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Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?
The Specials, Ghost Town (1981)
he streets overflowed. The chants echoed off buildings, creating their own sense of momentum: “Together, we are unstoppable.” Last year, climate marches inspired by Greta Thunberg and other activists filled the public spaces of cities. The eerie emptiness of the same streets, parks, and plazas during Coronavirus lockdown has made those recent gatherings seem particularly remarkable. Indeed, the strangeness of deserted streets in the pandemic has been further emphasized each evening when cheers, clapping, and banging pots puncture the stillness.
The contrasting cases of the climate marches and the current lockdown emphasize the importance of public spaces for political and social assembly. As Iris Marion Young (1990) and Doreen Massey argue, publicness and public spaces best support a socially just society when they promote complex, somewhat challenging, and sometimes chaotic “throwntogetherness” (Massey, 2005: 160). No doubt, enthusiasm for vibrant streets must be tempered by the profound experiences of fear and violence experienced by many people in them. Nonetheless, I want to explore if and how publicness, in general, and notions of “publics” and “counterpublics,” specifically, might help in thinking through the crisis, its intersection with other crises, and possibilities for alternative futures.
I argue that an attention to the growth of and interconnection among counterpublics during the crisis reveals potential pathways to more just futures. I also suggest that this moment encourages continued consideration of the numerous spaces and spatialities in and through which publics constitute themselves for political purposes. I will focus on what I call the “climate public,” of the marches and Green New Deal proposals (Aronoff, Battistoni, Cohen et al, 2019), and the “mutual aid public,” of altruistic acts like food distribution that empower those being aided and that envision a future of solidarity, rather than competition.
Publics are groups of geographically dispersed strangers who, through communication, become knowable to themselves and others as collectives of common interest and political action (Anderson 2006; Cody 2011). In turn, according to Nancy Fraser (1990: 67), counterpublics are specific types of publics that act as “discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (see also Warner 2002). Counterpublics may also be constituted by people who hold ideas that have been subordinated, even if those members are not subordinated in most aspects of their lives.
Counterpublics must assemble and communicate in order to fulfill their “contestatory function” (Fraser, 1990: 67; Butler, 2015). Their spatialities have enduring political and social value (Iveson, 2017). This point is underscored both by the multitudes who joined climate marches and other recent street protests in cites from Beirut to Santiago, but also in the ways that protests have continued in public space since lockdowns were implemented. Many of the current public demonstrations are politically progressive, such as the #FreeThemAll car protests outside immigrant detention centers, and protests against police brutality and systemic racism, although others are not. The social and psychological value of public assembly has also been demonstrated by people who support physical distancing but have nonetheless gathered in parks to enjoy the benefits of greenspace and community. It’s hard being isolated. We are drawn together socially, politically, publicly.
I began this essay with an epigraph from the Specials’ Ghost Town. The song, released in 1981 during a severe economic and social crisis in the United Kingdom, alludes to the unemployment, neo-Nazi violence, and urban riots that were consequences of economic restructuring and nascent neoliberalism. Interviewed in 2002, songwriter Jerry Dammers recalled that “the country was falling apart … all the shops were shuttered up, everything was closing down … all the industries … It was clear that something was very, very wrong.” Not surprisingly, Ghost Town’s refrain hearkens back to the idealized “good old days.”
Dammers’ description of the streets of Thatcherite Britain resonates with our current crisis. But should we yearn for the neoliberal social relations and built environments of the pre-pandemic city? No, we shouldn’t.
Public space, public wellbeing
How are the spaces and practices of urban publicness being debated at the moment and what do attempts to reimagine public space and public life say about the politics of the crisis? Urban public spaces are designed and debated by a network of “placemakers” who codify and mobilize models of best practice in the design of streets, plazas, parks and so on. They tend to be guided by the general argument that cities should, primarily, be “for people” (Gehl, 2010).
In a webinar held in the midst of the pandemic, public health experts and placemakers addressed the organizers’ assertion that “public spaces are essential services” and discussed “how to support safe public space during COVID19.” The panelists were united in their worry about “overly restrictive” public space orders and in their conviction that access to public spaces, particularly green spaces, enhances physical and mental health, especially in a time of stressful inactivity and isolation.
