Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

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.

The Epistemic Geographies of Homelessness

For the last couple of years I have been working to better understand the epistemic geographies constituting the politics of homelessness in Canada. After following the rise of policy models such as Housing First it became more apparent to me that calculative practices, particularly ones that measure social costs, have proven instrumental in transforming social service systems addressing chronic homelessness. Damian Collins and Jalene Anderson (both at the University of Alberta) and I recently published an article in Social Science & Medicine – entitled Homelessness, Bedspace and the Case for Housing First in Canada – that offers a preliminary attempt at mapping this calculative geography. We arrived at the term ‘bedspace’ to describe this political spatiality. Abstract and link to the article is below.

Homelessness, Bedspace and the Case for Housing First in Canada


The act of problem formation is integral to the policymaking process. Moreover, the process by which certain situations, experiences or events are rendered problematic hinges upon the places, spaces and networks through which the issue is made visible and intelligible to policy makers and decision makers. In this paper, we explore these epistemic geographies by unpacking one such example e the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s At Home/Chez Soi study, a federally funded, $110 million field trial of the Housing First (HF) model. HF prioritizes rapid rehousing of the chronically homeless, followed by separate support and treatment services. The model has become widespread in Canada since 2005, based in large part on understandings of its cost-effectiveness. In this article, we utilize At Home/Chez Soi as an illustrative case for examining how ‘chronic homelessness’ is translated into a discourse of costs and benefits, and given an accounting value, through a series of translations. This problematization advances a particular logic, what we refer to as ‘bedspace’.

Whither the public university?

Athabasca University has received much press as of late, most of it negative (see here and here). This media attention stems from concerns regarding the future financial situation of the university. For those who may be unfamiliar with Athabasca University, it is an open university dedicated to the removal of barriers to post-secondary learning through distance education. This social mission makes Athabasca University unique in Canada. This is what makes the current situation newsworthy. It is not just another university in financial trouble. Athabasca University embodies a set of social values of fundamental importance in Canadian society and its financial uncertainty says a lot about the commitment of the previous provincial government to these values. Hence it is important to put this negative press in the proper political context to adequately understand causes and effects as well as what is at stake.

Athabasca University, like a majority of post-secondary institutions in Canada, is a publicly-funded university. The public-university system exists to make post-secondary education affordable and accessible. It is ‘public’ in the sense that universities receive a public subsidy to offset the cost of operating the university allowing tuition rates to remain artificially low. This approach is rooted in a commitment to equality and the belief that society is best served by an educated population. The public-university system is also ‘public’ in the sense that universities are overseen by a publicly appointed board of governors which are supposed to ensure accountability.

Over the past twenty-years public funding for post-secondary education has precipitously declined in Canada from 80% to a national average of approximately 53%. The reasons for this decline vary by province but an underlying storyline is a neoliberal tale characterized by antipathy towards taxation and unhealthy obsession with austerity. Not surprisingly, tuition fees have crept up to cover the hole in university budgets. But tuition caps in many provinces, including Alberta, have limited the ability of universities to cover the reductions in public funding sending many institutions that lack the endowments or other revenue sources into a financial tailspin.

Looking more closely at funding levels among research universities in Alberta offers more clarity with regard to the situation faced by Athabasca University. Using enrollment numbers from 2014 and provincial operating grant forecasts for 2014-2015 a disparity in provincial support is evident when it comes to funding for full-time students:

University of Alberta: $19,355/student

University of Calgary: $19,154/student

University of Lethbridge: $13,928/student

Athabasca University: $4,640/student

The nature of the public university system and the historic underfunding of this system by the province of Alberta is important context for understanding the dilemmas and challenges that Athabasca University currently faces not least of which is how to stay true to our social mission of lowering the barriers that otherwise inhibit university education and lifelong learning in the midst of a funding regime that exerts upward pressure on tuition rates and top-down pressure to contain costs through lay-offs and hiring freezes. Athabasca is left between a rock and hard place: offloading costs to students (that is in itself a barrier), or gutting the university of the value embodied in its highly qualified and dedicated staff.

What is at stake here is more than Athabasca University. At risk are the values upon which our public university system rests. Failure to address these systemic problems will shift our post-secondary system evermore closer to a private, user-fee based system, a system at odds with the values Canadians share.

Riding the Orange Wave to a Moral Economy?

Yesterday was an historic day in the province of Alberta. After 44 years in power, the Progressive Conservative (PC) party was unseated by the New Democratic Party (NDP). Most people I know feel like they have just witnessed the impossible. Some have downplayed the NDP’s historic win as more a reflection of dissatisfaction with the PCs than affiliation with the NDP. In light of all of this, I couldn’t help but think about Karl Polanyi’s (1957) classic thesis regarding the ‘double-movement’ of capitalism.  Polanyi argued that, try as they might, free market advocates can never completely disembed markets from society. Markets are always embedded in society in one way or another. For example, markets depend upon families and schools for the social reproduction of labor power. They also depend upon welfare programs that support surplus labor during economic downturns. This emdeddedness is the site of a constant struggle between the movement towards the liberalization of markets from outside interference and a counter-movement seeking to regulate and constrain market forces to respect and protect human life and communities. What we see reflected in our politics is a constant tension between classical economists’ dream of a pure self-regulating market and the social desire for a moral and humane economy. In ways I think we witnessed the counter-movement to Alberta’s decades-long experiment in resource-dependent liberal economics. The social fabric was fraying. I think people could feel this. The NDP represented a social democratic alternative to the social conservatism of the PC party and the Wildrose Party. The question remains, will Alberta ride the orange wave to a moral economy?




I’m in it. The blogosphere. But I arrived unprepared. I have retreated. But I will return.