Special Section: Tracing narratives and perceptions in the political ecologies of health and disease, edited by C. Connolly, P. Kotsila, and G. Panagiota

Cleansing public nature: landscapes of homelessness, health, and displacement



This article engages directly with a group of individuals who reside in and among the margins of an urban municipal park, through a 16-month critical ethnography. Facing abject poverty, threats from law enforcement, and trials of living outdoors, these 'Hillside residents' cite the local health department as a primary source of potential displacement from the place they call home. 'Health', in this context, references three interconnected features of contemporary urban homelessness: the material interactions associated with living outdoors, the litter that occasionally accumulates in the area, and human solid waste. Health also has specific discursive constructions on the Hillside, where the individuals living there are presented as unclean, particularly vis-à-vis the 'natural' unbuilt world in which they live. A logic of sanitizing the unclean means that 'cleaning' moves beyond the material imposition of humans on nature, or nature on humans. Instead, cleaning speaks to a societal problem: a need to cleanse society of unwanted social detritus, to create a healthy society. 'Cleanliness' creates an optimum, healthy urban experience to facilitate the transactions of contemporary consumer and financial capitalism, providing a new and central facet of global neoliberal restructuring, having particularly devastating effects for the lowest classes. Political ecology is leveraged to consider the roles of material and discursive cleanliness as an agent of health in the social reproduction of capitalism, creating natures and subjects that further support it.

Keywords: urban homelessness, cleanliness, political ecology of health

How to Cite: Rose, J. (2017) “Cleansing public nature: landscapes of homelessness, health, and displacement”, Journal of Political Ecology. 24(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.2458/v24i1.20779