Session at the European Association for Urban History Conference

Cultures of drug use are deeply woven into public spaces, everyday lives and the contested governance of European cities.  Especially over the last 50 years, we see the governance of narcotic practices playing a crucial role in the production and control of public spaces. In this session, we want to explore the historical dynamics of the discourses and, strategies around urban drug use after 1945.

During the postwar period, the consumption of both legal and illicit narcotics has become an increasingly widespread phenomenon in European cities, affecting in different ways all social classes and milieus. Within media and political discourse, however, it is predominantly the visibility of practices in public space related to the use of both legal and illegal drugs that is considered most problematic. These practices are often linked to specific urban areas, such as ‘ghettos’, immigrant neighbourhoods or other ‘spaces of fear’. Drug use and sales are usually associated with marginalized groups, such as homeless, foreign and impoverished populations. Imaginaries of drug users evoke stereotypical and often highly gendered and racialized conceptions of what we call ‘narcotic subjects’, such as ‘junkies’, migrants, sex workers or dealers. 

Furthermore, these geographies of drug use often function as catalysts that trigger public discussions regarding what forms of encounters, practices and exchanges are desired and acceptable within urban public space. By raising contentious issues like morality and fear – as well as othering and stigmatization – these imaginaries stimulate debate on larger social issues such as exclusion, deviance and integration.

In this session, we want to explore how practices, discourses and conflicts around public drug use have impacted the social and cultural fabric of cities since the 1960s. We ask: what imaginary geographies of urban narcotic cultures have emerged? How have cities regulated contested sites of drug use? Which actors and social movements have questioned politics of stigmatization and suggested alternative visions? 

Urban space is not equally accessible to everyone and certain drugs and their users are deemed more acceptable in public space than others. How do these dynamics shape the modalities of inclusion and exclusion of public space in cities? How do practices of ‘place making’ and urban design shape urban drug cultures, their contestations and tolerations?

To explore these questions, we welcome papers focussing on urban narcotic cultures in European Cities from the end of WWII until today. We are particularly interested in comparative work, translocal microhistories and long-term case studies.

  • Spokesperson: Stefan Höhne, Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities
  • Co-organizer(s): Gemma Blok, Open Universiteit Heerlen | Boris  Michel, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg
  • Keywords: Narcotic Cultures | Public space | Governance
  • Time period: Contemporary period
  • Topic(s): Cultural | Social
  • Study area: Europe