Architectural Exclusion: Discrimination and Segregation through Physical Design of the Built Environment
Sarah B. Schindler
University of Maine School of Law, firstname.lastname@example.org
University of Maine School of Law Digital Commons
Another common version of this phenomenon is one of the most obvious forms of architectural exclusion: the walls, gates, and guardhouses of gated communities. These architectural features serve to keep out those who are not expressly allowed in. Although these walls are generally put in place by private developers to keep out those whom they do not want to access their communities, local governments have the power to prohibit these barriers. And while some cities have taken action to actively outlaw gated communities, most have not.
Local governments also take affirmative steps to install exclusionary architecture themselves. Often, cities use barriers and blockades to mold traffic patterns. For example, the concrete barriers and bollards that exist throughout the streets of Berkeley, California, were installed to calm traffic; however, the barriers do this by preventing people from driving down the streets on which they are placed. In Shaker Heights, Ohio, the city installed a “traffic diverter,” which was called “the Berlin Wall for black people” by nearby neighbors in Cleveland. In some communities, the purpose of rerouting traffic is to inhibit harmful behaviors tied to drugs and crime. Concrete barriers were put in place near the highways of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to block quick access into the city by those who wanted to buy drugs. The strategy, according to police, was that “buyers would fear ‘driving all over looped streets, stopping and turning around, trying to find drugs with the possibility of having their nice cars, their jewelry, their money ripped off as they look.’” A similar technique was implemented in Los Angeles, which put traffic barriers in place on certain streets that allegedly provided quick escape routes for gang members who had committed crimes.
In all these instances, the barriers and road closures were instituted, installed, and approved based on their purported relationship to public health and safety. While these barriers are often related to traffic, they have marked secondary effects: they often intentionally restrict access by a certain class of individuals (here, drug dealers and “johns”). They also make access more difficult for those unfamiliar with the area—not just those bad actors who the locality wants to keep out, but any outsider. It is quite possible that these architectural decisions contribute to racial or socioeconomic change in the neighborhoods. Katyal notes that traffic measures implemented in North London resulted in a neighborhood transformed “from a noisy and hazardous ‘red light’ district into a relatively tranquil residential area.” The possibility of transformation as a result of architecture raises a related question: where did the people who were using these streets prior to the architectural intervention go? Presumably, they were pushed to a different—possibly less affluent—part of town. This suggests that the area from which they were expunged may have had residents with sufficient political capital to organize and make this change happen.
Communities also engage in architectural exclusion in the way they design and place public transit and transportation infrastructure. The siting of bus stops and subway stations changes the built environment. These routing decisions and patterns have a dramatic impact on the mobility of individuals through, and the accessibility of, different areas of the community. Further, transit siting and infrastructure decisions are often implemented with the intention of making it more difficult for certain groups of people to access certain parts of the community. This section will provide examples of these exclusionary transportation design decisions.
1. Placement of Transit Stops
A present-day example of architectural exclusion comes in the form of decisions about where to place transit stops. Throughout the United States, many moderate- and high-income individuals travel—to their jobs, to events, to see friends, and to shop—in a private vehicle. In contrast, although people of all socioeconomic groups use public transit—buses, subways, and light rail—in larger metropolitan areas, low-income people and people of color often rely more heavily on public transportation than people from other groups. Those individuals therefore have a hard time reaching areas that are underserved by transit. Because there are a number of benefits to living near a transit stop, the Homevoter Hypothesis suggests that homeowners will readily lobby for them. However, many communities actively push their elected decision makers not to bring transit stops to their neighborhoods. Research shows that the opposition to transit is often motivated by the desire to block access by certain “undesirable” people who ride transit (for example, people of color and the poor). As one scholar acknowledged, “race has been a factor limiting the geography of transit.” For example, wealthy white residents of suburban Atlanta, Georgia,126 suburban San Francisco, California, and Washington, D.C., have organized to oppose the locating of transit stops in their communities, at least in part because transit would enable people who live in poorer areas of the cities to easily access these wealthier areas. Although the decision to locate a transit hub is typically made by elected local officials, those officials often act at the behest of their constituents. When a locality is successful in its opposition, people who rely on transit to get around will not have access to those communities.
As one scholar notes, “public transportation continues to be routed in a way that makes it difficult for some blacks to get to and from leisure venues that more affluent or more mobile persons freely enjoy.” While particular individuals’ lack of access to any area is troubling, transit-siting decisions are also intimately connected to employment opportunities for minorities and lowincome individuals. Decisions to exclude transit stops (and those who use them) from parts of the suburbs mean that many workers who would accept minimum-wage jobs in the suburbs cannot physically access those jobs. For example, although many jobs in the Detroit suburbs lack sufficient workers, the city and the suburbs have not coordinated their public transportation systems. Thus, those who live in the inner city—and who are mostly black— cannot easily access suburban jobs, which are located in areas that are mostly white. Similarly, employers in some suburban Atlanta areas were forced to pay higher than their typical near-minimum wage to attract retired and teenage workers from the surrounding community because lower-income people living in the central city could not easily access the jobs. Residents and policymakers in those areas have rejected proposals to bring Atlanta’s rapid transit network (MARTA) into their communities, which would have allowed inner-city workers easy access to these suburban jobs via public transit. The inability to use public transit to access the suburbs is one of the primary barriers preventing black people from obtaining suburban jobs. Moreover, as more lowincome individuals move to the suburbs, they face continued difficulty accessing jobs in their communities due to the lack of transit options within suburban communities.
