Sidestepping our way to a new normal: How strangers improvise the use of urban public space during the pandemic

Devan Hunter, University of Guelph; Mervyn Horgan, University of Guelph; Saara Liinamaa, University of Guelph; Amanda Dakin, University of Guelph; Sofia Meligrana, University of Guelph; Edith Wilson, University of Guelph; Meng Xu, University of Guelph

Urban public spaces are vital for fostering sociability in cities. The onset of the pandemic disrupted this. What were once taken-for-granted practices of everyday life (a leisurely walk with a neighbour, a trip to the grocery store, dropping by the local café) suddenly entailed risk. One that necessitated physical distancing, mandated mask use, and a reconsideration of how and when to use public space. In this new context, strangers had to negotiate their movements and improvise new ways to share space. And, this is the crux of our research. In this study, we explored interactions between strangers in public spaces throughout the pandemic. We conducted virtual interviews with a sample (n=72) of individuals living in Canada in two waves; June/July in 2020 and January/February in 2021. In these interviews, we primarily focused on participants’ recent positive encounters with strangers in both functional spaces (e.g. public transit, pharmacies, and food stores) and instrumental spaces (e.g. public parks, sidewalks, and recreational areas). Findings from our study shed light on three main areas: (i) experiences in different types of public space, (ii) navigating encounters with strangers, and (iii) communications with strangers. Most importantly though, what emerged from our data, which undergirds these three main areas, is the complex meaning-making inherent in processes of negotiating the use of urban public space.

This paper will be presented at the following session: