Creating a compassionate geography

a row of housing in blue

Mark Riechers/Midjourney/Penny Blatt (TTBOOK/EHRP)

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Economic geographer David Harvey is known for his philosophical thoughts on housing, public space, and the idea of "spatial justice." The British-born professor at the City University of New York has been teaching Karl Marx’s "Capital'' for about 50 years, is the author of numerous books on economics and hosts a podcast named for one of his works, "The Anti-Capitalist Chronicles."

"To The Best Of Our Knowledge" executive producer Steve Paulson talked with Harvey for the first episode of a three-part series, "Going for Broke," produced by TTBOOK in collaboration with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Steve Paulson: Your work over the years has championed a different way of looking at the economy and connecting it to geography and housing. So if we focus on how people live in cities and suburbs, how could we create a more equitable system of housing that's not primarily driven by profit? One that actually takes care of its people?

David Harvey: Well, there’s an incredibly simple answer to it. We're expert at creating housing for people who have annual incomes over $100,000, maybe $150,000. But when you have half of the population of New York City earning only about $40,000 a year, and you ask, "What kind of housing can you get within that income range?" The answer is you cannot do it through the market. The only way you can do it is through very strong public housing. 

And of course, you can't mention that you can't do that because it's ruled out for ideological reasons. So you do funny things like Section 8. You tinker with it instead of confronting it straight on and saying, all right, we have to go entirely to non-market production of housing.

SP: And how do you do that? What kind of non-market housing are you talking about?

DH: I was raised in Britain after World War II and there was a massive social housing construction. There were complaints about its qualities and so on, but in many cities, 50 percent or 60 percent of the housing stock was actually run by the municipality — public housing. And then Margaret Thatcher decided to privatize it all. The affluent got well-served and the poor people, in the end, are made homeless.

SP: You have popularized the term "spatial justice." What does that mean?

DH: Listen, people's life chances are very, very much dependent upon the zip code where you happen to be born. It's as simple as that. 

If life chances are structured that way so that if you live in a certain zip code, you end up being wealthy, and if you end up in another zip code, you end up being poor, then you kind of say, "Well, there's something wrong with this."

We've got to change the qualities of all those zip codes so that we get greater equality, but also greater levels of choice so that people can freely choose where and how they live in the city and choose what kind of people they want to be and be with. The question of what kind of city we want to build can't be separated from the question of what kind of people we want to be.

SP: What I find so striking about what you're saying is that you're not talking about the big public housing projects that became infamous in the U.S. — Cabrini Green in Chicago, you know — these huge high rises that became riddled with crime and all kinds of problems. You're talking about different kinds of public housing here.

DH: Yeah. And I think the problem with public housing in this country — I mean, remember going back to the Housing Act of 1948, the proposal put before Congress was to create housing "fit for poor people to live in." It always stuck with me. Why would you do that? The way in which society has dealt with this is basically to build public housing, then not maintain it, and then it deteriorates. And then say we should knock it down and build high rises and things like that. 

So we've got a real problem here, which is a political problem and in fact a reorientation of how the population really thinks. One of the things which has been very important in the housing world has been the idea that homeownership is a far, far better solution to the housing problem than social housing.

SP: And do you think that's true?

DH: No, I don't. Homeownership is okay for the top 50 percent of the population. You can do it. What happened in the 1990s was a fantasy that somehow or other, homeownership should be pushed down, and that led into the subprime mortgage (crisis) and all of the fraud that went on around that and extraction of wealth that way. And so people who really didn't have the resources to be homeowners were lured into homeownership. 

And then the crash comes in 2007. Nearly (10 million) households lost their houses.Well, why was the subprime thing entered into in the first place? Well, it had a lot to do with financial institutions needing to find some way to dispose of the surplus capital that they had.

SP: I want to come back to this question of what the government's obligation is to provide housing for everyone. Affordable housing and good housing. Because I think there's this assumption that if people are poor, maybe they deserve cheap housing, but it doesn't have to look nice. Beauty doesn't matter. I mean, you're talking about something entirely different — that everyone should have a good place to live, a beautiful place with good resources around. Can you talk about that a little bit?

DH: I visited a project in Uruguay. The quality of the housing was superb. The neighborhood life was superb. This had been constructed over the years — collectively, in this instance — by some of the trade unions getting together and saying, "Our members need a decent house and a decent living environment." And they went off and they found this space and they built the housing. 

A lot of it was sweat equity — some of the unemployed people in the unions became carpenters and actually built the housing that they ended up living in. It's the grassroots approach. 

I think there are a lot of problems that arise when a patriarchal system, a paternalistic system, showers some benefits here and there. People don't see it as in a sense belonging to them or (like) they're accountable for it. The state is accountable for it.

SP: So you have talked about what you and some other people have called the "right to the city." Can you explain what that means?

DH: Well, there are two things about that. The first is to what degree do people have access in the city? Access to housing, access to transportation is terribly important, access to decent educational opportunities in public schools. So one part of the right to the city is to talk about access. 

But the other part is, which is very important to me, is that when we build cities, we build environments which we then live in, and the kinds of people we end up being depend very much on the kind of environment we create. So if we create a neighborhood where nobody talks to each other, where there are no places of physical encounter and interaction and all that kind of thing, we end up with a kind of alienated life, living in an apartment where you don't know anybody and nothing's going on around you. So one of the things you want to do is to say people should have the right to make the city, but in making the city, they're also making themselves. 

You can imagine a situation in which you get fed up with this alienated life and you get together with a group of people and you start to restructure the neighborhood and develop neighborhood institutions for kids to play with each other, do sports or cultural activities. But they should be part of the neighborhood initiative, not something that is planned from above. 

SP: I'm wondering what is the shift in mindset that we need to make this possible, this vision that you were laying out?

DH: I'm rather antagonistic to the idea that somehow or other a change of mindset is what does it. I guess this is the sort of historical materialist in me who kind of says, well, you change the practices, and when you change the practices, the mindsets start to change. So you've got to find some practices on the ground, things that kind of work on the ground, solidarity economies, community land trusts and things like that, the collective housing systems. 

There are many things of this kind which are seeds, if you like, of something alternative, but you build on the practices and as the practices build, the mindset changes. 

Yes, I agree with you. At some point, if the mindsets don't change, you've got a problem. But the way the mindsets can be made to change is by evolving practices, which actually suggests that a new mindset is a better mindset than the one you currently hold. So when we see things like that, then there is a collective responsibility. But it's not a collective responsibility of the central government. It's a collective responsibility of the people who live in those places to try to find a way of working and caring and building an alternative kind of daily life.