Sometimes transit will allow a person to get close to a given area, but not all the way there, leaving the rider in a dangerous situation. This was the scenario faced by Cynthia Wiggins, a seventeen-year-old woman who was hit and killed by a dump truck while she was attempting to cross a seven-lane highway to get to the mall where she worked. Wiggins took the bus from the inner city, where she lived, to her job at the suburban mall. However, the mall’s owners had actively resisted requests to allow the bus to stop on its property; rather, the bus stopped outside the mall on the other side of the large highway. Documents produced during trial revealed that this transit-siting decision was motivated at least in part by race or class bias; a local transport official wrote in an internal document that “‘[mall decision-makers] feel it will not bring in the type of people they want to come to the mall.” One mall retail store owner recalled a conversation with a mall official who said something like, “The people who rode the Walden Avenue bus were not the kind of people they were trying to attract to the Walden Galleria.”145 The mall did, however, allow some charter buses to stop on its property.146 Members of Buffalo’s black community asserted that the mall was “trying to use the highway as a moat to exclude some city residents”—a classic example of architectural exclusion. The case settled, but it presents a stark example of the dangers inherent in exclusionary transit design.
2. Placement of Highway Routes, Bridge Exits, and Road Infrastructure
Bridge exits and highway off-ramps are often located so as to filter traffic away from wealthy communities. The Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (formerly known as the Triborough Bridge), as it traverses the East River from Queens to Manhattan, “makes an almost perpendicular hard right turn north, so that the traffic lets out in Harlem, not on the wealthy Upper East Side.” According to one commentator, this terminus location was chosen due to “a combination of regard for the wealthy Upper East Side, disregard for the residents of Harlem, and plain old-fashioned graft.” It was not selected for convenience, as most traffic would be coming from and heading to areas below 100th Street. Similarly, the Northern State Parkway avoids the affluent North Shore area of Long Island because wealthy homeowners in the area were able to convince Moses to reroute the location of the parkway, which resulted in a five-mile detour.
The placement of highways so as to intentionally displace poor black neighborhoods is even more familiar. Policymakers “purposeful[ly]” decided to route highways through the center of cities, often with the intent “to destroy low-income and especially black neighborhoods in an effort to reshape the physical and racial landscapes of the postwar American city.” Although this work was undertaken in order to make places more accessible to cars, it was also done with an eye towards eliminating alleged slums and blight in city centers. These tactics were so common that they earned a name among critics: “white roads through black bedrooms.”
For example, in 1954, the City of Detroit was engaged in urban renewal. It razed the black community of Black Bottom to build the I-375 highway and new developments such as the Mies van der Rohe-designed Lafayette Park and public housing projects. In the early 1950s, there were an estimated 140,000 black people living in Black Bottom, and while some middle income families in the area were able to relocate to more prosperous neighborhoods, the urban renewal project forced many low-income residents into public housing. Now Detroit is considering removing the architectural barrier of the aging I-375 highway and creating a pedestrian-friendly parkway to connect Lafayette Park with the central business district. This story is not unique. Local government officials and state highway planners in Miami intentionally located I-95 so that it would cut through Overtown, an inner-city black community. Although it had previously been known as “the Harlem of the South,” Overtown became “an urban wasteland dominated by the physical presence of the expressway.” I-10 through New Orleans was constructed along a portion of North Claiborne Avenue, which was “the center of an old and stable black Creole community.” Highway 101 separates the Latino and black residents of East Palo Alto, California, from the west side of town. Other examples include streets in Omaha, Nebraska; I- 880 in Oakland, California;166 a turnpike in Delaware;167 I-64 and I-77 through Charleston, West Virginia;168 the list goes on.
To some extent, the placement of highways through city centers is a legacy issue, meaning that it is an issue that remains in the present because of decisions made in the past.169 It was not illegal to tear apart poor neighborhoods at the time that urban renewal was in full swing, and the resultant features of the built environment are now hard to change. However, the elimination of lowincome and minority neighborhoods under the guise of clearing blighted areas is far from a legacy issue in and of itself; as the Supreme Court’s decision in Berman v. Parker established, clearing “blight” is an acceptable use of the eminent domain power. Notably, in the aftermath of Kelo, which reaffirmed the validity of takings for economic development purposes, many states passed laws restricting the use of eminent domain; however, many of those new laws retained exceptions allowing its use to clear blight.