Living on the edge: spatial exclusion rendered visible by the COVID-19 pandemic

Living on the edge: spatial exclusion rendered visible by the COVID-19 pandemic

Alice Butler-Warke and Caroline Hood

Urban space is where social divisions, inequality and exclusion are rendered visible as certain bodies and groups of bodies are ushered out of the visible areas of cities and into suburbs or estates generally made invisible to those who tread the streets of the metropolis.  We can use the ideas of ‘peripheralization’ to explain the way that social relations have spatial implications’ or ‘marginality’ to understand the novel regime of sociospatial relegation and exclusionary closure’.  Both terms encapsulate the idea that, within our cities there is an ‘imagined centre’ and, arguably, its dialectally opposed actually-existing outskirt where those who do not belong to the ‘imagined’ and idealised centre are consigned.  It is in these outskirts that often ‘a spatial concentration of socially marginalized groups occurs’.

Spatial exclusion
The reasons for this spatial positioning vary by case. However, poverty, class and race are key factors that may lead to the simultaneous relegation of a population to a marginal space and the stigmatisation of that space as an outcast zone. Becoming marked or branded as such an area has implications for both the spatial landscape and the population residing there.

Residents living in areas that are mired by a negative reputation may face limited job prospects through postcode stigma that leads employers to reject applications, may suffer their daily lives being formally and informally policed, controlled and surveilled.  The spatial landscape itself may suffer from disinvestment in the form of removal or reduction of services, and from the establishment of ‘undesirable’ or stigmatising businesses or industries in the area such as correctional institutes and factories.

Both of these changes to the physical and economic landscape of the outcast zone further increase the effects felt by residents who may suffer from poor health outcomes, barriers securing affordable insurance for their property, and a further symbolic and discursive branding based on their presence in an outcast zone. Furthermore, for those on the periphery of society, spatial priority is given to housing not to green spaces and experiencing those green spaces is another aspect of sociospatial exclusion, which is of particular consequence when urban green spaces have been identified as ‘an essential part of a web of physical and mental well-being’.

Below we highlight the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered visible these spatial inequalities that have been, for so long, invisible thanks to decades of political, policy and media discourse.  We focus on two distinct outcast zones that each represent a different aspect of sociospatial relegation, while recognising the multiplicity of outcast zones worldwide.

Spatial exclusion rendered visible
Surrounding Paris, France’s capital city, is a ring of banlieues or suburbs that have increasingly come to symbolise poverty and inequality.  While the banlieues include wealthy neighbourhoods like Versailles, the term has become synonymous with the grands ensembles, the public housing projects built in haste in the post-war years. These housing projects were designed to promote and emulate social aspiration and represent a microcosm of French society.  Early residents were often blue-collar workers and, crucially, the poorest of the poor—often immigrants—were placed on interminable waiting lists and left to reside in squalid shantytowns so that the new public housing was seen to cater to the meritorious working class’. By the time that immigrant families were granted housing in the grands ensembles, the structural weaknesses were beginning to show, the government had, due to the economic crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, withdrawn, and the banlieues came to embody spatial and racial segregation.

In the 1980s and again in 2005, riots broke out in the banlieues, notably in the 93rd département of Seine-Saint-Denis where residents protested police brutality, government retrenchment, poverty, and systematic racism.  In the last 15 years, the banlieues have simmered, largely ignored apart from the gradual discursive assertion that these areas are hotbeds of radical Islam.  Meanwhile, banlieusards suffered high levels of unemployment and increasing isolation from Paris intra-muros thanks to a transport system that furthers the region’s ‘territorial, social, ethnic apartheid’.

The COVID-19 outbreak has hit Seine-Saint-Denis harder than anywhere else in the Île-de-France region. The local authorities are hastily distributing masks, providing computers and tablets for students working remotely, and reaching out to ‘at risk’ students; these measures should be praised and yet, rightly, we must also recognise that these efforts represent a band-aid over a wound that has been growing for decades.

