Walking is a forgotten aspect of urban communication. Walking provides places of interaction and is revealing of the relationship between citizens and politics.

For the attention of: Urban planners, traffic planners, municipal politicians.

The problem: In March 2020 the pandemic started to grip Helsinki, Finland. Public commentaries by journalists, researchers and politicians predicted that urban growth will take a halt and people will flee the city, looking perhaps for permanent housing elsewhere. From the beginning of the spring urban green areas were becoming crowded with pedestrians, at previously unseen hours. However, no planning interventions were made to enhance pedestrians’ space to walk.

What I did and why: I was interested in how young adults living in the most densely populated parts of eastern downtown Helsinki related to their lived environments and the new-found pastime of walking. Which places would be attractive when commercial services were closed and other people in the streetscape may be seen as threats? How was the question of mobility and exceptionality of urban life solved amongst this group of capable and urban-savvy residents?

What our study adds: This study adds knowledge on pedestrians’ tactics to shape the environment to their needs. The qualitative interviews, survey and instant messaging group data demonstrates the types of meanings urban space gains in a time of high exceptionality in urban life. The study also examines the relationship between the urban citizen and the political-governing dimension of the city, namely urban planning. The study shows how mediated representations of walking impact people’s behaviour and sentiments in public space.

Implications for city policy and practice: Walking presents as a sensorially and emotionally sensitive subject matter in which walking should be looked at from the point of view of connection, motility and spatial justice. Although a certain degree of centralization of communication in a crisis situation is necessary, my study argues that municipalities can take an active role in campaigning for safe urban walking and alternative walking routes, even if no planning interventions are made.

Full research article: Walking as urban communication: affordances and agency in public space in a semi-lockdown city by Annaliina Niitamo