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Social and Spatial Inequity in the time of Covid19

“Space, as it relates to infectious disease epidemics, isn’t just about quarantine; it’s also a design problem.” (Budds 2020)

The COVID-19 Pandemic has the potential to make us more aware of social inequality in our urban and rural spaces and how we approach design in the built environment. Equity and the Covid-19 pandemic, as a result, is being written about widely and published within multiple platforms. Links to some may be found in the shared resource document (hyperlink here).

One of the outcomes of the work on spatial equity and covid19 in relationship to design, public space and urban policy is that we are finally beginning to think differently about space in the city, its periphery, and in the open spaces beyond the business-as-usual of capitalism and colonialism. From food deserts to transportation, it is becoming clear that responses to the pandemic do not affect communities equally. Rather, the pandemic’s response highlights, and often amplifies or exacerbates, existing socio-economic disparities present in our urban sphere. Officials are just now digging into the demographics, including race, to unpack how some communities are suffering exponentially more than others, often as a result of their environments. The lessons learned from this data will be damning, and will prove what we have always known, but have avoided confronting on a public policy level.

We might take this opportunity to decode the impacts of COVID-19 regulations on urban inclusion in order to create more equitable and just decisions around urban space and equity based on the emerging evidence rather than punitive authoritarian control measures based on draconian responses to pandemics, as we have seen in the past.

In a recent post on, Diana Budd writes on “Design in the age of pandemics;” Diana reintroduces us to the history of disease transmission and design’s response. Following the biblical context of ‘forty days’ (or quarantine), from Hippocrates to Apollo 11, separating the contagious (or possibly contagious in the case of the Apollo 11 astronauts) has been the go-to move for the ages. In Hilo, HI, Moku Ola (Coconut Island) was used as a space for quarantine as voyagers (Kanaka) and sailors (European) alike arrived in Hilo Bay to prevent the transmission of pathogens like small pox.

Isolating infectious disease has also historically taken on spatial practices of occupation, such as the leper colony on Molokai. The alignment of these “historic spaces of quarantine—like NASA’s Airstream; the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; areas of Guantanamo Bay that the U.S. used to imprison HIV-positive Haitian refugees; and the islands around New York City, which were once used to hold immigrants before entering the country, for smallpox patients, and for people who had other infectious diseases, like Typhoid Mary” became zones of exclusion and tools to produce inequity and oppression through quarantine (Budds 2020).

Decoding |Complexity

We would hope in 2020 that thinking in complex systems would be more sophisticated and evidence-based to facilitate a normalized, and socially just approach by policy maker. Yet, such thinking and action is missing in our discussions and decision making at the public policy level. Never before in modern times after World War Two have we needed meaningful discussions between policy makers so much. It is now understood that social-distancing is the last resort to place the ‘hammer’ on the transmission of the pathogen, but everyone loses when one-dimensional models are being used to predict futures.

Applying anti-colonial thinking to the current situation as a critical methodology to decode these complex issues, I would like to discuss a few areas regarding inclusive urbanism in which attention has been drawn in light of the Covid19 response. These are as follows:

  • Users and Social Equity: Exclusion by Design

  • The lasting impression of heterosexual patriarchy on the public realm

  • Property and Control

  • Capital and Program

Users and Social Equity: Exclusion by Design

Accessibility helps signify the disproportionate disruptions to city life caused by Covid19 and regulations meant to reduce the tax of covid19 patients on the health care system. If you are wheelchair bound; how do you move through the city pre-Covid? How does this change now? If you are blind, now what? Deaf? It should become obvious how current regulations, delivered in patchwork and haphazardly, negatively impact our family and friends with disabilities. What about mental health? Domestic abuse?

Well these areas may not currently be well-researched in our pandemic state of consciousness, the pre-existing body of work exploring the intersectionality of the design and planning of cities and accessibility and wellbeing is rich and diverse. Overall conclusions demonstrate the gaps in urban policy that justly address access (See Edward Soja, Emily Potter, Kim Dovey, and many more). It is clear that second and third order long-term ramifications of pandemic response measures and regulations will have lasting and drastic impacts on populations that already lacked access. Will these impacts be worse than the mortality of the virus itself? How can we transform our cities to be stronger and more resilient?

