Festivals, events and the COVID-19 pandemic
Our FESTSPACE project was conceived in a pre COVID-19 world, where those interested in festivals, events and urban policy were debating how to best design and manage public spaces to bring people together, to encourage co-presence and generate convivial atmospheres involving as wide a representation of the population as possible. At that time, our concerns were about how to ensure festive public spaces were inclusive, more open and less commercial. People talked to us about the economic imperative exerting undue influence on how public spaces were being used, and managed. People complained about too many festivals and events taking place in their parks or civic squares, removing much valued public spaces for extended periods of time. However, over the last few weeks, as the global pandemic consumes our thoughts 24-hours a day, across the world a common language of social distancing has dominated our conversations, accompanied by the stark reality of ‘lockdown’. Social interactions and exchanges are discouraged, gatherings of more than two people are banned, and planned outdoor festivals and events are postponed or cancelled until as yet unknown future dates.
Across the UK and Ireland, parks and green spaces have introduced restrictions to prevent well-intentioned families from inadvertently spreading the virus. Streets are empty, civic squares are populated only by urban wildlife and many well known urban centres resemble ghost towns. Iconic annual festivals and events, sporting and cultural, have fallen victim to COVID-19. Euro2020 has been postponed (to 2021) and Glastonbury, Wimbledon, The Open Championship, St Patrick’s Day Parades, and Edinburgh Festivals have been cancelled. Established in 1947 Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe festival have taken place every year drawing huge audiences and contributing an estimated £300m to the economy. The Festival Fringe takes over Edinburgh’s cityscape during the month of August each year and organisers have cancelled early because they can’t envisage large gatherings on the streets of the city being possible in the near future.
In London, which has a high concentration of COVID-19 cases, there has been a significant amount of debate about the use and regulation of parks during the lockdown. Most parks and green spaces remain open, although all facilities within them such as playgrounds, cafes and toilets are closed. These spaces play a key role as sites where Londoners can look after their physical and mental wellbeing, a function which now seems more important than ever. Many citizens do not have their own gardens and people living in flats and small residences are particularly anxious about being denied access to public green spaces. Unlike the city’s squares and streets which are relatively empty and unusually quiet, large parks surrounded by densely populated neighbourhoods remain heavily used. This includes Finsbury Park which is the key case study for the team of #Festspace researchers based in London. Media campaigns and physical signs have been employed to encourage people to adhere to new regulations and guidelines – keeping 2 metres apart and only using the parks for exercise (walking, running or cycling). There are concerns that if the new rules are not followed, then more parks will follow the example of East London’s largest park Victoria Park which has been closed since March 25th because some users continued to gather in groups. Here and elsewhere, people have flouted the rules by sun-bathing, barbecuing, picnicking, using skateparks, kite flying and engaging in other activities deemed to be non-essential. It seems people are unwilling or unable to resist socialising in parks. Early on in the lockdown period, new rules were enforced mainly by self-regulation. But in the past few days, there are increasing reports of police moving people on who were gathered in small groups or lingering unnecessarily. On Sunday 5th April Brockwell Park – which serves a very densely populated part of South London – was closed after 3,000 people turned up to enjoy the fine weather. The Park reopened the following day, but the closure sent a warning to people that authorities would close parks if they were unable to guarantee safe use. This threat has been reiterated by several national government ministers at the daily media briefings. All festivals and events planned for London’s parks from now until the end of June have been cancelled or postponed. Events scheduled for July and August are also expected to be cancelled over the next few weeks. This will disappoint many people who were looking forward to attending one of the many music festivals scheduled to take place in London’s parks – e.g. All Points East in Victoria Park or Lovebox in Gunnersbury Park. However, some London Friends groups (e.g. Friends of Finsbury Park) have campaigned for a fallow year (something which the organisers of Glastonbury do every few years) which would allow park environments time to recover from their intensive use as sites for festivals. Now it seems they will get their wish – although in circumstances that no one would have wanted to see. …..
