Ontological Boundaries or Contextual Borders: The Urban Ethics of the Asylum

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-7635

Article | Open Access

Ontological Boundaries or Contextual Borders: The Urban Ethics of the Asylum


  • Ebba Högström Department of Spatial Planning, Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden / School of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, UK
  • Chris Philo School of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, UK


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Abstract:  What and where is ‘the asylum’ today? To what extent do mental healthcare facilities stand out as clearly bounded entities in the modern urban landscape, perhaps reflecting their history as deliberately set-apart and then often stigmatised places? To what extent have they maybe become less obtrusive, more sunk into and interacting with their urban surroundings? What issues of urban ethics are at stake: concerning who/what is starkly demarcated in the city, perhaps subjected to exclusionary logics and pressures, or more sensitively integrated into the city, planned for inclusion and co-dwelling? These questions underscore our article, rooted in an in-depth case study of Gartnavel Royal Hospital, Glasgow, opened as a ‘lunatic asylum’ on its present, originally greenfield, site in the 1840s and remaining open today surrounded by dense urban expansion. Building from the ‘voices’ of patients, staff and others familiar with the site, we discuss the sense of this asylum as ‘other’ to, as ‘outside’ of, or merely ’beside’ the urban fabric. Drawing from concepts of ‘orientations’ (Ahmed, 2006), sites as spatial constructions (Burns & Kahn, 2005), the power of borders and boundaries (Haselsberger, 2014; Sennett, 2018), issues of site, stigma and related urban ethical matters will be foregrounded. Where are the boundaries that divide the hospital campus from the urban context? What are the material signifiers, the cultural associations or the emotional attachments that continue to set the boundaries? Or, in practice, do boundaries melt into messier, overlapping, intersecting border zones, textured by diverse, sometimes contradictory, bordering practices? And, if so, what are the implications?

Keywords:  asylum; border; boundary; built environment; hospital; stigma; urban ethics

Published:   12 November 2020


DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/up.v5i4.3554


© Ebba Högström, Chris Philo. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.