Covid thoughts: During and after the pandemic, our streets need more democracy

Impacts of Covid-19 on current and future landscapes
London Bridge on the last day of May 2020 shows multiple messy layers of design for compliance and control, from construction fencing and other temporary barriers to ‘temporary’ anti-terrorist barriers, and painted lines to manage pandemic distancing for virus control. © Tim Waterman

Where does democracy take place? Ask this question of many, and they will answer variously ‘congress’, or ‘parliament’, or, perhaps, ‘the voting booth’.

If, however, we take democracy in its truest sense, as the ability of people—all people in a given place—to govern themselves, then it is possible to view all given places in which people have a need to manage their affairs collectively as places in which democracy is practiced.

Practices are key: democracy, like equality, to paraphrase Jacques Rancière (1991:137), is not a pre-existing quality to be drawn down from on high as a Platonic ideal, something given or claimed, but rather it exists only in our mutual conduct toward and regard for one another in the spaces in which life is lived.

Democracy is explicitly an orientation against forms of hierarchy or domination: against unaccountable forms of control such as absolute monarchies or oligarchies. Centralised forms of government (congress, parliament, etc), though they may call themselves democracies, are always a tug-of-war between democracy and its opposites. 

Traditional battle lines between left and right on the political spectrum are often defined along the lines of ‘public’ and ‘private’, but democracy may be practiced anywhere, and forms of both public and private life can be seen to be undemocratic.

Let’s look at the space of the street, and think of the street as a landscape—as a relation between people and place—a relation which is, in Kenneth R. Olwig’s terms, a landship, which holds the idea of mutualism and reciprocity as fully as does a term like ‘friendship’ or ‘fellowship’ (2019:25).

In the landship of the street, which may be legally either public or private, democracy is practiced through mutual regard and civility, by responsibility of all in place and for place. The forms of behaviour in the street which are undemocratic are the ones which undermine the equality of citizens, who, for our purposes here might be thought of simply and reductively as citizens of the street, owing their allegiance only to the other citizens of the street.

For a citizen of the street, equality is something that is practiced and mutually assured. I, as a tall, white man from a roughly middle-class background, could easily dress in a way that indicated status, and adjust my bearing to claim ‘ownership’ of the space of the street, ‘taking my half out of the middle’, which is neither fair nor democratic. It is much more difficult for a person who is visibly part of a minority to do so, and it only takes a short time watching interactions on an ethnically or gender-mixed sidewalk to see this in action.

There are also inequalities between modes of transportation. In a giant sport utility vehicle, I am effectively an oligarch or monarch of the road, which is precisely why people buy them. On a bicycle I have the power to intimidate pedestrians, but I am seriously vulnerable to the prodigious Lord Range of Rover. It may well be that the only way to minimise the overwhelming impact of mechanised transport on the landship of the street is to limit it to forms which are shared and low-speed, and which are confined to trackways, but this is a separate discussion. 

What the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into high relief, due to social distancing and the suddenly magnified need for pedestrian and bicycle space, is the vast amount of space given over to the kings of the road compared to the tiny slivers accorded to plebeian pedestrians, but also the need for rules of thumb for civility—and remember, a rule of thumb is a loose guide for behaviour which has the flexibility of custom rather than the rigidity of tradition.

When most cars have gone from the roads, all of the mechanisms for compliance and control in the street lose their significance: all those billions of litres of paint poured on the ground; one-way systems; pedestrian crossings; bike lanes; ‘refuge islands’; traffic lights. All meaningless, but what is evident, especially in Britain where I write, is the lack of rules of thumb for public behaviour. 

I have asked many different kinds of audience in Britain the same simple question, the answer to which would clearly and simply be the first best answer to democratically managing social distancing in the street: ‘What side of the pavement should you walk on?’ I ask.

Almost every audience is split in three, with one third answering ‘to the right’, one third answering ‘to the left’, and one third answering ‘there is no rule’. In fact, all of these answers are wrong. Britain’s Highway Code asks pedestrians to walk on the outside of the footway if they are facing oncoming traffic.

This would, in a world without one-way systems, mean everyone should keep left to ensure the safety and comfort of others, thus practicing reciprocity and equality, but effectively this advice is impossible to follow, and is further confused by the Highway Code’s direction for pedestrians to keep right on roads with no marked footway: this, in fact, is in many cases wrong, as in practice it is best to walk where one is most visible, which might mean multiple road-crossings on a curvy byway. 

Even more confusingly, some towpaths, for example, have rules all their own, or the London Underground will direct people to walk either right or left in their tunnels.

Thus, for more democratic post-pandemic streets, the following recommendations may be made:

  • Provide substantially more space for pedestrians and bicycles and many more streets dedicated only for pedestrian and bicycle use (this does not mean providing bike lanes, which requires pouring more paint on the ground and more compliance and control, but simply providing plenty of space for bike riders and pedestrians to negotiate the space)
  • Eliminate one-way systems for mechanised vehicles (see here)
  • Eliminate, wherever possible, mechanised personal transportation—cars and trucks/4X4s—in favour of shared forms of motorised transportation
  • Seek a rule of thumb, to keep either to one side of a footway generally, following the customary flow of traffic (in Britain, to the left, in the rest of Europe, to the right, for example), and
  • Work to make all aware that all have a just and equal place in the landship of the street, where mutual regard should also be a rule of thumb.

References

Olwig, Kenneth R. (2019) The Meanings of Landscape: Essays on Place, Space, Environment and Justice. London and New York: Routledge.

Rancière, Jacques (1991) The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Translated by Kristin Ross. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

See also

Norton, Peter D. (2011) Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Waterman, Tim (2017) ‘Publicity and Propriety: Democracy and Manners in Britain’s Public Landscape’ in Wall, Ed and Tim Waterman, Eds. Landscape and Agency: Critical Essays. London and New York: Routledge, 117-130.

Waterman, Tim. ‘Pedestrian Etiquette, Gormless Phone Users, and the Rise of the Meanderthal’, 8 August, 2014, on The Conversation UK website: https://theconversation.com/pedestrian-etiquette-gormless-phone-users-and-the-rise-of-the-meanderthal-30282, accessed 31 December, 2015.

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