Spatial disparities and interrupted mobilities: inescapable spaces and their qualities
Overcoming spatial disparities is a main concern of public planning. European welfare states have strived towards equalising people’s quality of life and socio-economic opportunities through providing public services and infrastructure. Nevertheless, today it matters more than ever where one lives. Many aspects of urban and regional inequality developed as a consequence of an increasingly globalised economy yet were concealed by high degrees of mobility and interconnectedness in the world. Amidst the current global pandemic, inequalities are unveiled. The sudden closure of borders globally as well as locally has brought transport and mobility to a halt (De Vos, 2020) and thus cleared the view for everyday inequalities. Altogether, the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying consequences come as an innovation force, driving us to reconsider urban and infrastructure planning.
The lockdown of public life in nearly all of its aspects due to ‘social-distancing’ measures transformed qualities of places and considerations concerning the basic needs of a society. The amenities and shortcomings of urban areas became literally inescapable for their residents. Cities with limited access to public and green spaces now pose challenges to vulnerable social groups who rely on these spaces, ranging from homeless persons and tenants in substandard or crowded apartments to children and residents in need of physical activity and privacy. In just one day, the COVID-19 pandemic converted urban density, which is generally perceived as a cultural amenity, into a challenge, jeopardising the principles of sustainable urban development. Further, peripheral location as well as spatial distance became impossible to overcome for those who are not provided with means of individual mobility or who have been restricted by quarantine measures. Web space may, to some extent, replace social spaces of everyday life through a rapid wave of digitisation of social practices. However, in terms of access to social services such as education or medical and psychological treatment, or of fleeting encounters and social interaction such as those in schools, at workplaces or during cultural events, the current situation again points out the limitation of a ‘digital-only society’. Not every part of society can keep pace with or enjoy equal access to e-solutions, which thus may even intensify existing inequalities.
For us, the crisis provides the impetus to revisit existing planning practices, especially in the context of the provision of services and infrastructure. The window of opportunity is open to establish ideas about more place-sensitive approaches as well as about the co-creation and co-organisation of spatially fixed facilities to overcome the challenges of social and spatial injustices. As the crisis is expected to linger, we deem it necessary to approach the basic needs of societies according to a differentiated view in order to maintain quality of life on a local level. This includes some considerations of the planning practice of already existing and currently evolving concepts in the context of the current crisis. As quality of life is strongly linked to the provision of basic infrastructure and services, we see infrastructure planning as a key task for creating social and spatial justice. That is why we focus on infrastructure planning in our statements below.
Rethinking the concept of ‘basic services’ and their provision in relation to space
In Europe, facilities of employment, education, child and elderly care, transport, healthcare, social housing and public spaces are part of the functional basis of our everyday life. The services mentioned here resemble what we commonly understand as services of general interest (SGIs) in the context of the European Union (EU), which are partly protected against the EU single market and EU competition rules (Fassmann et al., 2015; Humer, 2014). Particularly the social SGIs remain in the hands of the national member states. Nevertheless, the circumstances of their production and financing have changed significantly since the heyday of the modern welfare state in the late twentieth century. The changing political economy of urban services and infrastructure led to variances of availability, accessibility and quality (Humer and Palma, 2013). Especially in recent decades, inequalities have intensified, generally as a result of austerity policies and increasing liberalisation processes. To pinpoint it in Bob Jessop’s words, we are witnessing a shift from the Keynesian national welfare state (KNWS) to the Schumpeterian workfare post-national regime (SWPR) (Jessop, 2000).
Jessop (2000, 173) summarises the KNWS under the key features of full employment, closed economies, demand-driven infrastructure management, mass consumption, welfare orientation and a market economy in which the state corrects market failures. An SWPR-driven economic logic fosters competitiveness and open economies, prioritises economic policy over social policy, deregulates wage schemes, departs from national state spaces and increases the role of non-state governance actors (Jessop, 2000, 175). Under the immediate impression of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, an SWPR-driven economic logic appears ever more questionable. Let us consider the export base theory, an influential theory for regional economic development in line with SWPR. It labels those industries that export their products and services - and thus add to external competitiveness - the ‘basic sector’ of a region. In contrast to that, economic activities that remain within the region and ‘merely’ sustain the functioning of a region are subsumed under the ‘non-basic sector’. It might only be unlucky terminology, but the ongoing crisis strikingly illustrates which economic sectors are of true basic importance for cities and regions. It is those - underrated according to SWPR logic - services that keep up the healthcare, food supply, education and training, and quality of living: the services of general interest (Fassmann et al., 2015).
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced most market-economic activities to their knees - including international trade and tourism - most governments, whether socialist, right-wing or liberal, responded with an unprecedented reactivation of the Keynesian model. Most governments reacted with large business and labour recovery programmes while budgetary-deficit spending concerns were set aside. Furthermore, public services and infrastructure are suddenly out of the reform debate. On the contrary, debates are emerging about a re-engagement of the state in critical infrastructure, such as formerly state-owned airlines, or about the expansion of public care services, even if such activities counteract the SWPR logic of a lean state. While these modernist Keynesian interventions are seemingly the immediate logical reaction to maintain the basic functioning of everyday life in the wake of the crisis, they cannot become the long-term solution to a postmodern society and post-Fordist economy of the twenty-first century. The KWNS-inherent normalised mass production for a uniform society (Jessop, 2000) became outdated in today’s world. The needs of a pluralistic, super-diverse society (Vertovec, 2007), as well as the specialisation of industries, just cannot be adequately addressed by one-size-fits-all national state interventions. This is not only true in the long run, but also immediately - as we will argue in the following.
