Why Balconies Matter: Politics, Urban Design, and Social Inequality

This is the second in a series of interviews by Random Walks with urban initiators, activists, artists, theorists, designers, planners, and critics. We continue pondering the changes in our use and construal of urban space during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 health, economic, social, and cultural crisis.

Dr. Krzysztof Nawratek is a Senior Lecturer in Humanities and Architecture at the School of Architecture of the University of Sheffield, UK. He is also the director of the Space, Cultures and Politics Research Group and convenor of the Postsecular Architecture Research Network. His recent work includes the volumes Total Urban Mobilisation: Ernst Jünger and the Post-Capitalist City (2018), and Kuala Lumpur: Community, Infrastructure and Urban Inclusivity (2020) with Marek Kozlowski and Asma Mehan. We spoke to him about the places in which political statements are made during the crisis, urban policy, labour, design, social inequality, and, tentatively, the future.

Random Walks: During the pandemic we have been witnessing two extremes in the politics of and movements in public urban space: on the one hand, a vacuity through bans and restrictions to our use of communal spaces, and on the other, radical re-claiming of public space through protests, riots, and problematic presence of the state apparatus. What other changes in the functions or uses of public space can you observe? With mass protests questioning the validity of coronavirus restrictions on mobility, how is Western democracy and civic living changing?

Dr. Krzysztof Nawratek: I want to start with the second part of the question and put it into a slightly broader context. We can observe two kinds of mass protests in the recent weeks. There are protests related to the Black Lives Matter movement and, on the other hand, anti-lockdown demonstrations organised by a coalition of far-right, conspiracy theory, and anti-vaccination activists. These two kinds of protests claim they fight against the oppression, but their views are not symmetrical. The ways they see liberty and freedom are very different – BLM activists demand the freedom of not being murdered.

In contrast, anti-vaccination activists demand the freedom to spread the virus and to risk the lives of other people. The latter freedom is what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “white freedom”: “… [F]reedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next (…) conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak, the freedom of rape buttons, pussy grabbers, and fuck you anyway, bitch; freedom of oil and invisible wars, the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines, the white freedom of Calabasas.”

I firmly believe that the pandemic helps us to define what kind of freedom, what kind of society we would like to build, a community where one person feels responsible for another, or a society where freedom means to do whatever one pleases. The pandemic situation, especially during lockdowns, shows a hidden social infrastructure allowing the society to exist. For every privileged middle-class person working from home, several people pick up food, pack it, drive it to the warehouse and then to individual households. From this perspective, the pandemic should push our thinking from ‘public spaces’ to ‘public infrastructure’.

Photo credit: www.wreg.com

Random Walks: We have transferred activities that we would usually perform at home into the open and public space: social gatherings have moved from the living rooms into the parks, some teachers have even established outdoor classrooms. How does this affect our understanding and practice of inside and outside? 

Dr. Nawratek: These changes are highly dependent on the weather (and broader climatic conditions). Some activities moved into public spaces, most of them moved online. ‘Zoom parties’ are a pretty common phenomenon. However, the discussion on inside/outside is fascinating. In general, I am always against binary, simplistic typologies. The recommendations concerning ‘social bubbles’ allow seeing the space as a constantly re-produced social construct. The interior of the house itself does not give protection if one allows contagious people to penetrate it. Therefore I would question the idea of ‘inside’ space. Going outside is even more problematic because if we can – to some extent – control the interiors of our houses, we have minimal control over the area used by other people. Parks seem relatively safe because we can hope that openness of these spaces combined with nature somehow ‘dilutes’ and ‘weakens’ the virus. I believe this is another confirmation of what I just said – we depend on others. 

Random Walks: There has also been a significant shift in conducting labour – home office has become the norm, commutes have had a sharp decrease, and while many have stopped physically going to work, we are still at work, and perhaps in a more diffused way than ever. If this persists, what will it mean for office culture and labour in urban environments? 

Dr. Nawratek: I believe it is crucial to see the whole picture – yes, for people like me, middle-class academics, people who can work from home, there has been a change. And I believe this change will be permanent, we will be working from home more, or maybe we will be living at work. At the same time, the pandemic forced the so-called ‘key workers’ to risk their lives to make a comfortable life possible for the middle-class. Someone was putting food on the shelf, someone produced it and delivered to our homes. We tend to ignore the existence of these people (even the question is doing this) but I believe the lockdown gave us a chance to rethink our privileged position. I hope (however I am afraid it will not happen) it will also lead to more solidarity and less inequality. For people who can work from home, the lack of human interactions will probably lead to diminishing socialisation and increasing alienation. It put us back into our ‘family bubble’, reinforcing potentially oppressive, patriarchal social settings.

On the other hand, there is a chance to recognise the importance of reproductive labour, to recognise the importance of care and maintenance. So the positive outcome may be increased quality housing and decreased volume of office buildings. Still, the danger is that we will get office buildings refurbished for awful, very low-quality apartments.

I also feel we are going to be more global (I gave a lecture at a Brazilian university a few days ago, sitting in my armchair in Sheffield) and micro-local (15 minutes walking radius). The perception of the coherence of the city and the national state will decrease. However, these structures remain essential functionally.

