Corona Files Hostile Architecture Rotterdam

Ad-hoc Defensive Urbanism or Public Space Paranoia

Over a year ago, the Corona-crisis broke and led to worldwide lockdowns that restricted acces to public space on the grounds of preventing viral spread.

We were bombarded with ‘nudging’ methods that used tape, stickers and all manner of improvised materials to instruct our behaviour to maintain social distance, where we were allowed to walk, and generally how to follow the ‘rules’, etc.

At first, these interventions were ad-hoc and improvised; circles painted on public greens, stickered dots on sidewalks, and taped arrows here, there and everywhere to guide our way-finding. Whatever material was available, or could be ordered online and promptly delivered, was fair game. The resultant, make-shift interventions are appealing in a strange way; accidental art or fascinating public space hacks.

Soon, early temporary measures became more permanent and spawned a new industry; specially designed social-distancing stickers, customized tape in colour-combinations to suit every occasion, or even better, branded Corona-compliant products offered by those seeing opportunistic publicity.

These anti-viral interventions, whether ad-hoc or planned, bear resemblance to defensive urbanism, an urban-design strategy using elements of public infrastructure to intentionally guide or restrict public behaviour, typically in efforts to prevent crime and to uphold civic order. It seems ironic that recognised methods of hostile urban design, like dividers on public benches to stop homeless sleeping, can now also be read as a ligitimate social distancing measure.

Will world-wide mass vaccination free us from this public space paranoia? Or is pandemic-proof design in public space here to stay, as a new form of defensive urbanism? And what shape will it take? Time will tell.