In New York City, a tale of two cities has been unfolding. Are we emptying jails to protect less-offenders from a virus just to replace them with new arrivals? As weather improved in the northeast over the weekend of May 2-3, New Yorkers flocked to the parks; however, access seemed to be determined by one’s race. In the East Village, individuals from the Black community risk assault and arrest, while their predominantly white counterparts in Greenwich Village have masks handed out to them as they enjoy their privilege. The twitter post pictured below was going viral over the week of May 3rd.

It is quite confusing how law enforcement has been acting in such a manner across the United States and in Canada with a disproportionate response on racial targeting. Honestly, a Mounty with a bullhorn is all that is needed. Senseless violence created by testosterone driven enforcers with histories of violence and toxic masculinity is the last thing needed in moments of crisis. Perhaps this critique should be saved for the section on patriarchy.

Of course, we’ve seen the headlines that African Americans in Detroit, New Orleans, and Chicago account for a disproportionate number of coronavirus cases (Venessa Williams, 2020; Ashley Southall, 2020), and Pacific Islanders face higher rates of death along the west coast in the USA (Giff Johnson, 2020). These headlines don’t account for the increased racism and targeting of Asians across the world that was seen earlier in the first wave of the epidemiological curve (Antonio Guterres, 2020). In America there is no justice, certainly not for people of color, the urban poor, low-income families, and altogether are most vulnerable communities.

Applying a decolonial lens to issues of inequity, one might argue that exclusion is designed, perhaps as a control mechanism enacted by the hegemony to maintain a working class. Three factors seem to be the reason for increased vulnerability to infection in these communities.

  1. Reliance on a close social network for livelihoods (the ‘social safety net’)

  2. Reliance on affordable housing, which tends to include higher density living situations with insufficient building maintenance (mechanical, structural, etc.).

  3. Work is a necessity to survive, and many of these communities’ members are essential workers.

These same factors are also part of the matrix of vulnerability that led to increased risk prior to the pandemic. In order to strengthen communities and build a more resilient post-pandemic world, we will need to mitigate the vulnerability that exists in our cities by addressing these three areas. If our future urban environments are to withstand future shocks of climate change impacts, we must address vulnerability at its core and create more just and inclusive environments.

Heteropatriarchy and BAD Decisions

This may be anecdotal, or just common sense, but the response of governments led by women (New Zealand and Germany) have been among the most successful responses to a global crisis. Among recent articles on the subject, Henry Mintzberg spoke on CBC radio about Women leadership in the global fight: “Women may be much better at engaging all kinds of people who don’t lead individually. They lead collectively” (Mintzberg, 2020). There is a fairly substantiated critique of the heteropatriarchy (societies governed/ controlled by cis men and heterosexuals) from Valdes, Tuck and beyond. When we dive into the design and planning of cities, medieval to present it becomes painfully clear the shortcomings of patriarchal planning and design. Where are the open spaces for families, mothers, and children? Where is the space for women to socialize? How do we care for our elders? Lost boys? Etc.? The urban spaces for these groups among others are missing in the plans of men, who contemplate more on their own vantage points and mechanisms of control.

To place the exiting control of the heteropatriarchy on our cities and the response to a global pandemic, the issues with decisions driven by men and their toxic masculinity rise to the surface. There are the obvious socio-political and narcissistic motives of Trump and posse, and there are the less obvious decision-making abilities of Mayor Tory. However, I want to highlight those policy measures that control our access to space, and these are the efflorescent residues left by urban decision making over the past 50 years.

