The way we move around cities might seem natural and neutral – but it is often designed to control who goes where and who can access certain places. Julia Lagoutte talks to Professor Sarah Schindler about how control and regulation of certain people are exerted through the way cities and public spaces are designed.
Julia Lagoutte: Your prize-winning article Architectural exclusion, discrimination and segregation through physical design of the built environment highlights regulation and exclusion through design. What exactly do you mean by ‘architectural exclusion’ and when did you first start to notice it?
Sarah Schindler: By architectural exclusion, I mean the way that we have designed our cities to physically exclude people from certain parts. There are a number of ways that we have done this, from physical divisions like barriers, fences, and walls, to infrastructural decisions about where we do and don’t place transit stops, how we design our streets, where we make one-way streets, and where we put a sidewalk.
When I talk about the built environment, I’m talking about it as opposed to the natural environment. It is our human-made, physical surroundings – the structures that surround us and control us in the places where we live, work, play: streets, bridges, parks, and buildings, but also transit networks. So not just the physical structures themselves, but all the different ways in which they are organised. The built environment to me is not just where the transit stops and sidewalks are, but also about where they are not.
All of these elements come together to exclude people, through that physical design of the built environment. Sometimes it’s done through physical exclusion and sometimes it’s by making it more difficult or time-consuming for a person to get somewhere – if there is no direct route available, it might take that person hours to go just a mile or so.
What got me talking and writing about it was in the city where I live, Portland, Maine. Our public housing projects – the places where poor people live – are segregated in this part of town that is cut off from the rest of the city. There used to be three streets that connected that part of the city to downtown, but when they built the public housing, they effectively blocked off those streets so that you can only get to the public housing area by going down one or two different roads, and then it’s all dead ends. A lot of cities created these sorts of isolated communities when they built public housing, especially during urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s.
To be more specific, who exactly is being excluded in this process? And why?
It is typically poor people and people of colour. The reason is primarily because of discrimination and fear of “the other,” but also because people like the status quo.
Who designs this and how does it come together that the built environment that has this regulatory effect? Is it quite organic or more top-down?
A lot of that depends on the city that we’re talking about and its size. Big cities generally have a lot of people on the city staff who are working on creating the city: in-house planners, engineers, traffic consultants. In smaller towns, a lot of that design work is contracted to private firms. A city might hire a private planning firm or a traffic consultancy to work with them on some of these design decisions.
And – this is certainly true for Europe, but even in some of the older cities here in the US – many cities weren’t really planned. They came together organically, and don’t really have any structure or design to it.
Nowadays, some cities leave many of the decisions to private developers to figure out what should go where. Other cities do have a more top-down structure for their planning and it really does come from the city staff telling people what should go where. It also depends on state and local laws and who is making what decisions. Zoning regulation – what can go where and what types of uses can go in different locations – also plays a big part. This tends to be a more local-level decision, where the localities are making decisions about what uses belong where, and the general public go to public forums to hear about it and speak themselves. But many of the more straight engineering decisions – which way a road should curve or where it should go – are administrative decisions and aren’t necessarily subject to that same public process.
Can you talk about the political context that surrounds the creation of this built environment and the political processes that underpin it?
The first thing to distinguish between is intentional and unintentional examples of architectural exclusion. Intentional examples are becoming rarer and part of that is because of some of these examples of architectural exclusion were put up in times when the law actually required segregation in some U.S. states. One example is the Eight Mile Wall, in Detroit, Michigan. It was originally built because a housing developer wanted to create a white neighbourhood near to an existing black neighbourhood and the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) at the time would only lend money to projects that were sufficiently racially segregated. So in order for the project to be financed, they had to build a wall to separate their project from the existing black community. That wall is still there. Even though that policy no longer exists, the physical manifestation of that policy and others like it still continue to exist and have an effect on our society today.
That’s one layer. We might call these legacy examples of architectural exclusion from the past. That being said, some intentional manifestations of architectural exclusion are more recent. I grew up in suburban Atlanta, and there were debates about whether or not to extend the subway north to the suburbs. Many people didn’t want the subway going to their neighbourhoods because it would bring poor people from the inner city. That’s what the citizens were saying. In this kind of case, when the politicians then decide not to extend it, they’ll use excuses such as traffic or noise, and use legal language, but it’s hard not to think that the voices of their constituents had an impact on their decisions. Politicians – not always but often – will go along with what their constituents want, whether they’re going to use the same language or not. A politician couldn’t say, nowadays, that they’re making a decision based on racially discriminatory grounds; that would be illegal. But their constituents can express those views and then they can make a decision based on supposedly different grounds.
That’s one part of it. The other part of it, though, is that some architectural exclusion is unintentional, by which I mean that it is not done with the purpose of excluding, but it is done without thinking about whether it is going to exclude. There’s a Canadian legal geographer named Nicholas Bromley and he wrote about an idea called traffic logic, which means that engineers who are creating our roads or planning out these infrastructural projects, they aren’t thinking about civil rights and people’s access, they’re thinking about civil engineering and the flow of traffic. So when you focus just on the engineering and the traffic flow, and you forget to focus on the civil rights part, you can wind up having a discriminatory effect without necessarily intending it. That’s another concern and we see it a lot with the city putting in traffic-calming measures, such as bollards or dividers, to steer traffic in a certain way. It’s ostensibly to control traffic, but it often has a secondary effect of making it hard for people to access certain areas, and especially for people from certain neighbourhoods. Specifically, these measures often block poor people or people of colour from accessing wealthier areas. Because it’s the wealthy people who have the political capital to lobby local elected officials to put in these kind of traffic barriers.
