Pandemic Pop-Ups and the Performance of Legality

Alexandra Flynn, Amelia Thorpe

Research output: Working paper


Cities around the world have rushed to respond to the coronavirus pandemic by regulating public space to promote social distancing and stimulate economic recovery. The resulting decisions are what we term ‘pandemic pop-ups’ - hasty, real-time, and temporary changes to the use and regulation of public space. Focusing on Toronto, Canada and Sydney, Australia, we argue that pandemic pop-ups extend beyond immediate infrastructure needs to how cities govern generally. Pop-ups may replace cars with bikes or extend restaurants into streets, and for this they have been celebrated: for saving jobs, and for making streets safer and more enjoyable. Pandemic pop-ups are not universally positive, however. They also remove tent encampments, make racialized residents more vulnerable to sanctions, and rush through controversial infrastructure projects.

As we consider pandemic and post-pandemic cities, the governance of pop-ups demands critical scrutiny. The laws that regulate urban space are always open to multiple interpretations (Cover, 1983). The force of law depends on its social context, on the ability of legal actors to give effect to their preferred interpretations and the lack (or inability) of others to challenge those interpretations. Through pop-ups, cities enact a particular form of legality – by which we mean not just legal texts, but the range of rules, practices and understandings through which those texts take effect in the world – that weakens democratic oversight and participatory processes. With an emphasis on speed over process, pop-ups have invariably been deployed without oversight or engagement, and rarely involving the voices of racialized or vulnerable people.

We recognize the value that pop-ups can bring to cities – socially, economically and environmentally – as well as the urgent challenges that make pandemic pop-ups critical. In this paper, however, we focus on more troubling aspects that have often been overlooked. To do this we challenge two features that are conventionally associated with pop-ups: their irregularity and their scope. First, most accounts describe pop-up planning as exceptional, a deviation from usual practices of decision-making. Yet in the time of COVID-19, pop-ups are the ‘new normal’. Second, we argue that pop-up infrastructure is broader than previously acknowledged, extending beyond bike lanes and patios to homeless encampments and policy proposals. Since pandemic pop-ups re-shape public space and the regulations through which it is governed, decisions must be made within a framework of inclusive and participatory decision-making.

Original languageUndefined/Unknown
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2021

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