The New Urban Ruins
Vacancy, Urban Politics and International Experiments in the Post-crisis City


During the early months of 2020, cities appeared to stop working. The global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a wave of nationwide lockdowns as governments mandated restrictions on the movement of populations and the shuttering of all but essential services. Sublime images of familiar cities emptied and at a standstill reached socially distanced audiences via social media. Excepting the ghostly vigil of essential workers – bus drivers, food retail workers and Deliveroo cyclists, as well as medical staff – the pandemic had put our cities on pause.

The empty city became a key representation trope of the pandemic. This is unsurprising given the increasing centrality of urbanisation to contemporary social and economic life. Moreover, as Connolly et al (2020) argue, ‘extended urbanisation’ is itself a key factor in the spread and mitigation of infectious diseases, with interconnected supply chains and deeply unequal urban cores acting as conduits for the spread of COVID-19. However, the pandemic city was one of interconnection, and mobility collapsed. In this way, it bore some relation to the city in ruins: the sense of linear time suspended; the denuded folly of progress visible in streets aggregating windswept litter; and the return of flora and fauna to landscapes usually dominated by humans. If the images were sublime, the experience on the ground was one of the uncanny (Freud, 2003), with familiar urban environments abruptly rendered strange.

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