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Adaptability in times of crises – How mobility infrastructure turns into moving healthcare facilities

By Sophia Arbara

Embedded in the idea of the EU itself, is the free movement of its population across national and regional borders which implies the use of large infrastructural networks. In times of Covid-19 with human flows being almost completely immobilized, mobility infrastructure dedicated to passenger movement has lost its initial purpose. Υet, amid a pandemic, cities have found ways to adapt its infrastructural typologies to respond to the ongoing public health crisis.

One of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the EU to its citizens is the free movement of persons. Enhanced by the border-free Schengen agreement, more than 400 million EU citizens and non-EU legally present nationals, are able to move across its territories without restrictions.[1] Following the establishment of cross-border territories, a series of transformations in the EU’s urban, architectural and physical landscapes took place and so did the way its citizens relate to space and place.

The creation of transnational free movement zones has been driving interdisciplinary attention, with scholars from contemporary philosophy to urbanism considering Europe as the operational site to move from a sedentary relationship to space towards a nomadic one. [2] A territory where our primary relationship to space, instead of being rooted in a land ownership model and boundaries, is rather primarily shaped around the notion of movement and flows.[3]

This shift towards a spatial relationship where movement is in the epicenter and hyperconnectivity is the rule, is showing its effects in the way the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is remapping our territories. Resembling a digital virus, Covid-19 has expanded across countries and continents within no time. [4] And along with putting our healthcare systems under a stress test, weakening our economies, altering our live – work habits and the way we inhabit our cities, it impeded overnight our ability to move, immobilizing air infrastructure, shutting down national borders and interrupting passenger movement.
With our physical, bound to motion existence having almost completely shifted to a digital one, the EU zone’s basic principle of free movement seems a distant concept. And with our physical limits being restricted within the walls of our living unit, mobility infrastructure dedicated to human flows is incapable of serving its initial purpose.

Yet, while motion has been amongst the main reasons to the pandemic´s rapid spread, it is at the same time a key element to its response. And while trains and mobility hubs, airplanes and airports, boats and ports – considered amongst the spaces with the highest spread rate – had to limit or even shut down their services, cities demonstrated an increased capacity to adapt this infrastructure in order to respond to the ongoing healthcare crisis.

Pictures by Thomas Samson (left, Pool via Associated Press) and Mike Segar (right, REUTERS)

Rail infrastructure in France – Wagons turning into intensive care units
On March 26, in Paris, the first “medicalized” train, a five-car TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) made its inaugural trip as a mobile hospital. It is intended to shuttle patients from the hardest hit region to hospitals with more capacity, easing the stress on resources. Aside from rail infrastructure, the French government mobilized trains, helicopters and even a warship. [5] Precedents like the aforementioned are of course not limited to a European context but encountered across the world. India has -for the first time during 167 years of operation – suspended its rail network converting 20.000 train carriages into Covid-19 emergency units.[6]

Boats and cruise ships serving as floating hospitals
One week earlier, the architectural magazine “Domus”, published about a ship in Genoa that would turn into a hospital in order to provide assistance to COVID-19 patients required to spend a period in medically equipped facilities before returning home, alleviating on ground hospitals capacity. [7] Grandi Navi Veloci docked on March 19th at Ponte Colombo in Genoa’s Ferry Terminal and according to the port authority president, Paolo Emilio Signorini “It has been a prime example of how the port can serve a new role for the city”. [8]
In the US, on the 30th of March, the largest boat – hospital in the world, USNS Comfort, anchored in Pier 90 of New York city to treat patients aside from Covid-19. It has a capacity of treating around 1000 patients. [9]

In today’s fast changing environment, it is no longer surprising that trains can be turned into intensive care units, floating structures become hospitals and football stadiums Covid-19 treatment centers. The logistic, efficiency oriented city becomes the priority in times of crises, rather than its social spectrum of leisure and public life.

But what happens during tranquil times? Could we reverse this equation and put weight on the city’s social spectrum instead? These times of crises when immediate responses are required, make us wonder whether this flexibility and adaptability is only limited to periods of turmoil or whether it is a lesson to learn from in order to start thinking of urbanization in a more porous way. The capacity of cities in repurposing its infrastructure to respond to a crisis can be considered a sign of resiliency and a light of hope in opening up a discourse for urbanism as a dynamic discipline, capable, not only to transform fast during extreme conditions, but to take on steps and adapt according to societal and environmental needs.


  1. European Comission, Schengen area
  2. Braidotti, Rosi (2011). Nomadic theory: the portable Rosi Braidotti. Columbia University Press
  3. Aldea Eva. (n.d.). Nomads and migrants: Deleuze, Braidotti and the European Union in 2014 OpenDemocracy (retrieved April 9, 2020)
  4. Luis Fernández-Galiano (2020). La democracia virica. Arquitectura Viva 222.
  5. Al-Arshani, S. (n.d.). France turned one of its high-speed trains into an ambulance to transport coronavirus patients across the country. Business Insider (retrieved April 14, 2020)
  6. CNN, H. R., for. (n.d.). India has closed its railways for the first time in 167 years. Now trains are being turned into hospitals. CNN (retrieved April 15th, 2020)
  7. Piccardo Emanuele. (2020, March). The ship as the symbol of a health emergency (retrieved April 14, 2020
  8. The GNV Splendid “floating hospital” ship docks in the Port of Genoa, news article, MedCruise (2020, March 20)
  9. Laborde, A. (2020, March 30). Un barco hospital con mil camas y 12 quirófanos llega a Nueva York. EL PAÍS (retrieved April 14, 2020)

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