The panelists pointed to the cases of Oakland and Milan to advocate for the permanent establishment of many more closed streets, slow streets, and pedestrian and cycling lanes. They concluded by arguing that parks should largely remain open during lockdown, that public spaces should be funded at the same or higher levels in the future, and that governments should avoid stigmatizing public activities during the crisis.
The webinar was a forum for placemakers to formulate a public policy agenda in order to shape post-crisis urbanism. Yet, while there is much to support in the placemaking movement’s general vision, it must be considered critically for its blindspots and design obsessions, as Alissa Walker recently argued. Moreover, placemaking is troublingly silent on public space’s crucial role as a political space in which people gather to represent and advocate for their interests (Mitchell, 1995); a point to which I’ll return in a moment.
Looking for hope in publicness necessitates acknowledging its unevenness. There is no single public in public space. While some people can pick and choose when to be public, some are excluded from publicness and others have dangerous publicness forced upon them. Webinar panelists with expertise on the cities of the global South emphasized that public spaces are essential to the economic livelihoods of low-income people living in crowded contexts with inadequate housing, a point also made recently by the Karachi Urban Lab’s researchers.
People gathering in parks and sidewalks in low-income neighborhoods in the global North, like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, also find physical distancing and rigorous hand hygiene to be challenging goals. They are deeply concerned for their health, as participants told us during our community-based research project on low-income people’s foodscapes. Their awareness and concern are conditioned by the “geographies of survival” (Mitchell & Heynen, 2009) they experience at the intersection of multiple long-running crises – extreme poverty, a dearth of stable employment, a lack of decent housing, poisoned drugs, classed and racialized criminalization. The virus is another insult, yet another stress.
The housing and poverty crises in the Downtown Eastside and neighbourhoods like it elsewhere have long been accompanied by the harms inflicted on many residents by the criminalization of drugs. Since the 1990s, when overdoses and another virus killed many residents, the neighborhood has also been a center for “harm reduction” innovation. Yet, advocates and pioneers of these strategies, like the late Bud Osborn, whose poetry has appeared in Society & Space, have always argued that the lives of people who use criminalized drugs can be improved only through government supply of safe psychoactive substances. The intersection of the various crises finally led the Canadian government to authorize a program of safe supply in March 2020. While problems with its roll-out are causing concern in a context where people still die from overdoses every day, this public intervention holds promise for more just policies in the future.
The climate crisis, the housing crisis, the drug crisis, extreme economic inequality, and their unevenly classed and racialized impacts all existed before the virus. The pandemic is an x-ray image, revealing the fractures that have long caused pain.
I taught about Covid-19 from January onward in my undergraduate urban geography course. As the virus spread and the death toll grew, I devoted increasing time to it. My pessimistic tone increased proportionately too, until I got the sense that my students were hearing similar dire narratives – the ‘x-ray vision’ – in every course. This didn’t seem like particularly useful pedagogy or politics. X-rays are primarily intended to be diagnostic tools to aid recovery, after all, not records of irreparable harm. By March, I was deliberately looking to leaven my lectures with hopeful stories of people responding to the pandemic. This essay reflects my approach in the classroom – an important public space in its own right. It reflects a desire to identify some hopeful politics for the world after the Coronavirus crisis.
There’s optimism, most immediately, in how public health workers and institutions have become respected voices, even heroes. Placemakers’ arguments about taking public space from private automobiles are being increasingly accepted too and this has positive aspects. The praise of essential workers may pale in comparison to their need for better working conditions and wages and placemaking is often dominated by a narrow class of loud voices and is clearly compatible with gentrification. Yet, growing mainstream admiration of publicness suggests some level of counterhegemonic skepticism toward neoliberal orthodoxy in many parts of the world.
