COVID-19, Government, Freedom and the Self

I was invited to contribute to a forthcoming volume examining the pandemic from the perspective of health geography. I was asked to write from the perspective of post-structuralism. Below is an abstract and a link to an early draft.

Abstract: The virus that causes COVID-19 is challenging many of the basic assumptions that make up the fabric of society from the global to the local scale. In this essay, I diagnose the present moment by exposing the epistemological conditions that enable us to talk meaningfully about the pandemic and become constituted as subjects through this experience. Looking backward to diagnose our present situation reveals the limits imposed upon us by certain epistemic objects. It also focuses attention on an essential backdrop to this biopolitical experience: the problematic relationship between freedom and government.  

Mapping the Post-structural Geographies of COVID-19: Freedom, Security and the Self (DRAFT)

Data Dashboards in the time of COVID-19


Hannah Graham (masters student) and I have been discussing the significance of big data and the proliferation of data dashboards in the past month. We pulled together our thoughts into a blog post (click here) available on our project blog, Putting Data-Driven Urbanism in its Place.

The problematization of a pandemic: COVID-19 and ‘bedspace’


At present, humanity is embarking upon the greatest experiment ever undertaken: ‘flattening the curve.’ How can we understand this experiment?

We could start by asking how it aligns with the traditional experimental method. Here, the independent variable could be conceived as quarantine, the dependent variable could be conceived as the case numbers of COVID-19 in the population, and among the many controlled variables we could identify, the current and static capacity of hospitals and the health care workforce would certainly rank among the most important.

Holding hospital capacity constant, this experiment endeavors to slow the spread of the virus in the population by minimizing contact among individuals and, in doing so, avoid deaths that would occur as a result of overwhelmed hospitals and health care workers. Much attention is paid to the independent variable: quarantine and its social, psychological and economic effects. Equal attention is given to the dependent variable – case numbers and mortality rates. But what can we say about the controlled variable?

A brief interlude: in 2016, Damian Collins, Jalene Anderson and I published a paper examining how chronic homelessness was increasingly being re-interpreted as a costly social problem. The term ‘how’ in the preceding sentence is instructive: the focus of our analysis was how chronic homelessness itself was rendered visible in a new way, as an economic cost borne by law enforcement, emergency responders and hospitals. We were interested in what steps facilitated the translation of chronic homelessness into the economic discourse of health care administration and then back into the discourse of public policy.

Our paper examined a remarkable 5-city randomized, controlled field trial called At Home/Chez Soi which tested the efficacy of the Housing First model in Canada. Counting the number of nights spent in hospital beds and the cost to the health care system was a key component of the field trial. These numbers translated patterns of chronic homelessness into costs borne by health care administrators. Moreover, these numbers facilitated political power. They rendered chronic homelessness representable as a cost, and hence ‘workable’ in a political climate valuing financial risk mitigation.

We called this chain of translation ‘bedspace’, a label we associated with rise of an influential style of political reasoning that has come to dominate contemporary homelessness policy. Bedspace, as we describe in the paper, is a space of calculability across which references to the economic costs of homelessness are made and circulate, one that brings homelessness into the domain of risk management.

In what ways can we extend the concept beyond homelessness policy to the COVID-19 pandemic, a contemporary moment in which hospital beds hold such significance?

As in the case of homelessness, bedspace could be seen as a mode of problematizing COVID-19. However, unlike the case of homelessness, where bedspace linked extreme housing insecurity to economic costs borne by society, bedspace, in our current moment, links unchecked viral transmission with the human cost of COVID-19.

In both cases, ‘beds’ – in terms of their numbers – serve as a key intermediary. But where bedspace, in the homelessness example, rendered chronic homelessness into an economic metric connected to the logic of budgetary prudence and cost containment, in the case of COVID-19, bedspace renders the spread of the virus into an estimation of preventable deaths, a calculation connected to humanitarianism and the wider legitimacy of the state itself.

While qualitatively different, both examples demonstrate the centrality of bedspace to the rationality of government. As an administrative grid of intelligibility, bedspace renders problems visible in a way that is amenable to the government of risk understood in financial terms or humanitarian terms. Both reveal an inner connection between the state, the population, and hospital medicine.

Bedspace certainly draws attention to an external referent, i.e. actual hospital beds; however, the greater theoretical purchase here, I believe, is conceiving bedspace as an epistemic geography, a kind of epistemological grid through which governing and the state is itself understood at key moments of uncertainty.

Non-Market Housing Pause – Yes or No?

The City of Edmonton approved a “pause” (a moratorium) on non-market housing investments in 5 inner city neighborhoods in 2012. This past week executive council was receiving presentations on the motion to end the pause. Here is my presentation: 

I am here to speak in support of ending the moratorium on non-market housing. I will make three points.

1/ A safe, adequate and affordable housing system is essential for the quality of life, wellbeing and prosperity of any city. In this regard, Edmonton is unwell. Edmonton’s housing system is seriously deficient when it comes to the supply of affordable housing. Moreover, the crisis-orientated infrastructures that have developed to compensate for this deficiency are not a permanent cure.

What we do know is that there is research evidence for the following claims:

Individuals with long histories of homelessness can achieve housing stability when provided affordable housing with appropriate levels of support.

Individuals with serious mental illness can recover in community settings when provided affordable housing with appropriate levels of support. This form of housing is effective at decreasing mental health symptoms and improving quality of life, functional status, substance use outcomes, and housing retention.

When it comes to health care utilization, hospitalizations decrease after entering affordable housing.

Quality affordable housing creates a stable environment for children, contributing to improved educational outcomes and decreasing the chance of family separation.

Adding new affordable housing to low income neighborhoods can help revitalize low income communities. New projects can increase house prices, lower crime rates and result in more social mix.

