Urban Society and Democracy During COVID-19, A Translatlantic Dialogue

In conjunction with the University of Toronto Scarborough, The City Institute at York University, and the Goethe-Institut. Featuring Alexandra Flynn, Assistant Professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia; Michael Götting, author, journalist, curator and theatre worker; Markus Kip, Urban Researcher at the Georg-Simmel Centre for Metropolitan Studies, Humboldt University; and Jay Pitter, placemaker, author, speaker and Bousfield Distinguished Visitor in Planning, University of Toronto

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

Compiled by Ahmed Allahwala, Nigel Carvalho, Roger Keil and Jenna Ritch

1. Discussions of COVID-19 must centre race and class

There is no one city in this outbreak. COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting marginalized and vulnerable urban populations, exposing inequalities and racism that existed prior to the pandemic. Infection and mortality are deeply intertwined with the social determinants of health and reflect racial and class inequalities. Racialized populations lack the freedom that many citizens take for granted in the public realm as they are being singled out by social distancing enforcement practices in Canada and Germany. In Vancouver, the appearance of multiculturalism and diversity is being strained as growing anti-Asian racism has led to violence. In Berlin, there were also indications of growing anti-Asian racism and concerns in the Black communities about racial profiling during the lockdown. However, in Germany, more generally, there seems to be less of an awareness of differentiated effects of the disease on different communities. And from a housing perspective, staying indoors has been difficult for many lower income residents who lack sufficient space or comfortable living conditions. Jay Pitter reminds urbanists to avoid historical revisionism in their accounts of government’s responses to COVID-19 to prevent the positive experiences of certain populations from erasing the violence experienced by others.

2. The public realm is evolving

COVID-19 is resulting in a reevaluation of the concept of the public realm, interpretations of public infrastructure are changing. Walking and cycling have emerged as some of the few activities left for the public to participate in which has forced many individuals to stay in small localized bubbles. Michael Götting noted that fences — normally a symbol of division in Berlin — have become a symbol of solidarity and hope, with strangers depositing food for those in need. In the current moment, the human body is now perceived as a threatening vector for disease resulting in citizens navigating unfamiliar social norms in public. Public protest, a prominent mechanism to advocate for equity, has now been compromised at a time when crucial political decisions are being made daily.

3. Urban strategies vary substantially by city

Cities across the globe have enacted various forms of legislation and enforcement to decrease the spread of COVID-19. In a situation of urgency and simultaneity and in the face of insufficient and evolving data on the situation, the ultimate effects of municipal strategies will only reveal themselves at a later date. Diversity in policy approaches was confirmed in the conversation about Berlin, Toronto, and Vancouver as each municipality prioritized different sectors of public life in their containment measures. In Berlin, parks have become the most popular location for public gatherings. Similarly, Vancouver’s beaches are open and cars have been prohibited from entering the city’s parks to increase pedestrian access. This reflects the city’s emphasis on education and compliance through fostering a sense of civic responsibility. In Toronto, where enforcement has concentrated on fines and sanctions, parks are highly contested spaces and hotspots for ticketing.

4. The internet unites us but is no substitute for public collective interaction

Neighbourhood solidarity groups are sprouting up across the world including online forums composed of strangers willing to help vulnerable community members with shopping and errands. Urban residents are finding hope and solidarity through engagement with neighbours that were strangers prior to the pandemic as well as the transnational public facilitated through the Internet. However, limits exist on the capacity for the internet to compensate for restrictions on public life. As noted by Markus Kip, urban residents often identify the needs of their neighbours through causal interactions in the public realm. Mutual support is a casual by-product of public life that has been disrupted by social distancing orders. Internet conferences and forums, with their defined purposes and minimal visual scopes, cannot capture the complexity of social interaction and can leave us yearning for a return to our more public social lives.

5. Progressive urban transformations are possible

Perhaps paradoxically, trust in government seems to have grown in Canada and Germany. Can the pandemic serve as an opportunity to redefine urban democracy and the relationship between the local state and urban residents? Civil society can collectively reflect on vulnerabilities and address systemically-entrenched inequalities. As stated by Alex Flynn, “this crisis is one of many crises in our cities.” The inequalities being laid bare by the pandemic can serve as an opportunity for cities to address societal vulnerabilities. Germany has utilized rent deferrals, provided subsidies for small businesses, and enhanced access to social welfare while Vancouver has enacted eviction moratoriums, provided safe supplies of drugs (for chronic drug users), and increased housing. Although governments have enacted many socially beneficial measures, it is integral to remain critical when considering whose benefits from these interventions over time.