounds is critical, as is access to cultural institutions, such as libraries. Adequate access becomes especially important in neighbourhoods characterised by overcrowding, lower income levels, or high unemployment rates. This relates to concepts such as accessible cities (Marcus and Koch 2017), or walkable cities, that are associated with a continuous street network (Hillier et al., 2010, Vaughan et al., 2015, Legeby 2013). The mayor of Paris has highlighted a similar concept during the pandemic: the “Fifteen-minute city”2. We argue that a planning practice that more accurately accommodates a more varied set of urban practices can better prepare our cities for crises that may arise in the future. From a sustainability and a resilience perspective, urban planning and architectural practice need to create equal living conditions and create greater diversity in public spaces, places that accommodate a vibrant social urban lifestyle on the one hand, which counteracts segregation, and places that allow residents to seek out seclusion, on the other hand.

The authors would like to acknowledge the financial support from the Senseable Stockholm Lab funded by City of Stockholm, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce and Newsec, and in collaboration with MIT Senseable City Lab. In addition, the study is partly financed by Applied Urban Design, KTH.

1 The Sociotope map of Stockholm used include parks and green areas larger than 0.5 hectares.
2 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-02-18/paris-mayor-pledges-a-greener-15-minute-city

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