Whose Urban identity will we build back from Covid-19?

Published 14 januari, 2021

Andrew Butler

Researcher at the Division of Landscape Architecture, SLU

Andrew Butler, University Lecturer at the Department of Urban and Rural Development, SLU, discusses how the pandemic has disrupted daily lives and has revealed stark inequalities and vulnerabilities. This ultimately challenges the associations between landscape and identity, and the way planners and designers think about cities of the future.

Forming our landscape identities  

Daily life can be seen as a series of activities undertaken in geographical locations in interaction with other people and their practices. Each activity we undertake is shaped by the physical and social characteristics of our environment, while at the same time these practices help form our surroundings. How we define who we are is conditional on where we live, work, play. Over time, we develop attachment to the places where our lives play out; as we create and develop urban landscape identity (Stobbelaar and Pedroli 2011). Familiarity created through our landscape identities dictates how we navigate the urban fabric, the routes we travel and the landmarks we recognise and use to negotiate daily life. We develop personal relationships with places built on memories, stories and experiences; our first kisses, where our kids grazed their knees, where the craziest night out ended. These memories help us understand who we are in relation to where we are.  

Photo by Alex Azabache on Unsplash

Our individual practices also help create, develop and strengthen common understandings of the towns, cities and neighbourhoods where we live. As societies and communities, we assign value to readily recognised way markers, features, elements and services of our surroundings. The statues, benches, the train stations and the stadium all hold meanings beyond their physical form. The values ascribed to our surroundings and its parts are built on the practices we undertake, which over time spread layers of meaning across the landscape; a steady and continuous process of becoming in relation to a place. We develop a social glue that bonds us together as citizens of New York, Uppsala, or Kingussie. Over time we become more and more familiar with places, a familiarity developed through engagement, so that what was novel becomes the mundane.   

Over time, as individuals we become both attached to and dependent on our surrounding to varying degrees. While place attachment builds on emotions, knowledge and behaviours in relation to place (Altman & Low 1992), place dependency refers to the ability of a place to cater for an individual’s needs (Jorgensen and Stedman 2001), providing the means to get through life. 

When the landscape changes, our connections to our surroundings changes and the ability of the landscape to provide both emotional (place attachment) and practices (place dependency) are altered. After catastrophic environmental events (Butler, Sarlöv-Herlin et al. 2018) or rapid urban development, connections to our surroundings are disrupted. While memories of both mundane and exceptional practices remain, the elements we use to negotiate our environment, to anchor the memories and support our practices are absent. When the physicality of our surroundings change, we need to adapt our practices to these changes. 

Reinventing ourselves during COVID 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the physicality of our environments have not necessarily changed, but the practices we engage with in our surroundings has. Our sphere of movement and social circles have shrunk; restrictions on social gathering, movement and the closure of work places and indoor recreational places, has led to the need to shun indoor meetings and social engagement, changing the role of outdoor spaces. Practices we once undertook in certain places do not necessarily fit anymore. Parks as spaces for social interaction now need to facilitate social distancing as well as recuperation, sport and play. As the practices and roles of places change we need to (re)invent connections. 

Simultaneously, the home and neighbourhood have increasingly come into the spotlight as the places of work, rest and play (evidenced by Google’s Community Mobility Reports . Increased time spent at home has enhanced the importance of our everyday surroundings. Where we live has had to fulfil the need of almost all of our experiences, mundane and exceptional alike.  

The pandemic has made us reflect over where we live and what we do in our familiar surroundings. It requires such a break from the norm to be able to reflect over where we live. Consequently, Covid-19 has brought into question the role of local facilities for liveable cities. In the call to build back better, planners, designers and managers can contribute to enriching the quality of everyday life creating a good fit between family’s everyday habits and their local resources. 

Revealing landscape injustices 

A break from the norms of everyday life during the pandemic has revealed landscape injustices. While the mundane has come to more of us, as we have become dependent on the home environment, it has put us in a position closer to how others habitually engage with the city. Attachment to our home environments has shifted more to dependency, providing more of our needs, with limited escape from the commonplace. Yet the escape and mobility many of us are accustomed to is not the norm for all. Likewise, the fact that for a majority of us, our homes provide the means to live and work in comfort, raises questions about homes and places that do not facilitate well-being. The Covid-19 pandemic shines a light on the vast inequalities in society where many homes and cities do not provide for the needs of the most vulnerable, the poor, and the marginalised.  

As we ‘build back better’, how will we engage with those who did not choose to live in their home environment; those who do not have the means to escape the mundane; those for whom dependency means so much more than attachment? And also those who are trapped in vulnerable circumstances as restrictions and social distancing force us to remain in our home. This is not just a case of addressing the new norm but recognizing the norm through which others live their lives. Now professionals and academic involved with placemaking have had a taste of how it feels to be tied to a place, albeit, probably a place of their choosing. Hopefully, this can instigate a reflection on the importance of the mundane and commonplace in the city and in people’s lives where questions reflect upon who are we building back better for, whose urban attachment and dependency will be acknowledged, whose urban identities will inform the future of our towns and cities?  

Andrew Butler
January 2021

About the author and the feature

Andrew Butler is a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Urban and Rural Development, Division of Landscape Architecture, SLU. His research focuses on discourse of landscape, looking at issues of landscape identity, participation and landscape assessment.

Read more about Andrew Butler here.


Altman, I. and S. Low, Eds. (1992). Place attachment. Human behaviour and environment: advances in theory and research. New York, Plenum Press. 

Butler, A., I. Sarlöv-Herlin, I. Knez, E. Ångman, Å. Ode Sang and A. Åkerskog (2018). ”Landscape identity, before and after a forest fire.” Landscape Research 43(6): 878-889. 

Jorgensen, B. S. and R. C. Stedman (2001). ”Sense of place as an attitude: lakeshore owners attitudes toward their properties.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 21(3): 233-248. 

Stobbelaar, D. and B. Pedroli (2011). ”Perspectives on landscape Identity: a conceptual challenge.” Landscape Research 36(3): 321-339. 


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