Vis-á-vis nationally homogeneous interventions, the crisis reveals the need for qualitative policies that deliberately include people’s different local living conditions, as became obvious for the infrastructure of everyday life. These matter not only for people, but also in different ways for people living in different places. Fighting the COVID-19 crisis and its economic and societal impacts therefore requires stronger inclusion of place-based measures. Based on Pike et al.’s (2007) influential paper on rethinking regional development measures, the question ‘which strategy where and for whom?’ takes centre stage.
The lack of place-sensitivity in spatial and regional development has been pinpointed by other authors, such as Faludi (2018), who, in his recently published book The Poverty of Territorialism mentioned the outdated conception of (national) space in the sense of the Keynesian national welfare state as a theoretical key problem in urban and regional planning. In SWPR, the ‘national territorial state … as a power container [fades with the] relativization of scale’ (Jessop, 2000, 175). Once more in Jessop’s (2016) terminology, ‘place’ becomes a more appropriate socio-spatial dimension than ‘territory’ to govern urban development, because ‘place’ represents the geographic reality where people live. The concept of place covers a location as well as a meaning, including not only spatial attributes, but also societal rules, cultural norms and values, individual and shared associations with places, attachments to and exclusion from places (Cresswell, 2008). In contrast to the concept of ‘territory’, ‘place’ is a rather individual concept that reveals the very personal meanings and experiences of space. Therefore the question in this regard is, if places are experienced alongside their very individual senses and qualities, what does this mean for planning in general and for the task of social infrastructure provision as the key to people’s well-being in detail?
How to include a sense of place in infrastructure planning: proposing the integration of the foundational economy (FE) approach into planning discourse
This critical task can be entered upon through applying the lens of the foundational economy (FE) to planning issues. With this approach, ideas already discussed in discourses such as the capabilities approach (Nussbaum and Sen, 1993) or the concept of social innovation (Moulaert, 2013), are linked to the discussion of the provision of material infrastructure and providential services (Engelen et al., 2017; FEC, 2018). The foundational-economy discourse emphasises the need for these essential infrastructures and services, such as housing, education, healthcare and adult care, or material infrastructure such as pipelines and cable systems. This infrastructure indeed structures everyday life and matters to people’s well-being much more than is recognised in the currently still dominant paradigm of the neo-liberal SWPR logic and its fixation on economic competitiveness and deregulation. Even though basic infrastructure and services are also captured by the above-mentioned studies on SGI, the FE approach extends this viewpoint through adding a normative dimension to the discussion. Deriving from a heterodox economic tradition, foundational thinking offers linkages for planning theory and practice. Its two key ideas are (i) that essential goods and services are more important than individual consumption for the wellbeing of citizens and (ii) that these essential goods and services may be co-created when governments are unresponsive (Coenen and Morgan, 2020). These two claims are partially made in postmodernist planning traditions as well, such as those of communicative planning (Innes, 1995). An inclusion of the still-evolving ideas of the FE could link economic thinking to planning approaches that focus on liveable places instead of marketable places - as the latter are at the core of place-branding strategies burgeoning all over the globe in recent decades.
Linking the ideas of FE to postmodernist planning traditions could serve as the ‘third way’ between KNWS and SWPR which Jessop (2000) already argued for at the end of the twentieth century. For localities with a persistent tradition of top-down planning, this would mean, on the one hand, surrendering control over planning decisions to citizens and encouraging them to co-create, co-organise, co-own and maintain providential services in accordance with their everyday needs. On the other hand, for established practices in policymaking, this would imply a departure towards rather deliberate and experimentalist modes of governance for overcoming those shortcomings in infrastructure planning that stand out especially in the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Whilst national governments all around the globe focus on rebuilding the post-COVID-19 economy and addressing this process as a global competition of who recovers first and best from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, intermediate and local actors responsible for urban planning and development should take the opportunity to rethink and rearrange their approaches to the provision of infrastructure. Future practices should develop towards grounded cities that ‘replace the fixation on technical innovation for productivity gain with social innovation to meet basic needs’ (Engelen et al., 2017, 420). The window of opportunity is wide open for rearranging urban planning practices from following a neo-liberal logic of competitive cities cannibalising each other, towards a more grounded understanding of places and spatial development where places are complementary to each other (Engelen et al., 2017). For planning practice, research and education in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, this involves focusing on the complex interrelations between places, infrastructures and people which, in recent decades, too often had to make way for the neo-liberal logics of valorisation. Therefore places, infrastructure and people as three key objects of urban planning should not be viewed as separate entities. Rather, they require critical realignment as an interdependent unit.