Those living in the banlieues are more likely to have lower educational attainment, live in crowded housing, shop in cheaper supermarkets, and have higher rates of obesity because of structural exclusion.  Seine-Saint-Denis experiences higher rates of stillbirth and infant mortality than any other French département, largely due to reduced access to care. Housing is overcrowded, which is linked to higher instances of poor health outcomes.  The COVID-19 has made visible these inequalities and has highlighted the precarious lives that are excluded from the everyday gaze of the city.

‘Life on the Periphery’
Rio de Janeiro’s favelas exemplify the social divisions, inequalities and exclusions that can exist within an urban space, where millions of bodies lead invisible lives in the most extreme poverty’ Favelas – these ‘horizontally structured solidary communities, which hard-working people have spent decades investing in and building neighbourhoods with scarcely a government service’ – are becoming increasing visible in mainstream discourse as local journalists seek to raise awareness of these historically invisible bodies.

In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, the state’s lack of knowledge about its poorest citizens has been exposed, with criminal gangs filling the void and supporting the favela’s residents and enforcing lockdown restrictions in an attempt to protect residents from the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, for the favela’s residents, both the density of neighbourhoods and ‘economic informality’ of their work, has left many unable to exercise their right to isolate themselves and protect their communities, highlighting the inherent inequality of social distancing measures and exemplifying ‘class privilege’ ; isolation is for the ‘gringo ver’.

The national coalition #CoronaNasPeriferias has questioned the government’s response to the virus stating the measures implemented by the federal, state and municipal governments do not apply to the ‘reality of the residents of the country’s peripheral territories and slums’. Such workers face a dilemma, it is suggested, to choose between economic survival and starvation; between remaining in the favelas or risking their health to earn a wage. Many workers continue to ‘work out of necessity’ and return to their communities every night, all the more vulnerable because of unreliable water supplies and the lack of basic sanitation.

That invisible bodies should be the most vulnerable is not surprising and highlights the inherent inequalities of those on the periphery. Those bodies who are victims of government actions that are literally putting the poor to die’. In essence, these invisible bodies are exploited by a system that is ‘concerned with the economy…not concerned with people’ nor indeed with the endemic social divisions, inequalities and exclusions that have come to represent these marginalised bodies on the periphery of society.

Thinking Ahead
The pandemic’s revelation of the spatial inequality that exists on the peripheries of global cities presents us with an opportunity to confront the spatial exclusion which dictates how many experience our urban spaces and how we frame these inequalities. It has also exposed socioeconomic divisions when it comes to accessing urban spaces – with stark class divisions highlighted in access (or lack of access) to both private and public spaces. As we rebuild society in the months and years after the pandemic, it would be easy to focus our efforts on once again masking this spatial inequality, pushing it further away, turning these spaces and their residents into scapegoats to be drawn on again next time there is a crisis.  Alternatively, we can use this moment to think about building a society where we overcome issues around socio-spatial exclusion and the inequalities of experiences in the divisions of urban spaces.

One small way that we can all contribute to this change is through our language and our actions.  We can consider the exclusionary and stigmatising effects of participating in discourses of MDWs being dirty, of the banlieues being terrorist hotbeds, of the favelas being slums.  We can moderate our language so that we focus on the structural conditions endured by residents. We can think about the language we use when describing social housing so that the stigma is removed from residence in these areas. We can make an effort to grow our awareness of the margins of the cities we inhabit and visit.  We can champion the ideal of the ‘right to the city so that everyone, whether in the city centre or on the fringe, has a place in and a voice in changing the urban landscape.  We are at a key moment in history. COVID-19 has made visible catastrophic levels of inequality; we have the opportunity to rebuild and to change our world for the better.


Alice Butler-Warke is a Lecturer in Sociology at Robert Gordon University. Her research interests are in discourse and power, urban experience and marginality, and the process of stigmatisation. Alice can be found on Twitter @alice_butler31. Caroline Hood is a Lecturer in Sociology at Robert Gordon University. Her research interests are in mobilities practices and the marginalisation of vulnerable groups. Caroline can be found on Twitter @the_cat_said.