What Urban Design Can Actually Do To Address Police Violence

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Leaders in the field discuss what design can—and can’t—accomplish in the service of communities like Baltimore and Ferguson.

Last year, the city of Lakewood, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, paid $507,500 to settle a lawsuit filed by the owners of an apartment complex that hosted a church-operated re-entry program for formerly incarcerated youth. Young African-American program residents living in the Hidden Village apartment complex complained that local police officers were routinely harassing them. Some incidents were captured on video by the apartment complex’s owners. Here’s some of the law enforcement behavior listed in the legal complaint:

[infobox]In one incident, two participants “were given tickets for jaywalking and astronomical fines for it.” In another, police stopped a participant for failure to attach a license plate to his bicycle. In yet another, police falsely accused a program official of helping clients deal drugs. Police also repeatedly cited (and eventually threatened to arrest) participants for walking on railroad tracks near Hidden Village. … In May 2007, a team of Lakewood officials—police, an officer in SWAT attire, a canine unit, fire department workers, health department workers—visited Hidden Village, unannounced and without a search warrant, for the purpose of conducting what the defendants term a “joint inspection.” The visit left residents “intimidated” and “afraid.”[/infobox]

Roughly 87 percent of Lakewood residents are white, while just over seven percent are African Americans. The Hidden Village apartments are less than two miles from the Cudden Recreation Center in Cleveland proper, the area where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by police in November of last year. Lakewood is a mostly middle-class suburb known for its quaint houses: Homeowners compete for best design during the city’s annual “Keep Lakewood Beautiful” contest. Black youth looking to improve their lives after juvenile detention didn’t seem to fit into the city’s overall aesthetic ambitions.

“If the profession is non-representative of the communities they are designing in, then you will get codes and guidelines that do not serve the best interests of that community.”

In the past few years, similar policing problems have led to riots and uprisings in black communities across Ferguson, Baltimore, and many other cities. These stirrings have prompted professionals in various trades to examine what their roles can be in the #blacklivesmatter era. One group that has been asserting themselves in racial-justice and police-reform discussions lately are city planners and designers. From their perspective, design has ramifications for policing in vulnerable communities—along with histories of poor planning decisions, racial segregation, environmental injustices, and other disaffecting factors.

Today, designers and planners are drawing from a long history of overlooked scholarship on these legacy problems to come up with ways that the disciplines can influence these policing problems for the better. Joseph Heathcott, an urban studies professor at The New School in New York City and president of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History, wrote recently in The Aggregate:

[infobox]As we imagine ways to move the #BlackLivesMatter campaign into the realm of policy, and to challenge the legacies of racism, discrimination, and concentrated poverty in cities, it is crucial that we take stock of what we know about the long history of racism in city planning. It is equally important that we study the multiform efforts of diverse peoples over time to build resilient communities, demand justice, and define alternatives.[/infobox]

But how exactly do designers execute that—especially in ways that are demonstrably apparent for the public?

Posing this question to practitioners in the field, many of the responses I got reflected ideas that were fleshed out in the legal scholar Neal Kumar Kaytal’s “Architecture as Crime Control” study. That is, if you optimize an area’s innate surveillance qualities—encourage residents, neighbors, and bystanders to be rigorous watchdogs—plus reduce social isolation and beautify otherwise dull environments, then justice will come within reach.

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These are fine prescriptions, but they put the onus of behavioral change on communities. What they don’t consider is that many of the high-profile police killings of late occurred among young, African Americans guilty of petty offenses—if any offense at all. Living in a chummier community didn’t stop Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates from getting into his own kerfuffle with cops.

Another suggestion floated was that social-justice-minded designers should refuse to design prisons, given the problem of mass incarceration of people of color. Dana McKinney, president of the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s African American Student Union, says some of her colleagues have also proposed rejecting jobs designing luxury condominium buildings that only serve the wealthy. That potential impact of such decisions are inherently limited, though, given that contracts would simply get awarded to other willing, non-social-justice-minded bidders and builders.

These problems fit somewhat into what the law professor Elise C. Boddie calls “racial territoriality,” and what has more recently been referred to as “architectural exclusion” by the law professor Sarah Schindler in the Yale Law Journal. Both have written that current legal remedies are mostly inadequate to address these injustices because laws rarely recognize the racialized discrimination embedded in certain urban spaces and design processes.

Children play at the public housing complex where Freddie Gray was arrested in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Those elements are recognized by many urban designers, practitioners in a field that marries the disciplines of urban planning, architecture, and engineering. The question is: How exactly can they use design to help mitigate Ferguson- and Lakewood-type situations?

