Beyond cities of ‘households’ – the urban life we need


The Covid-19 crisis and lockdown took the life out of cities to save lives. Even in the relatively mild lockdown in the Netherlands, the measures are an incredibly far reaching attempt to tame public space and private spaces. Central in the Dutch measures is a particular heteronormative interpretation of what constitutes a household and the assumption that everyone not only has access to adequate housing, but also that everyone is part of such a household. This relates to public space and the particular forms of racialised policing and bourgeois productions of space that were already in place before this crisis. In the slow exit, many things are happening in cities that warrant our attention. But the current crisis also offers opportunities to rethink urban life. We should use this crisis to imagine our cities as more than a collection of households if we are to build a just urban life.

What is a ‘household’?

Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner made clear long ago: there is nothing more public than privacy. This soon became all too real for Dutch students who were fined by police offers in the privacy of their own home for the crime of eating together. Students documented how the police visited student housing flats, looking to fine for violations of the Covid-19 measures, both in and outside homes. How was this possible? Covid-19 measures stipulate that the Dutch are allowed to get closer than 1.5 meters to those that are part of the same ‘household’ which is taken to mean: ‘spouses, registered partners or other life companions and parents, grandparents and children, if they live at the same address. Student houses, communes and care homes do not qualify as a household’. This definition is, perhaps surprisingly for a country that often prides itself on its acceptance of homosexuality, explicit in its heteronormativity—in its insistence on the ‘rightness’ of the forms of living together that centre heterosexuality as the norm.  Family, or those living in a family form, were considered households, and those living in other arrangements, but still—and more relevant given the way viruses spread – using the same kitchens and bathrooms were not.

Bourgeois and heteronormative urban imaginaries

This deeply heteronormative definition of the household impacts who is free in their own home and who has access to public space together. But more fundamentally, it strengthens an urban imaginary in which the city appears as a collection of households, which are imagined as families, which are imagined to live in a house they own. In this bourgeois imaginary, the privacy of the household offers safety and, relatedly, public space is to be domesticated. Urban space, then, is not imagined as a space for meeting strangers, for politics, for diversity, but for remaining with sameness. In the Covid-19 crisis, this was brought to the extreme of remaining in the family household. As Clare Hemmings made clear in a blogpost opening this series: The household is a ‘unit (…) that could only ever see queer as divergence, single mothers as pathology, migrant remittances as sad necessity, and single living as selfishness’.

While the Covid-19 lockdown was new, the measures were in line with much of what cities were already doing and have been doing for a long time. This was especially true for Rotterdam, the second city in the Netherlands, where the various emergency measures were strikingly consistent with a longer standing emergency imaginary that is not always recognised as emergency. Still, Rotterdam, and by that I mean its people in power, considers itself to be too working class and too poor to prosper. Rotterdam is held back by its history and population and, the emergency story goes, struggles with problems that are of such magnitude that extreme measures are legitimate. Sometimes, Rotterdam’s problems are even explicitly called ‘un-Dutch’, in a racialising move that presents the problems as not ‘of’ Rotterdam but brought in, presumably by migrants. This state of emergency has been literally announced and has legitimised all kinds of interventions, from a city-wide ban on gathering, the plan for demolition of 20,000 affordable dwellings to make room for less—but owner-occupied and more expensive ‘child friendly’—housing, and stop and frisk policies.

Assumptions of privacy and access to public space

The heavy policing of public space assumes access to safe private spaces—it assumes people have a place to go that is not public. Issues of housing and the reproductive labour taking place there aside (but see David Madden’s recent account here), this assumption of privacy is taken to its extreme in the present crisis, but was at the same time remarkably consistent with already existing policies. Owner-occupied housing for families with children and a heavily policed public space already appeared as the solutions to a wide range of issues. Now, this imaginary of a city of households is further strengthened by the reliance on the household as a space for shelter. I am sure many Rotterdammers have not been able to relate to the idea of finding safety in the home. For many, the home is a place of violence, of a lack of space and care, of fights, noise and stress.  The home is a space to escape. While Rotterdam imagines much of its public spaces to be a ‘city lounge’ in which affluent populations can consume, Rotterdam’s emergency imaginary gave way to what is called a ban on gathering. The ban, we know, is targeted disproportionally at young non-white men. It allows the Rotterdam police to disperse groups of more than two in public space and even to fine for violations, which they do. Some of us are lounging, some of us are loitering. The point is this: the police in Rotterdam already had the power to invoke a city-wide ban on gathering. Public space was already imagined primarily as a space for passive consumption for those that can afford restaurants and cafes, not as a space that urban dwellers get to make and change, or as a space for being together, let alone a site of protests.

The cities we need

The urban is, as the late geographer Doreen Massey would say, a throwntogetherness. Bodies, infrastructures, materials are thrown together in cities. Trajectories collide, we are confronted with people and smells and sounds and houses and forms of transport that are all different. This dealing with strangers, this confrontation with alterity, is what makes cities urban. Urbanites live in a world of strangers, Lynn Lofland said. Cities’ specific throwntogetherness offers excitement, spectacles, movement, opportunity.  When left in the hands of the ones in power in many places, urban imaginaries and actual cities are filled with ‘households’, with white home owners and consumption, with difference cast as nuisance and ‘diversity’ necessarily a problem. This is not an urban imaginary at all. No one is thrown together there. We need our cities to become urban again. But we need more than a return of life. We need to make room for new forms of living together, new forms of life. We need to claim the city, once again, as the space of experimentation and colliding trajectories. For this to happen, there must be open space, so that urban dwellers and visitors can make and remake the city, remake it so that it is better, so that we can live in it and use it together. We need access to good housing, but also new architectures, so that various arrangements of reproductive labour become possible, arrangements outside of the market and the heteropatriarchal household. In the words of Sophie Lewis, we need surrogacy communes. The feminist archive offers many starting points. Dolores Hayden, for example, archived a wealth of architectural forms in which space and work is shared, allowing for everyday commons and care outside of the patriarchal family. Housing with shared kitchens and gardens, for example, allows for the sharing of the work of cooking and looking after children and for overcoming the isolation—especially of women—that most contemporary housing exacerbates. More recently, the work of Leslie Kern offers points for departure for rethinking urban public space and designing feminist cities—transit spaces and streets were often designed with working men in mind and could be reclaimed by redesigning them to accommodate the flourishing of women. Sometimes this can be as simple as changing lighting or building lifts. We need to end the policing and ethnic profiling that structures our cities’ public space and access to it so profoundly along lines of race and wealth. We need urban dwellers that will experiment with new ways of living and are allowed to do that. The good news is: there are always streets and spaces in cities where these new ways are already worked out, by city people.

Marguerite van den Berg is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. She is interested in the urban, gender and work. She wrote Gender in the Post-Fordist Urban – The Gender Revolution in Planning and Public Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and has published in the Sociological Review, Gender, Place and Culture and the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, among others. She teaches the courses Public Issues & Policy and Gender & Sex in the City.

Image credit: “urban” by on1stsite. is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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