The Return of the Welfare Landscape ? Remaking and Improving the Materiality of Redistributive Justice

We’re in a time of outrage, confusion, great uncertainty, and the ugly spectre of widespread total cynicism. We’re also in a moment of opportunity, if we can get beyond the tear-it-all-down rhetoric spewing relentlessly from the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ of the political spectrum. Now that almost six months have elapsed since the pandemic came to be taken seriously in countries such as Canada, an initial sense of urgency is gradually being complemented by deeper and broader conversations about how policymakers should proceed. This is where—or why—I want to make a broad suggestion, as someone who specialises in design, planning, and policy for everyday infrastructures, both material and institutional, but also as a landscape ethnographer who is fascinated by how we collectively muddle our way through defining the architecture(s) of the human condition.

What we are seeing, with COVID-19 and how the State has reacted quickly, for better or for worse, is potentially a renaissance of so-called ‘welfare landscapes’. These are especially seen in the Nordic countries with what Gøsta Esping-Andersen (1990) described as comprehensive social-democratic forms of welfare capitalism, but also seen in furtive ways in postwar Canada. By this I mean not (just) the metaphorical landscapes of institutions, policies, and programmes, but very much the material landscapes through which those priorities and/or processes take physical form in ways that endure through time, with impacts for who has secure access to continuous opportunities for wellbeing. For several years, I’ve been exploring this question through a project with colleagues in Sweden with funding from the Swedish Research Council on Sustainable Development, and the current pandemic has revealed it to be all the more germane in Canada and elsewhere.

It is hugely important that we seize the COVID-19 moment to make, remake, and enhance various infrastructures of redistributive justice, as discussed by Raphael & Bryant (2015), among others, to improve upon past (incomplete) attempts to collectively create ‘welfare landscapes’. We see this in the many expressions of shame, humility, and/or frustration at how so many people in ‘rich’ countries are suffering the effects of COVID-19—in terms of how readily households can access green space as well as decent housing that enables them to work remotely without major difficulty and neighbourhood services necessary to everyday wellbeing. Attention has also been drawn anew, as it should be, to the general failures of supposedly progressive urban policies and the spatial patterning whereby  neighbourhoods with high levels of ethnocultural diversity tend to have high rates of COVID-19 infection. We can do something more than wring our hands and moan. In effect, the climate emergency requires that we take real action beyond the endless rhetoric (Lister, 2016 ; Moe, 2019).

As Honor Bixby has articulated so well in this series, now is the time for us to collectively redefine priorities and actions so that central government empowers local municipalities and civil-society organisations to ensure proper support for marginalised populations. Her message—asserting the importance of subsidiarity—is one with which I completely agree. Among Bixby’s six priorities, which rightly include mobility for essential travel, education, food security, and mental health, the most vital is how to ensure equitable, secure access to good housing for all members of society. I want to take this further, scaffolding up a set of policy questions that are thoughtfully foreshadowed in another contribution to this series by Annmarie Adams, reflecting on how attitudes toward home and place are shifting in terms of the de-facto continuum of private and public space. My suggestion is that we see housing as indissociable from its context, in terms of broader physical, ecological, institutional, cultural, and economic processes, as a matter of concern for health and wellbeing. I’m fortunate to work with a network of Canadian specialists grappling with this with a view to significant institutional reform, but we need broader coalitions of support.

My premises are hopefully clear and self-evident: first, COVID-19 has slapped us silly, demanding a deep reckoning on how we deploy ourselves in the physical world; second, significant change is already underway, albeit in ways that are messy, brusque, and even violent; third, an opportunity space has opened up for exciting reform by (and with) private-, public-, and third-sector actors, if we are willing to go beyond ad-hoc ‘emergency’ measures. This is dangerous territory for people in my professional fields of architecture and urban planning, since we have a rather dreadful longer-term track record of dramatic interventions of a utopian nature, as roundly critiqued in sometimes-constructive commentaries that no longer count even as contemporary history, including the work of astute individuals such as Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch, Jan Gehl, and Françoise Choay. Bold interventions nominally done in the ‘public interest’ and collectively referred to as ‘urban renewal’ have nevertheless been revisited by critical observers ranging from Katherine Bristol (1991) and William Littmann (1998) to Mikkel Høghøj (2019), François Racine (2019), and André Sorensen and Paul Hess (2015), all of whose work reveals how these were complex assemblages including the handiwork of architects, designers, and planners, but done within institutional landscapes marked by path dependency, political contingency, and ideological ruptures.

“So what” you ask? Fair question. My point is that we have made deliberate attempts in the past, for better or for worse, to create ‘welfare landscapes’ in Canada, as in other OECD countries. The COVID-19 moment invites us to have another kick at the proverbial can—and to what extent, for whose benefit, and with what mechanisms in place to assess success or failure vis-à-vis the glaring need for redistributive justice. We should be talking about both why and how ‘rich’ (OECD or G7 or G20) countries can act on flagrant matters of concern around housing quality and affordability that have only been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. I especially want to assert that physical space matters. This means that we need to talk not just about housing as houses, but also as the ‘milieu de vie’—configurations of buildings, streets, open space for communal use, and specific sorts of amenities such as swimming pools or ‘islands’ of cooler temperatures for relief in summer heatwaves.

What happens immediately—for instance, before the next round of federal, provincial, and local elections in Canada—should be considered in terms of what we do on the one- to five-year time horizon. This matters both in terms of the inevitable next spikes in COVID-19 but also in terms of other aggressive vector-borne diseases (VBDs) that may emerge for the same reasons that led to the current pandemic such as biodiversity loss and the ample pathways for VBDs to spread because of mobility and settlement patterns. It matters in terms of the climate emergency and the future of humankind.

COVID-19 has a message. It tells us that we must talk about who has access to the spaces that are vital to health and wellbeing. We are now seeing widespread evidence of how housing and neighbourhoods are where this access must literally take place. To ignore this message would be a travesty.





Bristol, K. (1991). The Pruitt-Igoe myth. Journal of Architectural Education, 44(3), 163-171.

Esping-Andersen, G. (1990). The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Høghøj, M. (2019). Planning Aarhus as a welfare geography: urban modernism and the shaping of ‘welfare subjects’ in post-war Denmark. Planning Perspectives (online first :

Lister, N.-M. (2016). Resilience beyond rhetoric in urban landscape planning and design. In F. Steiner, G. Thompson, & A. Carbonell (Eds.), Nature and cities: The ecological imperative in urban planning and design (pp. 296-319). Washington DC: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Littmann, W. (1998). Designing obedience: The architecture and landscape of welfare capitalism, 1880-1930. International Labor and Working-Class History (53), 88-114.

Moe, K. (2019). The architecture of work and the work of architecture today. Journal of Architectural Education, 73(2), 251-253.

Racine, F. (2019). The influence of urban design theories in the transformation of urban morphology: Montreal from 1956 to 2018. Journal of Urban Design, 24(6), 815-839.

Raphael, D., & Bryant, T. (2015). Power, intersectionality and the life-course: Identifying the political and economic structures of welfare states that support or threaten health. Social Theory & Health, 13(3), 245-266.

Sorensen, A., & Hess, P. (2015). Building suburbs, Toronto-style: land development regimes, institutions, critical junctures and path dependence. Town Planning Review, 86(4), 411-436.



Article of interest:


Comments are closed.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.