Covid-19 and our changing sense of place

David Bissell, The University of Melbourne, Australia

*The main post is a link to the lecture that David gave at the University of Melbourne (online) on 10 June 2020. David has supplied a short summary of the lecture below*

Video Credit, University of Melbourne: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3D8Jqr5Yh7o&feature=youtu.be

As we emerge from our locked-down situations owing to Covid-19, in this talk I explain how geographers offer some very useful ideas for making sense of our current situation, what’s happened, what we might be feeling, and how we might go forward. 

Once of geography’s central concerns has been about understanding the relationship between people and places and the processes that shape these relationships. I suggest that understanding the changing meaning and significance of mobility during this crisis can help us to make sense of these changing relationships, and I do this by turning to Melbourne in Australia as a case study. 

Travel and mobility has grown exponentially over recent decades, and this rise of mobility altered our sense of the world dramatically, encapsulated in David Harvey’s concept of time-space compression. It no longer made sense to see places as self-contained relatively unchanging entities. Instead, as Doreen Massey’s idea of a global sense of place reminds us, it became important to understand how places like Melbourne were formed through their relationships with other places. Mobility enabled certain experiences to take place, but mobility also contributed to our sense of place in highly distinctive ways. 

But during March, all this mobility suddenly came grinding to a halt in Melbourne and around the world. Rather than being characterised by connection and mobility, Melbourne suddenly felt disconnected and still. Images of vast banks of planes stored side by side on desert runways symbolised this feeling of a grounded world. Places previously within reach seemed very far away. Migrant families separated over vast distances suddenly had very little chance of being able to see each other in person. Time-space compression changed to time-space expansion. Where mobility was previously what made the city dynamic, the mobility of the virus became the problem.

As lockdowns are being lifted, our sense of place is shifting yet again. After becoming habituated to such short journeys around our local neighbourhoods, leaving one’s suburb now feels like an Odyssean adventure. It’s a strange experience to feel so disoriented in a place that is so familiar. Because who we are is in part created through what we do and the encounters we have, many of us have had to change our day to day life so much that our sense of who we are might have become a bit unstuck. It’s therefore understandable to ask: ‘when will things return to normal?’. But is this desirable, or even possible? It presumes that we knew what was going on before this pandemic, that our relations with the world were known and coherent. 

Rather than making grand pronouncements about what is going on, I suggest that this moment presents an opportunity to pause and question what the future of place could be. To raise some questions about the future of mobility in shaping place, I take you to three spaces in Melbourne to think about how we might move forward, and I draw out some of the political implications that we will need to consider. We visit Federation Square, to consider what post-COVID world might mean for our public spaces. We visit an iconic Melbourne tram to consider the changes in how we move about our cities. And we visit my home to explore how working from home has placed geographical debates about the place of work firmly back under the spotlight. 

In short, as a discipline that has been driven by the quest to think about how the complex relationships between people and place changes, my suggestion is that geography matters now more than ever, as we try to move forward and refashion our lives in the long comet-tail of Covid-19. Far from the great equalizer, Covid-19 is creating new power relations in our cities that might be benefiting some people but leaving others out. It is vital then that we conduct geographical research at this time to find out precisely what is going on.


About the Author: David Bissell is Associate Professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the School of Geography at The University of Melbourne. His research explores the geographical consequences of different sorts of mobility, from the daily commute to longer distance work-related travel, and he’s interested in how these sorts of mobility are changing our relationships with people and places. His most recent project is exploring how on-demand mobile work associated with the gig economy is changing how we consume and work in Melbourne. He assists a group of graduate researchers who are undertaking projects that relate to mobilities, technology and work. He is managing editor of Social & Cultural Geography@davidbissell

Suggested further reading

Bissell, D. (2018) Transit Life: How Commuting Is Transforming Our Cities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/transit-life

Bissell, D. and Gorman-Murray, A. (2019) Disoriented geographies: Undoing relations, encountering limits, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 44(4), 707-720. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12307

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