The regulation of space through authoritarian measures, which have been applauded as necessary in a pandemic, have arguably gone too far in many places. Without evidence, decisions should not be made that further exacerbate spatial inequalities in our cities and determine lasting policies. This is most evident in the current action of Mayor John Tory and Dr De Villa in the city of Toronto, where the largest public open space in one of the densest urban centers in North America was closed. Toronto has one of the weakest ratios of people to public space, approximately 22 square meters of open space per person. This is a sharp comparison to NYC, which has approximately 45 square meters per person.

Draconian measures made without evidence of effectiveness and without the evidence that they are necessary create second and third order impacts that often outweigh the mitigation they hope to create. This is clear with the closure of public spaces and the refusal of cities to open up roads to pedestrians in many cases. New York City and Toronto are devising plans at the moment to remedy this, but this is a long time coming. It is poor leadership, ill prepared for the onset of disasters that has put us in our current quarantine life.

The current phenomenon of work from home highlights many of the issues created by a heteropatriarchy. For one, many employers and even municipalities frowned at work from home scenarios, if not outlawed them outright. With the flip of a switch, we are beginning to see that work from home is a possibility, and an effective one for reducing the impact of urban life on carbon emissions – thus benefiting a more sustainable and resilient future. Of course, with the positives of the new phenomenon come the negatives, the residues of bad societal design. The work life balance of working mothers is in peril. In a recent article by Robbyn Plumb for CBC news, titled, I tried to balance working from home and caring for my kids. I finally called it quits, Plumb highlights the structural disadvantage of women in the work place, even when working from home. For many this means prioritizing family over work.

Property and Control

In Spain, access to privately owned or controlled space meant the difference between a family of four spending eight weeks inside a 100 square meter dwelling and having the privilege to enjoy the outdoors. Anecdotal evidence has shown that these differences have had a direct relationship to the increase of domestic abuse. Without the access to nature, children’s development is hindered, sanity is lost, and family wellbeing is at extreme risk.

In the critique of property and the control of space in a COVID world, the disparities created across populations can be linked directly to the patriarchy above and colonization (both intricately related of course). The idea to not only claim someone else’s land as yours and have the power to tell the public that they are no longer allowed to go outside seems an absurd reality of the past, yet this is happening now.

From Doug Ford spending Easter in his cottage, while telling cottage owners to refrain from traveling to vulnerable small communities, to wealthy Torontonians escaping to the space provided by the Suburbs, property ownership continues to define the divide between privilege and poverty. To add injury to insult, somehow property values hold their value while roughly 15% of the population is unemployed.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, we may become believers in “The Commons,” but unlikely. Real estate and private property will continue to purvey; however, we need to address the undue burden that impoverished and low-income communities take on when policy decisions benefit the wealthy. We are beginning to see the second and third order impacts of the privilege of the wealthy on vulnerable communities. The cottage goers increase the risk of contagion by rural communities; the exponential growth of the suburbs has the potential to both pull jobs away from the city center that low-income communities rely on, and the growth of the suburbs places a pollution burden on the same communities. These are issues that can be mitigated as we reimagine a post-pandemic world. In order to recover in a just, equitable, and inclusive manner restrictions similar to Oregon’s Urban Growth Boundaries may benefit regions more broadly as well as heavy taxation on vacation properties and non-owner occupied units. These taxes could then provide resources for low-income communities and contribute to vulnerability reduction to future shocks.

Capital and Program: Formality vs Informality

The Asian Coalition of Housing Rights recently published their newsletter dedicated to the pandemic response. Providing a brief analysis of the work in Asia, similar issues arise, yet ACHR also provides a glimpse at the innovation helping communities.

One startling realization is that policy makers in “developing countries” are following the policy frameworks of western, “developed” nations. This comes in the global form of groceries, pharmacies, and takeout being open. However, within informal structures, the majority of the population does not receive their basic needs through these systems. As stated by PRIA’s founder, Rajesh Tandon: "All our systems of planning and policy-making are focused on the formal. What the virus disaster has shown to us is that you cannot reach informality through the logic and frameworks of the formal systems that we have inherited and that we practice.”

