Emeritus Professor Nicolas Whybrow, School of Creative Arts, Performance and Visual Cultures, University of Warwick

Step change: shifting the shape of the city


As we speak, in the summer of 2022, the Sars-Cov-2 pandemic continues to pose a considerable global threat. Not that you’d necessarily know it. Urban populations of the world are behaving now not only as if it were over but also, as Brigid Delaney has suggested, as if it never really happened: “After a mass trauma comes the mass forgetting […] it’s as if the disruption was so great, weird, terrible and abrupt, that we cannot incorporate it into our present and future narratives”.

If Sars-Cov-2 offered anything constructive and upbeat, it was the unique opportunity to capitalise in a real, performative sense on the fantasy of temporarily arresting the relentless onward march of the world in order to solve its gravest problems – beyond, that is, the challenges of the pandemic itself. A moment, not customarily granted, to pause, rethink and reset after things have become truly unsustainable. So, we should not let collective amnesia rule and pass up the chance it has offered to introduce critical change.

What, then, is the unique opportunity or unforeseen consequence of the paused lockdown moment? It is that it magnified – via the enforced denial and withdrawal it produced – operational, infrastructural and cultural failings in cities across the world, thereby raising hopes that radical improvements could be implemented in the future. Questions of sensing and moving in the city acquired a very particular resonance, above all perhaps in how people move in relation both to one another and to the built environment within the space of the city. Venturing close to other human beings, let alone touching them, or simply coming into contact with urban surfaces suddenly became deeply problematic.

As such, the incursion of SARS-Cov-2 became instructive concerning matters of urban habitability and resilience, throwing into relief questions around the viability and durability of customary urban living practices pre-virus, not to say structures of urban governance and governability. The absence of the customary sources of pollution and climate change – the profoundly damaging carbon emissions of road, rail and sky traffic, for example – had a thoroughly purging effect on aspects of urban life such as air quality and noise. Restricted fossil-fuel-based polluting factors revealed how clean and wholesome the air that we are bound to breathe can become, while the reduction of noise allowed us to hear unforeseen, forgotten things relating to the non-human natural world of the city.

Many global cities, from Athens to Seoul to Bogotá, seized the moment to institute pop-up measures for pedestrians and cyclists in city centre streets largely abandoned by vehicular traffic. The transition of these towards a liberating state of permanence post-virus remains to be seen but is certainly being actively promoted by many mayors and city councils, who sense the imperative of addressing how city centres manage the mobility and wellbeing of people. In essence, permitting human bodies to move freely in welcoming urban space is essential in determining the quality of life of a city. That would be one step change for which to strive, then, one that begins to address the first projected question of ‘what we want our cities to be’.

A second step change, which addresses the follow-up question of ‘how we get there’, leads me to take into account my own work as Director of a 3-year, multi-medial, UK Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research project entitled Sensing the City: an Embodied Documentation and Mapping of the Changing Uses and Tempers of Urban Place, whose enquiry culminated just before the onset of the first Sars-Cov-2 lockdown in the UK in March 2020. A collaboration between Warwick and Coventry universities, as well as a range of freelance artists, urban planners and architects, the project sought to undertake a series of site-specific studies of urban rhythms, atmospheres, textures, practices and patterns of behaviour in the city of Coventry. It aimed to make use of the sensate human body effectively as an in situ data-gathering sensor in the first instance, proceeding to apply technologies of sound/oral recording, photography, dance, performance and film in the second instance creatively to process and document this fieldwork activity.

One of the perceived shortcomings of urban planning is the failure to put the sensitised human body first ahead of the concerns of design, developers, architecture, commerce and vehicular traffic. Instead of starting a ‘future city’ planning conversation with blueprints for buildings, streets, shops and so on – often primarily preoccupied with notions of how to generate profits from urban space – what about starting it with “life between buildings”, to riff off the title of a book by the radical architect and urban planner Jan Gehl (2011). In other words, adopting an approach that is concerned not only with the rhythmical and arrhythmical movements, desires and behaviours of people but also with the air of the unbuilt environment that we all breathe.

But Sensing the City also entertained the notion of sensing as a form of hunch about the future – a sixth sense, indeed. Unashamedly, this incorporated a tactic of speculating ‘wildly’ about the infrastructure of the city: daring to make preposterous conceptual proposals – step change number two – that pledged to shift the future shape of Coventry city centre. These would be based on radically reconceiving the orthodoxies of the city centre’s mid-20th century ‘cars and concrete’ rebuilding programme after the bombings of WW2 – recognisable in retrospect as a ‘lost future’ of failed promises.

One ‘preposterous proposal’, which stands as a metaphoric paradigm of thinking the unthinkable, was to entertain the notion of permanently stopping car traffic on the problematic inner ring-road, repurposing the latter as an ‘urban wild’ or ‘Coventry High Line’, with tree planting, urban farming, opportunities for walking and cycling, small and large-scale pop-up events at which the citizens of the city would be moved to mix and linger, and so on. In truth, the undulating, 2.5-mile-long ring-road with its nine junctions has proven to be an unwieldy, domineering superstructure, whose sheer scale and presence are disproportionate within the context of a centre that can be crossed in ten minutes on foot. Perhaps its starkest blemish is that its construction necessitated the culverting of the river that runs through the city centre. The ring-road stands now as a crumbling, propped-up testament to a misplaced 20th century fantasy of the private car as the solution to mobility in small cities, if not the solution to people’s lives per se. The proposal in question was, then, for a new form of pedestrianised city centre, effectively surrounding the existing one, which in turn would reinvent itself as primarily a residential area – housing, and the failure to view it as a universal human right rather than a private financial asset, being another significant factor in the perennial inefficiency of cities.

Medium-size cities in the UK are struggling to reinvent themselves since citizens no longer see any reason to make use of city centres, particularly for retail purposes. Moreover, the planning of city centres around the needs of car traffic has surely had its day – in so many ways, but not least in terms of pollution and the general health and wellbeing of citizens. And, by the way, introducing electric cars is all very well but still implies retaining a concrete urban infrastructure predominantly designed around the needs of vehicles, to say nothing of pollutions that are caused by factors other than fossil-fuel exhausts – do not underestimate, for instance, the effects of braking tyres, which release their own deadly toxicities into the urban air.

In placing the figure of the human body spatially and conceptually at the centre of its enquiry, Sensing the City has touched on many of the most urgent issues facing city centres. Its outcomes – documented in the publication Urban Sensographies (2021) – consciously stand mid-20th century modernist designs and utopian thinking in relation to the way they have played out in time and at a point, some 75 years later, when the scope for rethinking and innovation is timely with a global climate emergency being declared. Some towns and cities in the UK are addressing this and taking hopeful steps towards change: Stockton-on-Tees is turning its retail-based high street into parkland; York is seeking to frame urban planning policy through the lens of human rights; Folkestone has been engaged in a programme of urban repair via nurturing creative activity around art, architecture and education. These are the radical models towards which we should look at a moment of opportunity.


Delaney, Brigid (2022) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jun/03/why-did-covid-disappear-from-our-collective-consciousness-so-quickly

Gehl, Jan (2011) Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space, (Washington and London: Island Press).

Whybrow, Nicolas (ed) (2021) Urban Sensographies (London and New York: Routledge).