Place in the time of Social Distancing

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Home is where I am right now.  If you’re reading this, I hope you have a safe home to be in and that is where you are too. Or, you’re on the way back there in line with the dizzying pace of regulatory change that many of our cities are experiencing in the time of Covid-19.

The following are reflections of their time and place: Melbourne, Australia; 1 April 2020. Here and now, no one is thinking about April fools jokes. Maybe, we live in one.

Maybe it takes a pandemic to bring us back to fundamental things. As brilliant wordsmiths do, author Anna Spargo-Ryan expressed something many of us are feeling but perhaps couldn’t otherwise explain the other day: “I miss PLACES”.

This is part of the making sense of things.  I am home, in what is commonly known as “the first place”.  Many of the places that matter in our daily lives for their presence and the memories they instil now have closed signs on them or are charged with an eerie silence.    

When we talk of great places in cities, they are often seen to be great because of their intensity and their ability to bring people together. Right now, these are necessarily empty of people, gathering very different energies.

It is tempting to conclude that in a pandemic, this coming together is the Achilles heel of place; the sociality of our species which always happens in place might be its undoing.

This temptation is magnified when “social distancing” has become so equated with “spatial distancing” that smiling at an other in the street who is 2m away from you might seem problematic.

It is easy when the present is so fraught with fear and uncertainty, to focus on the future. This is not just because we’re afraid, but also because the western linear notion of time considers us to discard the present as though we’re always proceeding into a bigger, productive future.

Yet, as chalk on footpaths and teddy bears in windows show, Covid-19 is not actually severing our relationship with places in the present. This is why I want to focus from my localised ‘hood in Melbourne on what’s interesting in the present about place, the way it is being remade and what this tells us about the human condition.

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A message of thanks to the child placemakers of a Carlton street (Photo: Author)

As the #StayAtHome messages grew louder, more resonant and more widely heeded, the normally buzzing streets where I live and work started to empty. “Closed” signs went up and chairs that normally scream “welcome” were packed away.

The deficiencies of badly designed apartment buildings and the “people storage” mentality to housing are no doubt being exposed. On other streets, curious things happened.  More chalk drawings appeared on footpaths.  Teddy bears appeared in the front windows of houses and apartments; beacons of comfort and presence amid these times. Bird calls in the morning seemed more resonant.

The chalk drawings I’ve seen and had sent to me go from messages, to hopscotch games, to drawings of pets and loved ones, to rainbows. They are messages of hope and acts of marking human presence on well-treaded footpaths outside houses.  They are acts of generosity taken in by passers-by taking their exercise or on their way to do essential shopping; infusing beauty and quirkiness into this new prosaic and every day.

They are also part of a process of making sense of things and making joy from the grist – just like these face masks on trees sent to me by a friend this week.

Indigenous cultures the world over have always understood the importance of place and the existential human obligation to care for it.  This goes beyond the way places influence our lives, to considering place as a sentient actor.

Western place discourse started catching up in the latter 20th century. A school of thought widely said to start with German philosopher Martin Heidegger, explored the insight that all existence happens in place. 

Beyond this idea, so self-evident yet so complex when contemplated, is the insight that all human existence requires acts of building or shaping place. Just as birds build nests and sometimes more complex structures, so too humans build shelter, gardens and places to gather – from markets to campfires. 

This act of building goes beyond mere functions of shelter and gathering. It is about how we make sense of existence and create meaning in our lives. It is, in other words, central to the human condition.

I’m in the middle of a PhD on placemaking, which might seem like a quixotic and trivial pursuit at a time like this (I have wondered so myself).

And yet, if we listen closely, place answers.  I see in the chalk, material forming its way into images with the workings of a hand, an individual creating meaning for themselves and creating connection.  It is a process of layering meaning on black asphalt, of telling stories of hope and whimsy.

And when the rain comes, it starts again. The renewal of things.

The plants at the front of houses and the bears in windows remind us of the importance of edges. These liminal spaces between a path and a building, or around the fringes, are critical to the experience of what’s in the middle but are also now focal points of life.

This is perhaps best demonstrated by the local bars and cafes that have reinvented themselves as streetfront grocers; selling produce, limited takeaway food and essentials like (yes) toilet paper from their reconfigured doors and windows are demonstrating this better than most.

Perhaps in the time of lockdown and social distance, edges in the public realm matter more so.  At the best of times, no one likes staying in an area framed by blank concrete walls. But a park with lovely plantings and seats along its edges: Now that’s something else. 

Generous edges beam their warmth and energy to the world and into beings. As people chat or smile from their front gardens, plant flowers along front verges or place objects of cosiness, comfort or humour in windows, the importance of edges takes on new meaning. It is, after all, from the edges of places, things and ourselves; from our mouths, eyes and hands, that we connect and project.

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A well-protected tree in Albert Park, Melbourne (Photo courtesy Kathryn Bramwell)

Paradoxically, as the dizzying pace of things and the catch-up game of regulation rightly push the imperative to stay home and rarely venture out, these fine-grained expressions of meaning have grown and become more important in creating a sense of togetherness.  They’re a kind of re-localisation, of coming back to the places that are spatially closest to us, yet easily taken for granted.

In times of fear, these little acts entwine care for place with care for self and care for other beings. They are simple acts of presence and solidarity.  Of saying “I’m here”.  The birds calling in the morning from our favourite trees, likewise, is place reminding us that we are here.

If nothing else, the bird calls and markers of meaning and whimsy all remind us of our intrinsic need to make and share meaning where we are. To be grounded. To revel in our intrinsic knowledge that place always matters, with a reminder that spatial distancing ought not mean hardening our hearts.

Stay safe, stay grounded and remember the places that remember you. For they will need us when we return, just as much as we will need them.

MORE RECOMMENDED READING (from the last week):

Colin Bisset on home (the first place) and the Tao of Lockdown Living

Claire Collie on teaching planning and Cities in the Time of Coronovirus

Mateja Mihinjac on working for urban resilience during Covid-19

5 comments

  1. Great article and thanks for the ping, Matt. It’s interesting that isolation really strikes at the core of city life – it’s why we live in them and when the buzz is reduced then it loses meaning and we can founder. I wonder if those living in the country have greater resilience because their ‘place’ looks and acts almost the same…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks, Colin! I am really concerned for people living in homogenised outer suburbs that aren’t walkable, that were already hotbeds of social isolation, that have few trees. This kind of dynamic can also happen in country towns where a link to landscape can be hard to find, or be taken for granted…there are many interesting things to ponder now as we, to different degrees, live them

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Matt … on my many walks around & through Melbourne’s inner ring of parks & bay esplanade, I’ve found the smiles, thumbs up & high 5’s (from the safe distance required for community health) amazingly connecting.

    As you say, the pavement & other public art expressions, teddies & allowed open air pursuits bring “a kind of re-localisation, of coming back to the places that are spatially closest to us, yet easily taken for granted”.

    I feel very hopeful our public PLACES will be forever treasured & our communities strengthened by this period of reflection on what matters individually & collectively.

    We can do this together… keep writing … Kathryn

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great to hear you’re finding that energy, Kathryn! It’s really interesting how the “weak social connections” that are so important in urban life, yet so overlooked, are being revealed as such a significant part of what people are missing at the moment. Stay well!

      Like

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