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Why Open Public Space is Central to a Vibrant, Democratic Society and How the Corona Virus Threatens to Divide Us

05.22.2020

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Why Open Public Space is Central to a Vibrant, Democratic Society and

How the Corona Virus Threatens to Divide Us

I just did an interview with public radio in Boston about the public space implications of the ongoing Covid 19 pandemic.  The reporter was interested in what we will do without our “third spaces,” the places that we frequent every day and that give structure to our lives.  I don’t know about you, but we still drive to our coffee place and now instead of sitting down and having breakfast, take out our coffee and sit at the beach to drink it.  

Public space offers the daily glue by which we come into contact with diverse and different people who make up our social world. There is 30 years of ethnographic research evidence that public space is a major contributor to a flourishing society through promoting social justice and democratic practices, informal work and social capital, play and recreation, cultural continuity and social cohesion, as well as health and well-being.

But during this ‘virus’ moment we are all experiencing a shrinking sense of the world and focusing more on our own families, neighborhoods, cities and states as we translate the numbers of Covid 19 patients and increasing numbers of deaths into the risks that we are facing individually.  This isolation tears the fabric of our lives and exposes how dependent we are on one another for our well-being and happiness and how interconnected our networks are in our local communities.

Most of my older friends are suffering from isolation and loneliness because they can’t go to their neighborhood gym to workout, meet in their local bar to talk at the end of the day or attend classes at their church or synagogue. The number of calls I make to my family and friends has increased and I treasure my online courses and meetings with students.  

I expect that those ties will remain intact regardless of how long this persists as we are actively “missing them” in a palpable and visible way.

However, what I am more concerned about (and I heard myself say to the interviewer) is the impact on the use of public spaces that are now deemed dangerous because of the possibility of coming into contact with those who might be infected.  Similar to people who live in a gated community, each time we walk outside we are reminded by the media not only to wash our hands but to exercise social distancing and avoidance.  While this is certainly prudent advice, we need to ask what the long-term impact will be on the fragile ties that weave a complex society together. 

Just the daily separation of us and them (or “people like us” and “others”) becomes a pattern that is expanded into increased segregation and with it less tolerance, more fear and greater prejudice.  What then might be the consequence of fearing that others may be contagious and unknowingly cause us harm?  I expect that social distancing could be a new norm, recruited for other purposes and feed into already festering class and racial anxiety, now in a “medicalized” form.  And what about the xenophobia of calling it a “Chinese virus” and recent attacks on

“Chinese” people simply because our President has associated a nation with the initial infection.  Where does this kind of thinking and daily practice lead? A “booster shot” to the already increasing xenophobic, racist hate crimes that predated the viral threat?

All this is to say that not only is our physical, mental and economic health being challenged, but also our social health that depends on ongoing interaction with people who are different in a multiplicity of ways.  Psychologists have demonstrated that such contact has a liberalizing effect and increases creativity. 

I think in these difficult days that it is more important than ever to think about the various challenges that we face, and to not retreat into separate “clean” places for some and “dirty” ones for others.  Instead I suggest that we consider the bases of resilient communities and the lessons we can learn from them.

Resilient communities are flourishing, connected, and based on a human and non-human ecological network that is adaptable, flexible and responsive. This useful conceptualization draws upon ideas drawn from positive psychology, contact theory and human ecology. Positive psychology studies the strengths and attributes that enable individuals and communities to thrive. Seligman and Csikszentmikhalyi provide evidence that flourishing is comprised of encouraging positive emotions, engagement through activities, relationships with other people, meaning and purpose, and accomplishments. Contact theory demonstrates how face-to-face interaction promotes social cohesion while ecological multispecies models emphasize the importance of networks for the health of interconnected ecosystems.

To these psychological and biological considerations, my research adds social justice as a critical additional component, which at the individual level is sense of fairness, but at the community and societal level is composed of social inclusion and belonging, cultural representation, recognition of difference, and an ethic of caring.

Public space is the major site of social interaction, contact and connection in our society. Failing to appreciate its importance and its promise as we practice social distancing and relocate our social lives to a virtual realm, also puts us at risk. I suggest that we remember and continue to celebrate what we are temporarily losing so that when we can come together again, we appreciate its power to improve our lives.

Setha R. Low is a Distinguished Professor of Environmental Psychology, Geography, Anthropology, and Women’s Studies at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is also director of the Public Space Research Group. Dr. Low is the author of 15 books, including Spaces of Security and Behind the Gates: Life, Security and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America (Routledge, 2003, first edition ). She is currently writing the forthcoming Why Public Space Matters, which is under contract with Oxford University Press.

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