In Sweden the strategy to fight the spread of COVID-19 is more liberal compared to most other countries in Europe. Although some organisations like universities have moved to remote teaching, most businesses and workplaces have remained open, and people have been allowed to move around without restrictions other than to follow social distancing advice and minimizing their physical social contacts. The Swedish COVID-19 strategy has been to encourage people to take moral responsibility without legal restrictions, a traditional approach in Swedish society, based on the fact that Swedes tend to trust authorities and the right to move around freely is stated in the Swedish constitution. That said, public events and festivals are still suffering from the COVID-19 outbreak in Sweden. At the beginning of March, authorities there limited public events to no more than 500 individuals, like in other parts of Europe. At the start of April, the number of individuals allowed to gather for public events was reduced to no more than 50 people. While schools for children under the age of 15 are still open, public events and festivals are more or less abandoned. And yet, restaurants, pubs and private gatherings are not included in the restrictions, in order to maintain some semblance of normality for the Swedish economy and social life. As all public events and festivals are effectively cancelled, both private and public event organizations are facing financial emergency situations and many will struggle to survive until the summer.
In Barcelona, authorities have followed a strict lockdown strategy and social life has disappeared in public spaces to prevent rapid contagion.
This situation is replicated across Spain, with no activity in public spaces. Barcelona was quick to realise the impact of COVID-19 with the cancellation of one of the biggest events hosted by the city, the Mobile World Congress, in mid-February. Subsequently, a long list of festivals and events have been postponed or cancelled, including Festival Greg, Primavera Sound, the International Book Day (Sant Jordi), and neighborhood festivities such as Sant Josep Oriol. However, out of this uncertainty creative and innovative responses have emerged from citizens, institutions, event organisers and companies. Everyday cultural and sporting activities have been established to create solidarity and to make life more bearable for those confined to their homes. These include #LaCulturaTAcompanya (culture accompanies you), #BCNesMoudinsCasa, (Barcelona moves inside home) or online festivals such as D’A Film Festival. The most fascinating initiatives are those spontaneous ones, initiated by individuals and communities to share and entertain during these challenging times. One excellent example is balcony festivals – small intimate events on the city’s balconies and terraces. These festivals have seen singers including Begoña Alberdi and Ruth Lorenzo singing opera each evening, or musicians such as Alberto Gestoso or Benet Vázquez, Àdria Cañellas and Jordi Juli playing to residents.
Across our European case cities (Glasgow, Dublin, London Barcelona and Gothenburg) and further afield, outdoor and indoor public gatherings have decimated the festivals and events sector. However, we are witnessing varied responses to the crisis, with the desire for social connection producing new ways of people gathering to share their artistic, cultural and sporting interests. Some of these responses have been very simple – moments in the day when members of the public emerge onto their streets to applaud health care workers on the front line. In Dublin, people living in apartment complexes have been playing bingo outdoors so as to maintain social connectivity and tiny groups of people have expressed their communal identity by coming onto the streets and outdoor space in their neighbourhoods to engage in exercise, song and dance, and chat, all the time respecting ‘social distancing’.
Digital public spaces have also proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic as we gather online, joining Facebook parties to participate in quizzes, Instagram Live to hear our favourite artists perform acoustic sets from their homes, or Houseparty to replicate the regular weekend soirée. Events previously held in public spaces have also moved online. For example, in Gothenburg, the face-to-face event, Lunch Beat, where people come together in different public spaces on a monthly basis to dance during lunchtime to a live DJ has now become a virtual Facebook/Instagram/Youtube event. While virtual festivity does little to facilitate surprise encounters with difference and physical proximity with strangers, it does provide a very useful way for already-existing networks to maintain their connections.
Finally, we’re likely to be in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic for some weeks or months yet, and the longer term implications of the pandemic on the relationship between festivals, events and public spaces are difficult to assess. However, some of the research questions that are likely to arise include:
- How will people respond to a loosening of social distancing measures across Europe, including how festival and event organisers adapt their practices?
- Will there be an ongoing fear of gathering in public space to celebrate collectively, for how long, and with what implications for social life and cohesion?
- What is the impact of COVID-19 on the value associated with access to, and use of, public space (s), including parks, and civic squares?
- What will happen to the new practices and cultures established during the COVID-19 pandemic once the lockdown is relaxed?
- How will internationally-important festivals and events dependent on tourism visitation respond to the changes to travel practices likely to ensure post-COVID-19?
We are living in a new normal with uncertainty a feature of every area of economic, social and cultural life for the foreseeable future. COVID-19 is not the first time in human history that festivals and events have had to be suspended or cancelled but it has certainly generated a shock to the system that few people could have imagined. Time will tell what the long term effects on festivals, events, public space and public-ness will be.