Even in the United States, a “first world nation”, we are beginning to see the cracks expand within low-income communities. The lack of safety nets weakens these community’s resilience and their reliance on informal and semi-informal systems for survival is fracturing. As the bottom weakens, the top may fall – just a thought.

In the Marshallese community, as well as other Pacific Islander communities in the United States, informal systems that support social capital and dwelling are under duress in the current pandemic response. Similar to most other low-income communities, families rely on robust social networks consisting of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends to support livelihoods. As these communities continue to rely on these networks through the pandemic, they suffer with increased rates of infection. In addition, they are at increased risk of mortality due to chronic comorbidities such as diabetes and hypertension – issues that lack support from local healthcare systems. On the other hand, as these communities shutter in place, they lose their social safety net and meet increased vulnerability from both sides. Housing further complicates the risks to disease and vulnerability of these communities as they tend to maintain close multi-generational residences.

The western approach to planning tends to overlook or disregard informalities, focusing on financial capital rather than social capital in community development. Rather, planning needs to take head of the informal systems that support communities as mentioned above and legitimize these structures in ways that provide resilience through disasters. Responses to the pandemic in these communities should reinforce their cultures, social cohesion, and collective action. This path forward will help provide resilience to future shocks and lead toward ubran inclusion.


Design provides some solutions to the issues presented here and by the pandemic overall. As mentioned, many of these issues have already been tackled by researchers, urbanists, architects, and planners calling for improved and equitable cities. Access to nature, access to light, access to healthy indoor environments are all areas that evidence-based design has been calling for. For example, we know now how droplets may spread across indoors spaces based on air flow. Schools with poor ventilation cannot be reopened without placing our children and our elders at risk. This is a design problem we can resolve, and in some cases can resolve quickly. However, design in its current practice will not solve any problems through the purview of complex systems. Rather, designers have to read context critically, assess systems, and steer change through community consultation and collaboration.

As we critically analyze our responses to this pandemic forensically, we must consider how we will need to transform our societies, our cities, and our design approaches to create resilience to future shocks, which are inevitable. Covid has foregrounded issues that we had been avoiding such as global climate change, the end of oil as the almost exclusive economic driver in Canada, and the intertwining of markets and supply chains after globalization.

Furthermore, we need to reconsider the settler-attitudes in the context of settler colonialism. An extraordinarily problematic attitude stemming from settlers in Canada and the United States is that of xenophobia. Jaime Watts, the conservative political strategist and Chair of OCAD University’s Board of Governors, published an article calling for a Canadian products for Canadians in the Toronto Star that echoes the kind of xenophobia and protectionist rhetoric that harkens back to much darker days with anti-Chinese sentiment replacing anti-Semitism in an argument that will resonate with much of Canada’s settler population. While Indigenous communities in Turtle Island are suffering through yet another pandemic brought on by settlers, settler politicians are reintroducing trauma through their nationalist rhetoric. The TRC is dead, but we already knew that.

Living within highly complex systems for livelihoods is pressing a majority of the global population to the brink of starvation. Death by Virus or Death by starvation! The utter lack in systems thinking and holistic approaches in the pandemic response will lead toward a larger death rate caused by secondary and tertiary latent outcomes - i.e. starvation. Rather than draconian responses that utilize strict quarantines, Marshall law, and the like, nuanced responses are needed that organize ‘social-distancing’ while providing for the most vulnerable - that being the urban poor. Extreme social distancing is starting to look punitive. It looks more like a mechanism for control rather than an effective matter to mitigate the pandemic. This has been seen in India and Hungary.

It is clear and necessary to enact shelter-in-place laws and social distancing; however, these measures must be a last resort. Planning for shocks needs to be engrained in the everyday life of cities in order to create more sustainable futures that can adapt and respond to climate change. And as it is clear that societies cannot simply open up without mitigation strategies in place, we must recognize that the current economic system is broken. Capitalism is demonstrating the largest block to human health and safety in the face of the pandemic.

The stronger our response, the better the change we create for a more resilient, stronger, and just future. I encourage you to be an agent of change!

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