Public Space Arms Race

Illustration by Lesser Gonzalez, from The Arsenal of Inclusion and Exclusion by Interboro

The promise of public space — and by extension, of the city in which it thrives — is that it is open to all. Strangers meet, learn from each other, and encounter one another as equals. But what if people don’t want to mix? Indeed, in Frederick Law Olmsted’s day, Central Park, that most democratic design, featured all sorts of devices to privilege refined over rowdy behavior. Prohibitions on active sports and alcohol favored the class of people (middle) who didn’t find these things fun. And if it’s hard for everyone to get along in public space, imagine the neighborhoods they call home. Forcing “the mingling of people who are not yet ready to mingle, and don’t want to mingle” was not going to work, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. told a meeting of city planners one hundred years ago. Have we gotten any better at living together?

The built environment is a battlefield, where planners, designers, policymakers, residents, real estate agents and many others seek to expand or restrict access to territory and amenities for themselves and those most like them. This is the premise of The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion, an encyclopedic volume almost a decade in the making by the partners of the architecture, planning, and research collective Interboro. Short, annotated, and illustrated entries from “Accessory Dwelling Unit” to “Youth Curfew” catalogue the “weapons” that urban actors use to open and close the public realm, ranging from federal policies like urban renewal to seemingly innocuous structures like garages. Unlike more conventional weapons, the results they glean often depend on how you use them; many of the same tactics can alternately serve to unite and divide.

Fake "garages" in Malibu, California, prevent street-side parking of people trying to reach the (public) beaches. From The Arsenal of Inclusion and Exclusion by Interboro

Those garages, for example, might serve not to store cars but as decoys to reduce public parking spots near the beach and keep nonresidents out of affluent seaside communities. Like bans on laundry businesses or saggy pants, or housing association covenants prohibiting fruit trees, basketball hoops, or non-American flags, they say one thing but do another. The war over urban space is more cold than hot, with more standoffs than skirmishes. Many effective weapons are more like clever euphemisms, well-placed in space. But in the divided North American landscape, the end goal, most frequently, is to keep poor people, racial minorities, and any number of other undesirable categories — but mostly the poor and racial minorities — from accessing the full rights and privileges of urban life.

The Arsenal relies on a rich roster of contributors; one of them recently authored his own exhaustive catalogue of highly effective strategies for spatial exclusion. In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein focuses not on euphemisms and subterfuge but a litany of “open and explicit” acts of government-sponsored segregation. The enduring racial segregation of the cities and suburbs of the United States has not been merely the de facto expression of racial discrimination, an accumulation of private actions, as frequently argued. Rothstein details the laws and public policies that have directly kept Black Americans from accessing adequate housing, and therefore from all the educational opportunities, jobs, and equity that come with it. From redlining and housing finance laws to tax policy and toxic waste zoning, the intent is clear: to concentrate African Americans in ghettos, “with a shortage of opportunity, and with barriers to exit.”

Not all weapons exclude; many designs, policies, and practices aim for inclusion, but on whose terms? Beach wheelchairs, curb cuts, and ramps, for example make it easier for disabled people to navigate urban space. In Designing Disability, Elizabeth Guffey explores attempts to address the often awkward fit between the disabled person and the built environment by design. In a history that spans from the birth of the modern wheelchair to the passage and uneven enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Guffey zooms in on the International Symbol of Access, that abstracted wheelchair figure that designates parking spots, restrooms and elevators. It’s a tool to raise visibility and point people to accessible spaces, but the design has never satisfied everyone. Does it break down barriers or allow them to persist? What about the wide range of disabilities and needs that have nothing to do with mobility? And does the sign represent a human being with agency or portray disabled people as the passive subjects of a wheeled device? Designers and activists continually seek to address these unresolved questions with new signs and symbols, but space doesn’t necessarily keep up.

Early symbols of accessibility prefigured the now-ubiquitous symbol. Clockwise from top left: The 1965 "No Barriers" logo, proposed by the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped; the 1967 New York State Access Symbol; a wheelchair logo introduced at the 1965 International Conference on Barriers. From Designing Disability, courtesy of Elizabeth Guffey

The Walkman is not in the Arsenal, but it could be. A pocket size tome devoted to the Personal Stereo tells the story of the historical relic and harbinger of a new world. By giving people the power to create a personal soundtrack to their lives, the Walkman also allowed them to shut out what one early adopter called “the awful sounds of the city.” One person’s liberation is another’s antisocial behavior. As Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow recounts, early critics warned that the ability to tune out could quickly become the end of a sense of social reciprocity or even acknowledgement of the strangers with whom one shares space.

Today, the proliferation of personal devices only intensifies the temptation to tune out. Not just iPhones but algorithms shape social relations in the contemporary city. Maps and Yelp replace the hotel concierge (an entry in the Arsenal) in steering different people to different places deemed good or appropriate for their ilk. Our Digital Rights to the City, a slim download, highlights what can happen when “not all places are seen the same and not all people see the same place.” In the digital city, new weapons to include or exclude can be hard to identify, and therefore hard to contest. In another small volume looking to The Future of Public Space, writers muse on a range of unlikely sites where familiar issues of access and equity, privacy and surveillance, among others, might proliferate next, from national borders to rural landscapes to outer space. The introduction suggests that “public space is changing,” but it has never been an unalloyed public good. Whether visible on the surface or cloaked in subterfuge, struggles for inclusion always come with the territory.

Mariana Mogilevich is Editor in Chief of Urban Omnibus.

Series

Circulation Desk

A snapshot of the urbanist titles that turn our gears.