Looking at the Lakewood case, the problem of police harassing kids walking on railroad tracks near the Hidden Village building could be viewed as a problem of someone designing those tracks too close to the apartments, or the apartments too close to the tracks. Either way, design solutions are apparent—the tracks could be removed or rerouted. Less apparent is whether the black youth would still be able to live safe from police harassment.

Designers can’t really make people’s environments safer, says Sharon E. Sutton, professor of Architecture, Urban Design, and Planning at the University of Washington and author of the book The Paradox of Urban Space: Inequality and Transformation in Marginalized Communities. At least, designers can’t do it without community members’ help.

“You don’t do things for people,” says Sutton, “you get them involved in doing things for themselves. I think that’s where we can make a contribution. We have to think of ourselves as facilitators of people living in the built environment.”

Sutton has served as chair of design review boards in Seattle for a number of projects, posts she’s used to help educate community members on how they can best affect change through design processes.

“I spend a lot of time with people, many of who don’t speak English, asking them questions like, ‘When you exit the hotel where you work after your night shift, how do you get to your bus? Do you have spaces where you can rest during work breaks?’” says Sutton. “We have these discussions so they can go to a design review board meeting and testify to these things, because the architect is not thinking about that.”

“Police understand urban landscapes well enough that some have used city designs to impose violence on others, such as knowing the bumpiest streets for “rough rides.”

Yet, for all her community-engagement efforts, she says only some of what residents testify to will make it into designers’ plans. City-design review guidelines govern what community members can testify to at public meetings. Sutton says her job is often helping people frame their comments with those guidelines in mind. And if residents identify a design need that doesn’t fall within those guidelines?

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“You can’t do that,” says Sutton. “Many times when I was chair I would say, ‘That’s a very interesting comment, and thank you for that, but the board doesn’t have prerogative in deciding what you’re asking for.’ You’re stuck with the guidelines.”

This gets at one of the fundamental problems encountered by city designers and planners, says Julian Agyeman, professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University.

“If the profession is non-representative of the communities they are designing in, then you will get codes and guidelines that do not serve the best interests of that community,” says Agyeman, who is co-author of the forthcoming book Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities.

Agyeman agrees that one of the best roles that “city-making professionals” (a shorthand in which he lumps designers and planners) can play are as community engagement agents. He warns of “environmental determinism,” though—the idea “that we can design our way out of violence.”

Yet, police understand urban landscapes well enough that some have used city designs (or lack thereof) to impose violence on others. Some cops in Baltimore and Philadelphia know the bumpiest streets in their cities to take people they’ve arrested on “rough rides” or “nickel rides”— a practice implicated in the injuries and death of Freddie Gray. Some police in Chicago understand which buildings are most obscured from public view so they can be used as so-called “black sites,” unofficial holding cells where police have violently interrogated suspects before arresting them.

“It’s your entire experience as a human being that our work is trying to deal with.”

These would seem to be clear examples of what designers can do to reduce these kinds of abusive police practices, no?

[infobox]“I don’t think we can see the police as a separate entity outside of society and say there is some appropriate form of design that can modify their behavior,” says Agyeman. “I think what we can do is see to it that police are fully integrated back into society,” through policies like having cops walk and bike through neighborhoods and proactively getting to know the neighbors they protect and serve.[/infobox]

“What you’ll find underlying these discussions are notions of power,” says Justin Garrett Moore, an architecture professor at Columbia University and senior urban designer for New York City’s Department of City Planning. “The perception of whether people belong in a space or not is one very much embedded in urban design, planning, and architecture. It is not a matter of coincidence or of whether you have good cops or bad cops. It is design that has conditioned these interactions.”

Moore comes from a family of African-American designers, planners, and real-estate professionals with whom he collaborates through a project called Urban Patch. Their mission is to use interdisciplinary collaboration to improve cities through reckoning with the sordid histories of racial segregation and undesirable land use in an effort to chart a clearer path toward sustainability. Moore says that city designers deal with problems like policing all the time in their work, but communities can’t always tell because there’s no grand installation in the public square they can point to as illustrative evidence.

“It’s difficult to get people to pay attention to that,” says Moore, “but it is that kind of everyday-life experience that we’re most concerned about. We’re not just focused on figuring out things like how to build a police athletic league after-school program for better interaction with the community. It’s your entire experience as a human being that our work is trying to deal with.”


This feature is written by Brentin Mock and originally appeared in CityLab.

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