A reflection on urban vulnerability and housing during COVID19

I believe that Covid-19 has created a new space for talking about our cities, forcing us to reflect on our lives and re-evaluate our priorities. “Should I move to a greener neighborhood? Should I start saving up some money for the future? Maybe I can re-decorate my terrace. Oh, I miss sitting on a bench and watch people go by.” These might be some of the thoughts that have crossed your mind lately.

During these peculiar times, we are looking for security and comfort and our homes have become more than ever a symbol for safety. Many are staying home voluntarily as a way of protection and the governments in most countries introduced measures requiring people to leave the house only for limited purposes. The message ‘stay at home’ is being spread by the voice of the majority– or, better said, by the voice of the most visible part of society. As the digital space has become our way to connect with others, many of us have found a form of solidarity in sharing the same reaction to the current situation and encouraging others to take part in this collective action: #stayathome, #restiamoacasa, #quedateencasa, #stamacasa and so on, these hashtags have flooded the social media channels. But how is this applying to the ones that do not have a place to call home, to the ones that do not feel safe at home? What happens to the less visible members of society, to the most vulnerable? Does solidarity extend only to those that have a voice?

The above questions made me reflect on how communities are capable of positive transformations and how they exercise this right. As David Harvey said, “there are occasions when the ideal of human rights takes a collective turn”[1]. This time, people are trying to reclaim their access to basic health and personal security in the city. The strategy that most of us have adopted during this period is that of changing our daily practices and behaviour by avoiding social contact in the hope of reducing the transmission of the disease, which will allow us to regain our freedom of movement, our access to public space and our right to the city. Especially in these circumstances, the process of re-creating the urban space, even temporarily, depends on all members of society, also on the ones that cannot #stayathome. This means that we should renegotiate the space of the city, create solutions for everyone and not discriminate against the most vulnerable, that “must be not only protected but also engaged”[2].

Urban vulnerability

If the current crisis has reminded us that we all are vulnerable, then I believe it is the right moment to ponder collective vulnerability and responsibility in creating safer cities. Urban living is put to the test during this period and there has been a great variety of responses to the insecurity and risks that the world is experiencing. While some reactions are driven only by fear, there are also some resilient communities that learned to reinvent themselves, and that became models of urban laboratories. Perugia, a small city in the heart of Italy, is one good example of exercising collective power during the crisis.

Community resilience?

Perugia has been my home for 10 months, but since I left the city I stayed up to date with the news and recently came across a social media post about something called paniere solidale (solidarity basket). The solidarity and engagement that I observed here reminded me of Bauman’s belief that city life is based on the hope of finding ways to easily and successfuly cohabitate and interact “with an enormous, perhaps infinite variety of strangers”[3]. Perugia decided to create a support network for these “strangers” and for all inhabitants of the city through the simple practice of lowering a food basket from the balcony, so that anyone can take something if they are in need or help others by leaving packages.

Perugia, Via Enrico dal Pozzo. Source: Facebook page Associazione Culturale Fiorivano le Viole

PThis practice originates from Naples: it is thought that the phrase from the above image was used one hundred years ago by an Italian doctor, Giuseppe Moscati, in order to help the most vulnerable citizens get access to food and to promote the creation of support networks throughout the city[4]. His habit was later adopted in other cities across the country. Solidarity initiatives have a long tradition in Naples and generally in Italy, among which we can mention caffè sospeso, spesa sospesa, farmaco sospeso, etc. (more here).

This collective action of sharing goods represents a mechanism of cultivating solidarity and can be further interpreted as a gift to other members of society – and as Mary Douglas points out, a gift “supplies each individual with personal incentives for collaborating in the pattern of exchanges”[5]. I believe that such networks of exchange constitute the base of a community and, as the current situation has revealed, this type of community interventions, like paniere solidale, are increasing in number during a crisis. But does the local community have the capacity to respond to vulnerability and, in the most extreme cases, homelessness? Is it correct to leave this response in the hands of the community alone? Whose responsibility should it be?

Collective responsibility

The italian example represents a small-scale intervention at community level and it advocates for active citizenship and empowerment. It is not the definitive solution to homelessness and vulnerability, but I believe this example can be used as a representation of the urgent need of social security for the “invisible” members of the society, the need of healthy environments and the need of building a culture of collaboration. Community-based actions in a time of crisis represent an opportunity to review urban living conditions and to reevaluate the concept of having a right to the city. I believe the local community to be a key actor in the process of claiming this right for all its members and a key actor in the process of alleviating homelessness. But this issue cannot be completely solved without a stronger government response, the production of urban space is a process of sharing responsibilities and multilevel collaboration. For example, during this crisis, public authorities should respond quickly and address the immediate needs of the citizens: e.g., England’s Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government[6] is working with the local authorities to urgently accommodate rough sleepers in hotel rooms (more here).

The street “is the river of life of the city”[7], as William H. Whyte remarks.

Going back to where it all started, the street – home to a large part of the world population (it is difficult to measure, but OECD is estimating that homelessness concerns more than 1.9 million people around the globe[8]) –  it is time to reconsider its role in the process of exercising the right to the city. Streets represent spaces of exchange and connection and they should be planned as safe, hospitable, inclusive environments that invite people to interact.

Some communities have already started offering different types of support, providing a safe space during this crisis, as in the cases of street outreach services, fundraising and converting unused/underused spaces into shelters, creating local housing associations and coalitions, and developing several ad hoc initiatives.

This issue should become a collective concern in the future and I believe a first step in this process should be to re-explore the meaning of the right to the city. What can we add to Lefebvre’s definition: “right to freedom, to individualization in socialization, to habitat and to inhabit”[9]?

[1] David Harvey, Rebel cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution (London: Verso, 2012), p. 3.

[2]International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, The Great East Japan Earthquake. Learning from Megadisasters (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2012), p. 4.

[3] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), p. 92.

[4] Riccardo Siano, << Napoli Ecco il cestino solidale “Chi ha bisogno prenda”>>. La Repubblica, March, 2020.

https://ricerca.repubblica.it/repubblica/archivio/repubblica/2020/03/30/napoli-ecco-il-cestino-solidale- chi-ha-bisogno-prenda25.html?ref=search

[5] Mary Douglas, “Foreword”, in The gift, Marcel Mauss (London: Routledge, 1990), p. xviii.

[6] Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Luke Hall MP, Correspondence: Coronavirus (COVID-19): letter from Minister Hall to local authorities on plans to protect rough sleepers. Gov.uk, March, 2020, accessible here.

[7] William H. Whyte, City: Rediscovering the Center (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), p. 7.

[8] OECD, Better data and policies to fight homelessness in the OECD. Policy Brief on Affordable Housing (Paris: OECD, 2020), available here. The current situation is pushing urban planners to redesign public space in order to meet the new needs of citizens and it is also an occasion to urge authorities and civil society to guarantee protection to those whose home is the street and to make these people visible in the city.

[9] Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996), p. 173.Perugia, Via Enrico dal Pozzo. Source: Facebook page Associazione Culturale Fiorivano le Viole.