Since the end of September, as the second COVID-19 wave in the Netherlands took hold, my partner and I have a walk every morning from seven to eight o'clock, in our local neighbourhood in our hometown, the city of Utrecht, The Netherlands.
We are not alone. Every day we see the same faces. People run, walk their dogs, or walk their daily route before their workday starts at home.
We smell the coffee of the coffee factory across the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal when the wind blows from the east. Our residential neighbourhood is characterized by many new construction projects. We see and hear the progress the construction workers make on a daily basis. After three months we sense every small difference and see things we did not see before through our changing perspective brought by walking around instead of using our bikes to go to work. We love it. Even the badly designed parts.
During the holidays, we planned to walk out of our neighbourhood bubble and into the city centre of Utrecht for the first time this year. Utrecht city centre is like all city centres of major cities in Europe hit really hard by the pandemic. Office staff work at home, tourists stay away and people from the surrounding areas shop at their local shops. Vacant shops, empty high streets, closed museums, it had a dystopian sad atmosphere though the historical heart fortunately makes up for it a lot.
As we steer through the pandemic fog towards the future, I sense a lot of consensus among experts on upgrading the quality of public spaces, on giving priority to pedestrians, cyclist and green and on transformation of empty retail into other functions and a plea for creating a diverse sustainable and more local recognised retail offer for the remaining offer. I agree and I add a wish, as in this time of the year dreaming is allowed, our city centres should become places to meet other people from all over the city, and celebrate diversity, inclusivity and dialogue. Cities have always enabled this and the role is more important than ever before.
Why? We live in era where tensions within society are high and we ask ourselves how we continue to live together instead of with division – the latter being further accentuated by the lockdown isolation. Whether in Hong Kong or Washington, we need to reduce fear and embrace tolerance and its one of the biggest challenges we all face. The place where these tensions manifest itself is the city. We need places where all the differences are visible, where people from all backgrounds can come together productively. Only places in the city centre hub can offer this and can become our collective living rooms when the pandemic fog is gone. That is my wish for 2021.