What can elected officials do to counter this trend?
They can be more aware of these issues. Too often, our elected officials and our courts don’t think of the built environment as a regulatory tool. So, most of us, when we see a bridge, we see it as simply just a bridge: it’s pre-political and it doesn’t have any intent. But when you really get into it, you can see throughout history that bridges aren’t just bridges – they were intentionally put in certain spots to divert traffic in a certain way, or they were put in certain areas so the traffic would be let out to poor instead of rich neighbourhoods, for example. Just by being aware that our built environment does regulate and control behaviour, elected officials can be more receptive to those issues; thinking hard about how laws and decisions about the built environment would affect constituents and the wider community.
Anytime that there’s an opportunity for rebuilding, cities should be thinking about whether they have existing architectural exclusion that they could replace, and also proactively considering whether any proposed changes could create the kind of exclusion that I am talking about. And although we wouldn’t necessarily make the decisions that we made in the 1950s today, because the architectural remnants of the past are still here, they continue to regulate and control us.
There are lessons to be learned for any big city. Of course, a big part of cities is change. Things are always changing and developing, and so by keeping these ideas in mind as they change, we’ll create more inclusive places.
Could you explain more about how the built environment exerts this regulatory power over people?
This idea came from a law professor named Laurence Lessig, who talked about the regulatory power of architecture: how and where infrastructure such as railway tracks is placed influences our behaviour regarding where we can and cannot go. The fact that we place a railway track here and not there determines our behaviour: where we can and can’t walk. A one-way street that connects to another one-way street controls where I can go in my car. If there are no sidewalks, it’s going to make it really unsafe for me to walk, so I probably won’t. The built environment is controlling and regulating us, just like the law is. What’s important is that the sort of things we would find illegal from a legal regulatory standpoint are not illegal when it’s an architectural regulatory standpoint.
A striking example from your article was of a 17-year-old woman in the US who died crossing a highway to get to work because there was no adequate public transport. Can you talk about the role of public transport in excluding certain people from certain jobs?
In the US, places are so spread out, and public transit is often very poor. It’s tough because a lot of our jobs are in out of town areas; suburbs have strip malls and shopping centres, and that’s where a lot of the low-wage, low-skill jobs are. But people who live in the city centre have a hard time getting to those jobs because of our messed-up transit system, and because these wealthier neighbourhoods don’t want bus stops there for racial- or class-motivated reasons. In this particular example, the town did actually have public transport, but the city bus that went from the downtown area to the mall where this woman worked was not allowed to stop on the private property of the mall. It had to stop on the city street, in such a way that the highway had to be crossed to get to the mall. There wasn’t great traffic lights or a crossing… and it’s a huge multi-lane highway. It’s not as though the mall couldn’t let that bus stop on its property – there were charter buses from Canada that brought people down to shop that were allowed to stop on mall property. The mall made a conscious decision to disallow public transport on its property, and some of the documents produced during that trial suggested that this was because they didn’t want the type of people who were riding that bus to come to the mall. What ended up happening was this young woman had to take the public bus to work at the mall and was hit by a car in the early morning while trying to cross the highway to get to the mall. These decisions have pernicious effects that have ripples down the chain. Many people can’t even get to these jobs at all because of lack of transport, and even if there is transport, it might be putting them in dangerous situations.
So alongside the other actors you’ve mentioned that come together to create this built environment –communities, architects, and city planners – there is this other actor: the private developer?
Yes. A big part of the way that our cities look is because of private developers. They have a big influence on suburban sprawl and the reason that there are commercial uses in one place, residential uses in another, and industry in a third, all separated and only accessible by vehicle. This is controlled by cities, but it is also what some people wanted and what the developers wanted. Developers want these sorts of units where there’s a lot of development and where people will come and do all of their shopping in one place, where it’s easy to park. Most of the time, parking requirements are put in place because the developer wants people to be able to find parking easy, because that’s one of the complaints that most have about shopping in city centres. A lot of the way that our built environment looks is to satisfy the needs of private developers and the city wants the tax dollars, the development, and the jobs, so they’re willing to make deals with these developers to allow them to do things that aren’t necessarily for the good of the city.
If architecture has this much power, it can be used positively, too. What would your ideal city look like? How could it be redesigned differently?
Not every place should look and feel the same; there’s a lot of value in diversity, both within cities and in between. However, in terms of a common theme, I want cities to think more about the idea of opening up connectivity and access. That would involve fewer big highways going through cities and building more sidewalks. There are so many places in the US that don’t have sidewalks and where walking is just not part of the culture; if people have the option, maybe it would start changing the norm. I’d also like to reconnect disconnected streets. In my city, they cut up a lot of streets and created dead ends where they put in public housing. This segregates and isolates people and communities. Let’s open up these streets again, provide more reach and access. We could do things like build bridges, or reconnect roads and that would go a long way to making cities feel more inclusive.
Cities provide great sites of experimentation, and because there are so many of them they can all try different things to see what works and what doesn’t. That gives us a real opportunity to experiment and learn from one another. Also, because so many people do live in cities, we have a really good opportunity to reach the most people, make the greatest change, and improve life for the most people.