2/ When it comes to the expansion of our affordable housing sector, the stigmatization of affordable housing and affordable housing tenants is a pernicious and unfair barrier. The stigma applied to affordable housing is based on a spurious association between low-income tenants and neighborhood social disorder. I call this association spurious because the basis for this association is a third, unseen, and too often unacknowledged, variable. This third, intervening variable can take different forms: income polarization, social inequality, and institutional racism – structures of oppression that incriminate us all but affect some more than others.

Foregrounding these structures of oppression can significantly shift the conversation when it comes to affordable housing. But these structures are thorny and wicked problems. Addressing them means challenging the status quo and unsettling existing relations of power and privilege. Not surprisingly, these structures are often left out of the conversation. As a result, the stigmatized status of affordable housing holds sway, ready to be used to legitimize opposition to new affordable housing developments.

3/ I would characterize the moratorium as a self-defeating policy. The freeze on non-market housing in core neighborhoods implicitly and unintentionally reinforced negative stereotypes linked to affordable housing. The moratorium sanctioned the notion that neighborhood saturation is real. This did not alleviate stigmatization. Rather it may have accentuated stigmatization resulting in a prolonged period of siting gridlock.

What has been the result? We are facing a formidable affordable housing supply gap of nearly 1000 units of permanent supportive housing, 25,000 units of social housing and 21,000 units of near market affordable housing.

My concluding message is this:

  • We need to transform our housing landscape; we also need to be open about power and privilege and how these are transmitted through our housing system;
  • We need to enlarge the affordable housing conversation to include the diversity of housing types (i.e. single family, multi-unit housing, duplexes, row housing, ect.) and the diversity of tenure types (ownership, rental, cooperative, co-housing);
  • We need to engage communities around affordable housing at the neighborhood level in a way that does not have a predetermined outcome and that develops a sense of collective efficacy around planning processes, urban design, infrastructure provision and the character of the neighborhood.


The Case for Geographical Education

A fascinating read on the value of the discipline of geography and geographical education.

Geography, a force for broadening the mind


It is hard to ignore the rapid rise of so-called “Alt-Right” thinking in popular culture. Here are five observations based on my encounters with this discourse:

  1. It is heavily invested in utilitarian-individualism. This form of individualism finds the meaning of life in the maximization of individual self-interest (above all else).
  2. It champions social inequality which is viewed as natural, good and the result of innate individual characteristics; moreover, this inequality is seen as a necessary condition for competition.
  3. It is attracted to scientific racism. It embraces the notion that the human race can be divided into sub-species and that empirical evidence exists to support claims regarding the superiority and inferiority of these sub-species.
  4. It displays reverence for rationalism. It venerates opinions based on reason demonstrated through either inductive or deductive reasoning while eschewing opinion based on lived experience and observation.
  5. It is unabashedly anti-feminist. It refuses to recognize the existence of patriarchy and naturalizes gender differences in terms of social status and social roles as biological outcomes rather than socially determined.

These characteristics give some shape to the Alt-Right’s pronounced antipathy towards notions of social obligation, social equity, shared responsibility and, most of all, social justice.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

GraphThree news stories capture the Dickensian times we live in. The first reports record profits in the Canadian banking sector (“The money machines we love to have: profits soar at Canada’s big banks”). The second reports concerns regarding Canada’s high level of consumer debt and overheated housing markets (“Household debt, home prices biggest risk to Canadian economy, Bank of Canada says” ). These two stories resonate with a third reporting that roughly 1/5 borrowers would fail a mortgage stress test coming into effect January 1, 2018 (“New mortgage stress test rules block 50,000 people from buying: mortgage group”). Perhaps our fate lies in the assimilation of these stories?





Canada’s Long-Awaited National Housing Strategy: Initial Thoughts

On November 22, 2017 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government announced a National Housing Strategy aimed at addressing affordability problems in the Canadian housing system, primarily among low-income households.

The Liberal strategy aims to add 100,000 new affordable units to the Canadian housing system and lift 530,000 families out of core housing need.

Recent census data shows that in 2016 1,775,570 rental households spent more than 30% of their income on shelter (a common measure of affordability). Of these households, 282,825 were living in subsidized housing and 1,536,740 were not.

Clearly, the need exceeds the supports that will roll out over the next 10 years therefore targeting of some kind will be necessary.  One rationale could be the prioritization of households with children. A recent Statistics Canada report showed that 1.2 million Canadian children live in low income households representing almost 1/4 of all low income individuals. This approach could make a significant impact as far as reducing child poverty is concerned.


Homeownership: Dwelling in the Commodity Form


I’m embarking upon a book project with the tentative title Homeownership: Dwelling in the Commodity Form. The general topic of the book will be housing. Why? Housing is vital in every sense of the word. It is a fundamental locus of human experience, a powerful spatial form that structures social relations, and a storehouse of wealth. These three themes – dwelling, norms, value – will structure the book’s inquiry. This much I know.

But I’m unsure about the book’s empirical focus, scope and argumentation (although the tentative title offers a hint regarding the direction I’m going). Time and again I’ve been returning to a mantra posed by Peter Sloterdijk (2009, 1): “humans are themselves an effect of the space they create.” Well, what can we learn about the being of being human from the domestic spaces we (N. America) have created? The detached single family home, the row house, the apartment, the hotel, the recreational vehicle, the tent, the emergency shelter, the street…

I’m using the medium of this blog to think ‘out loud,’ refine ideas, and archive material. Comments, suggestions, critiques are welcome.


Sloterdijk, P. (2009) Spheres Theory: Talking to Myself About the Poetics of Space. Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/Summer, no. 30, 1-8