Photo credit: USA Today

Random Walks: On a related note, the home has become our ‘everywhere’: a workplace, a school, a gym, a ‘staycation’ spot. Perhaps more interestingly, it’s also been turned into space for the mass expression of protest or solidarity: rarely has the balcony as a micro-topos been so present in public life. What does this mean for our understanding of ‘home’?

Dr. Nawratek: Again I am going to be difficult here – you can make a political statement at your balcony if you have one and preferably when you are an owner. In the UK it is very often forbidden to make a political or social display on the balcony or in the window of a rented apartment. Therefore, I am afraid that it is much more dangerous to use the place where you live, where your family lives as a place to make a political statement. This is why (so-called) public spaces are still essential. I also see the reduction of interpersonal relationships beyond the family bubble as a massive regress and a danger to the coherence of the society. Families are, in general, a dangerous, self-centric social structure (yes, of course, there are also positive aspects of families – people learn to support each other, to love, what altruism means, and so on). I think we will observe an increasing demand to make homes bigger, to allow the members of a family to isolate (it may be necessary because of medical or more emotional reasons). As I said before, one of the positive aspects of the current situation may be an increased interest in the quality of living. If there are more activities people will perform from homes, there will be pressure to make homes more self-sufficient. But at the same time, I am pessimistic it would happen.

Random Walks: Milan and other cities have utilised the urgency of the pandemic to implement urban design policies that had been long in the making through accelerated procedures. These tend to be oriented towards developing healthier cities and promoting walking and biking (the ‘bike boom’ of the pandemic). What are the advantages and disadvantages of moving such urban design policies into the fast lane in the midst of a crisis? What does it mean for the processes of participatory design?

Dr. Nawratek: As Milton Friedman and Naomi Klein reminded us, the crisis is the only moment where drastic changes are possible. Therefore I am not surprised several cities decide to do now what they have been planning to do anyway. Most of these projects seem reasonable, and they should not do any harm. As always, the problem is monitoring – every urban intervention is an experiment, it never has been done in the particular place and time (even if similar projects have been tested in another context), so this is a challenge for cities – to carefully observe and evaluate the consequences of their rushed decisions. Concerning participatory design, I would like to stress that any project at some point in time becomes design without any say of the people who are using it (if the participatory process has been done with a particular group of residents in a specific moment of time, five years later there will be other residents and users). The real importance of the participatory design – in my opinion – is the mechanism of building social bonds, of creation of the community. I believe it could be achieved even if there is no time for the typical participatory design process.

Random Walks: Many have reported that being quarantined has felt like being “nowhere and everywhere at the same time”, that is staying in one place yet connecting with the whole world. On the other hand, isolation has happened on community level too, by identifying and isolating clusters of the virus, then creating a map to warn populations. What then, would a “geography of quarantine” look like, both from the viewpoint of the isolated individual and from that of the community?

How does ‘othering’ on the basis of infection with the coronavirus add to the layers of othering that we witness on a daily basis?

Dr. Nawratek: We are in a very fragile situation, and my answer today could become irrelevant tomorrow. I believe the experience of quarantine is vital because it is so common and shared by so many people. Still, there were always minorities in a similar situation – because of health or other issues. I believe we can become more aware of these people. The particular problem you described depends on local conditions. There are places where quarantine meant being enclosed and others where you could freely use green, open spaces in the city. There is also an apparent difference between people with a good internet access and people without access at all. Finally, even using Google Translate, the number of languages one knows is essential to feel connected with the world. 

I think it strengthens what your question is asking about – the quarantine makes us more segregated, the society more fragmented when we tend to stick to our family or friends when we are enclosed in our apartments and neighbourhoods. We do not know whom to believe and who could hurt us, so the level of socialisation will, probably, dramatically drop. If I can come back to your first question – protests in our cities, I believe, have also been fuelled by our need – against all odds – to be together with other bodies.

Photo credit: The Guardian

Random Walks: Wearing masks is another aspect of the regulation of behaviour in public space, dictated by government policies. It is part of multiplication of material barriers, as well including transparent plastic shields in public buildings. What kind of implications may this have on architectural design in the long term?

Dr. Nawratek: Masks, shields and social (or rather ‘spatial’) distancing are increasing the feeling of alienation and fragmentation of the society. Any barrier is a tricky thing in architecture – it may be a good thing when a wall between rooms allows different users to perform different activities; or could be a bad thing when it blocks people who want to be connected. Masks and shields only separate us – the Levinas’ discussion about ‘face’ comes to mind – and, in European culture, make us more anonymous, less ‘human’. Obviously, it will probably allow us to discuss in a less xenophobic way the Islamic custom of covering women’s faces. So it could be a silver lining, it could help us to become better, more tolerant and caring people. I believe people become more aware of other people in space; they try to keep a distance; they try to ‘read’ emotions from people’s eyes and from body language. It is possible also that we will be looking for more intimate, personal contact with the people we trust. 

In general, however, I am expecting a less dense built environment, design focused on avoiding physical contact with others while keeping the visual contact in place. It reminds me of our research on dating practices of young Muslims – they avoid touching each other, and they need to be seen by other people. Surprisingly, it could be precisely the way we may design our urban spaces in the future.

Cover photo credit: Sky News

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