Public Space Is Personal Space

How we move (or don't move) is a big part of who we are, and infrastructure has a profound ability to connect us -- or divide us up.

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Infrastructure is more than just buildings and roads. It has the ability to connect us, but also to divide us. Deborah Cowen, professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, is fascinated by the spaces of daily life.

She studies how local spaces and infrastructure affect our lives and everyday experiences. “We have to think about these as real spaces; spaces that we experience, that we can talk about, that we experience very differently depending on who we are,” says Cowen.

Policies and laws, architecture and infrastructure, and security and surveillance are just a few factors that shape human interactions. Cowen looks at all of these in both small spaces like targeted urban neighbourhoods, and large areas like the national supply chain.

Historically, infrastructure has been politically important. It includes things like highways and public transit, which are intended to connect us, but can have the opposite effect. Cowen explains, “Infrastructure is incredibly political, even though we tend to think about it in very technical terms. We can think about for instance the history of transit and the bus – the back of the bus, right? Or we can think about the ways in which highways have divided neighborhoods historically through urban renewal projects even though we tend to think about them first and foremost in terms of mobility and transportation.”

The militarization of police is also important to geopolitics. The Black Lives Matter movement has a large focus on aggressive policing, where the government is trying to create security, but racialized communities are fighting back against being labeled as a threat.

The unique lens of geography gives researchers another tool to look at how spaces shape society.

Hungry for more on city living? Check out Patricia McCarney’s Orange Chair Interview on comparing city strengths and weaknesses.

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Deb Cowen is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. Deb’s research is concerned with the politics of infrastructure and the intimate life of war in ostensibly civilian spaces. Deb is the author of The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade, Military Workfare: The Soldier and Social Citizenship in Canada, and co-editor with Emily Gilbert, of War, Citizenship, Territory. Deb serves on the board of the Groundswell Community Justice Trust Fund in Toronto.