This desire to question how things have been and to explore a more egalitarian future resonates with the ideas and agendas of the climate and mutual aid publics. Ideas and policy proposals, including Universal Basic Income, eviction protections, universal paid sick leave, public health care, free meals, safe drug supply, and free public transit, are currently being tested and considered for the future. Moreover, the public sphere is full of debates about which companies and economic sectors should be subsidized or bailed out and about adequate taxation of the obscenely rich. The crisis has also created opportunities for these counterpublics to intertwine through their common concerns and approaches. Their work has meant that counterhegemonic ideas are already “lying around” to be implemented.
For Jane Mansbridge (1996: 57), counterpublics often “oscillate between protected enclaves, in which they can explore their ideas in an environment of mutual encouragement, and more hostile but also broader surroundings in which they can test those ideas against the reigning reality.” This shift is happening now: the climate public’s recent momentum was generated by actions in public space but currently, with crowds no longer on the streets, it continues to organize online. The Green New Deal, with its intention to promote public works – green infrastructure and government-funded employment to transition the economy away from carbon dependency – is a set of ideas having a public moment. Similarly, pragmatic mutual aid actions, like delivering food to elders and supporting social service organizations, have also gained considerable attention, in tandem with discussions of alternative futures where mutual aid is more common, or where ad hoc charitable stopgaps are obsolete.
Spaces and spatialities of publicness
In this essay, I have explored the relationship between publicness, political publics, and the possibilities for more just futures after the pandemic. Publicness refers to the public spaces where intersecting crises are experienced. It also refers to the character of the alternatives being imagined, which tend to valorize redistributive policies and public investments. I suggest that we should think broadly about the types of spaces and spatialities in and through which publics constitute themselves. Fraser (1990: 67), speaking of the 20th Century US feminist movement as a counterpublic, lists the various texts, institutions, and places through which it was created: “journals, bookstores, publishing companies, film and video distribution networks, lecture series, research centers, academic programs, conferences, conventions, festivals, and local meeting places.” This list is still relevant today. It points to the diverse spatialities of political publicness.
Public spaces, in the most traditional sense, are important. But we shouldn’t fetishize or romanticize streets and parks as essential political spaces, even though they have been and will continue to be very important. If publics create themselves through communication, then there are multiple communicative contexts, including social media, of course. While social media are thoroughly and problematically privatized, they nonetheless offer enclaves for thought and discussion as well as avenues for wider engagement (Eckert, Metzger-Riftkin, Kolhoff et al, 2019). Reactions to the pandemic suggest that just futures will need to be generated intersectionally, through various crises, claims, and spatial contexts.
Counterpublics’ efforts to challenge neoliberal hegemony and create collective futures in the wake of the pandemic are not guaranteed success. Decisions on the scope and character of any policies will need to be made after thorough deliberations (and demonstrations). The crisis is, as Arundhati Roy puts it, “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next [which] we can … walk through … ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
It also seems clear that a better society cannot simply be built at the scale of individual or small group action or only by city governments. Mutual aid may need the state as a partner, and the climate movement has shown that urban protest and local government actions will founder if not articulated with other levels of government, particularly the national scale and intergovernmental organizations. And, since the creation of publics and the generation of support for new policies involves persuasive communication, it will be important for the visions of the climate public and the mutual aid public to continue to be built in alliance with other like-minded groups. These platforms, plans, and publics will be created in and through a variety of spaces and spatialities of publicness, including parks and streets, social media, and even classrooms.
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Eugene McCann is University Professor of Geography at SimonFraser University. He researches policy mobilities, urban politics, harm reduction, public space, development, governance, and planning and is managing editor of EPC: Politics & Space.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Lynnell Thomas, who made encouraging comments on an earlier draft, to the participants in my graduate course on Publics/Space, whose discussions helped me think about publics (Maria Cervantes, Terri Evans, Kristin Kjærås, Friederike Landau, Lise Mahieus, Siiri Pyykkönen, Claire Shapton, Victor Yao, and Baharak Yousefi), and to my undergraduate students who have patiently listened to me thinking through these arguments in real time and have steered me away from total negativity. I am also grateful to Charmaine Chua, Kate Derickson, and another anonymous editor for their critiques and advice. All errors of fact and interpretation are mine alone.