For most people nowadays, weekdays still begin like any other; an alarm wakes you up, you perform a morning routine and prepare for the work or school day ahead. Except this is where the semblance of life before the coronavirus pandemic ends. Today, instead of grabbing the keys to the car or bike and hurrying out the door, you walk straight to the home workstation, turn on the computer, and prepare for yet another day of virtual work.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been, and still is, far-reaching. Regions all over the world continue to battle its effects, which are arguably most visible in urban areas, including student cities. Groningen, of course, is such a city. During the peak of the pandemic, most of the city, known for its bustling vibrant student culture and social and economic activity, had to shut its doors in an effort to combat the spread of the virus. To rephrase, the city went into emergency mode.
Throughout the Netherlands, alongside the basic rules such as practising good hygiene, working from home, and keeping a physical distance of 1.5 meters, extra measures have been established. These include the closing of most public recreational facilities and, the mandatory use of face masks in public spaces such as public transportation, university buildings, shopping centres and other public buildings.
(It should be noted that the aforementioned only highlights some of the measures in place. For a more up-to-date and comprehensive list, one should visit the Dutch Government page: https://www.government.nl/topics/coronavirus-covid-19)
Although it’s the main response to the pandemic, social distancing goes against all aspects of city living. Urban systems rely on density and interaction among people to grow. Therefore, it is understandable that despite the lockdown and subsequent transition of most physical activities like teaching and work to an online environment, allocations must be made to allow for some physical human interaction. For cities like Groningen, this means that usable spaces have had to adapt so as to satisfy the needs of the people and simultaneously ensure that preventive measures such as physical distancing are being observed.
What we are observing with these adaptive changes that cities are making can be likened to how some viruses mutate and subsequently thrive better in the environment that they interact with. Like the post-1920 “automobile city” of America and the Roman cities centuries before, cities learn to endure, adapt and grow from oppressive situations and circumstances.
Cities are progressive, they adapt to circumstances by changing form. Similarly, in response to the current situation, all aspects of city life in Groningen are undergoing an overhaul. From student accommodations to shopping centres, parks to restaurants, universities, and salons, the effects are evident.
Through the exploitation of technology, the city is trying to complement both the measures that are in place and the needs of the people. Sports centres now offer online sports sessions and digital sports guides. Most salons take clients through online appointments only. Stores offer online shopping and “click-and-collect”. Study spaces at the university buildings are available through online reservations and thanks to Groningen’s well-planned cycle network system, the majority of restaurants will have your online order delivered hot and in record time.
It is not just businesses that have risen to meet the challenges brought about by the pandemic; people have come up with a variety of ways to cope with these unprecedented times as well. Having limited places to go to daily, the great outdoors has become the city’s crown jewel. Healthy walks alone or with friends and family have replaced nights at the bar. Green spaces such as the Noorderplantsoen Park are being utilized for exercise, social interaction and wellbeing. The increased interaction with nature and the built environment has, arguably, made people more appreciative of their surroundings and the importance of well-kept public spaces.
However, despite the extra time available for recreational activities, people continue to spend most of their time indoors. Thus living spaces are also being transformed to be more accommodating to the work-from-home lifestyle.
Highly infectious disease aside, cities like Groningen also see a health benefit from measures put in place to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. Individuals are forming closer bonds with friends and family. As aforementioned, some people are adopting healthier lifestyles, some finally have the opportunity to delve into their creative passions and some are starting to make new friendships with their neighbours.
It is important to note, however, that there are people deeply affected by the isolation and that their struggles should not be ignored or taken lightly. The pandemic not only goes against congestion which is the core of urban living, but it also preys on the basic instinct of human beings to lean on each other for support during times of crisis.
So, what’s next? That is the big, unanswered question. Although it is difficult to predict how this global crisis will end, one thing is for sure, just as we will undoubtedly adjust to the new normal, so too will our cities adapt and thrive.
This article was first published in the Girugten End of Year Edition (Year 51 of Girugten – issue 03 – June 2021)