The Urban Question 2020 is a Spatial Question 1: Location, Scale, Presence and the Containment Spatialisation of the Domestic

In the movie The Matrix Revolutions (Wachovskys, 2003) confinement is a driver of fear, but home is offered as comfort and a space of hope. This sense of home is an alternative to the cybernetic and machinic “matrix” in the film. Home is the space of the domestic matrix or womb. Writing on the future of cities during and post-CoVid-19 is difficult for two reasons: not only does it require a depressing reset of assumptions and expectations, but so much is impacted that it is hard to know where to start. This may be behind the general lack of a systematic enumeration of impacts in the press and academic literature in 2020. Not only has the CoVid-19 response had enormous logistical and economic impacts, it has changed the management and sociology of work, of the home, the city and tourism and more.

The lockdowns, work-from-home and avoidance of crowds during the Covid-19 pandemic raise questions about the future morphology of cities and the status of public interaction along several dimensions that are easy to observe directly.

These will impact the future of urban property markets, architecture and the routines of everyday life. However, just as the post-Second World War period saw a resumption of heteronormativity in the form of the patriarchal, white, nuclear home in a commuter suburb, so the post-Pandemic period (2022) could see a similar return to 2019 norms.

John. Trundle, 1625. London plague (woodcut).

Avoidance of contact in places and closed spaces: Location impacts

Three types of context are clear: outdoor spaces, interior spaces (shopping malls) and smaller enclosed areas where people may be together for a short time (e.g. elevators) and interiors where longer periods of time are spent together including workplaces and even homes. These span public space, indoor spaces, retail and leisure spaces where there may be large gatherings of people.

Leisure spaces and public amenities such as recreation centres and stadia and theatres have been closed in favour of online broadcasts of performances and sports. These represent a fundamental challenge to historical models of public culture.

Mass transit that involves potential close contact including public transportation, intercity buses and trains and airplanes have seen user rates plumet to as low as 20% of past norms.

Elevators in highrise buildings, residential and commercial.

Fears of contact and working from home via digital platforms have reduced the daytime populations of city centres, especially downtowns and business districts. Whitecollar workers were forced to work from home for varying periods, resulting in a corresponding layoff of supporting workers, service sector workers who were already often part-time and the most economically precarious, excluded and vulnerable.

In short these are location impacts.

City-regions Governance: Scales of Control

Municipalities and city-regions emerged strongly as a scale of effective intervention and control of the pandemic, even though the powers of quarantine lay at provincial or state scales. Different cities experienced different levels of pandemic at different times, leading to differentiated, local pandemic governance by regional public health officials. This was also observed in the earlier case of the SARS H1N1 pandemic as noted by Lily M Hoffman in Sociology of Health and Illness (2013: 255-267).

Awareness of global scale of interrelationships, the distant present of others undergoing lockdowns, and the global search for a vaccine was part of the blanket reporting of CoVid-19. However, at the same time people restricted travel dramatically, remaining home or tourists in their own regions and nations. The result was a fractured, unequal and uneven global mosaic rather than a sense of global flow.

These are scalar effects.

Bombay Bubonic Plague Camp 1896-7 (Postcard)

Tracing of infection and infection: Presence impacts

The status of government surveillance of contacts, including the possible policing of behaviour was a concern that accompanied contact tracing apps for mobile phones. These surveillance technologies traced mobile devices using geolocation that maps digital onto actual space. In 2020, I would say that the extent to which our digital footsteps are private, has been resolved in favour of surveillance, although the symbolic resistance and suspicion of contact and tracing apps misdirects our attention to a merely illusory digital privacy. Online we are not individual users but part of herd that is coralled and pastured according to our relevance to providers as consumers of digital products and services.

In short these are impacts of the relation between relations of physical and digital presence to one another.

Apartment facade: containment spatialisation: Stayhome if you can (Image: Jeongwon Gim)

Location impacts on Downtowns: The Social Spatialization of Work and the Domestic

Questions regarding the impact on business districts have often revolved around health questions and economic questions such as property markets and predicting which customer groups will demand what. In particular, moves from downtown apartments to suburban houses with yards have been highlighted as couples sought more space to work from home, or families sought private outdoor play space for children in back gardens.

“Working from home during lockdown has already encouraged many firms to announce office closures or ‘hybrid’ schemes involving a mix of WFH and office work…new working models are clearly part of the urban future. What does that mean for the nature of work, for the office space of the future and how we build it, and for the economy of city centres? Who is likely to move — will it be GenZ employees, or those with families looking for more space? How marked will this phenomenon actually be? What impact will this have on urban residential and commercial property markets? What effect will it have on commuter cities?” (Tortoise Future of Cities Summit 19 Nov 2020)

From a health perspective, the provision of adequate housing and issues of crowding have been highlighted as public health issues. Where people share crowded houses due to low income, or neighbourhoods lack adequate outdoor space, greenery and amenities for play, infection rates have soared as close contact spread CoVid-19 from “front-line” low-paid service sector workers to families.

Spanish Flu 1918: Due donne parlano attraverso le maschere antinfluenzali durante l’epidemia di Spagnola (1918).

Containment Spatialization

However, these questions raises a more fundamental geography. The division between domestic and work spaces has been an iconic division of the social spatialization that fuses together modernity and contemporary capitalism as a global arrangement. This iconic division sits astride numerous smaller changes which in sum transformed everyday life and into a containment spatialization which emphasized household, domestic life. This has been a spatial revolution in its scope, scale and suddenness.

Fears of contagion because of being closed in on public transit or in close contact waiting for buses or trains have again raised ideas such as Jane Jacobs’ 20-minute or “15-minute city” where basic needs are located within a 15-minute walk so that people have healthier mobility options and do not have to take long rides or are dependent on car travel. Our understanding of the modern metropolis has been predicated on the means, available energy and infrastructure to move large numbers of people about. Commuters are signature “figures” of modern work and the division between home and factory, office and retail workplaces. Workers have had to travel long distances between affordable homes and work.

Everyday but perhaps less remarked changes and implications of the spatial revolution that a containment spatialization represents will be commented on in Part 2.

-Rob Shields (Univ. of Alberta)