In this series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries, our writers are focusing on “trends” that are meaningful to them, and sharing insights on urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Accessibility.
When most of us look around at our urban environments, we likely aren’t scanning the landscape for barriers or invitations—we simply see the city for what it seems on the surface: a collection of elements serving an obvious function or service. But Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore of Interboro Partners suggest we take a closer look. The architects have spent years researching the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) tools that are employed to shape and control the usage of American cities or communities. These tools, or, as Interboro describes them on their website, “‘weapons’ used by architects, planners, policy-makers, developers, real estate brokers, community activists, and other urban actors to wage the ongoing war between integration and segregation, between NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) and WIMBY (Welcome in My Back Yard),” are presented in Interboro’s forthcoming book, The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion, which will be published next spring by Actar.
The concept for the book came about when Interboro was curating the American wing of the 2009 Rotterdam architecture biennial, focusing on different types of planned communities in the United States. Since it’s long been illegal in the US to discriminate against anyone who wishes to acquire housing in a certain community, the architects were surprised to discover just how many forms of exclusive communities exist—from religion-based neighborhoods to communities geared toward gay retirees, amateur astronomers, or simply the extremely rich. “We really started getting focused on the different kind of tactics or rules that people enact, either developers or the city, or master plan visionaries. What do they actually use to make places like that happen in our society today? It turns out, there’s an entire arsenal of tools that people use to create these communities of exclusion,” Theodore told me in a joint interview with the three partners.
Some of the tools, such as age-friendly design tactics like raised crosswalks, are actually intentionally “inclusionary.” Some, such as the no-dogs rule in Nalcrest, Florida, the community for retired US letter carriers, or light curfews in Arizona stargazing communities, are quite benign and even a little endearing. Others that Interboro has found, however, are egregious. These include one instance where a predominantly African-American section of an otherwise Caucasian community was denied water and sewage service until the residents won a court case on the grounds of racial discrimination. Then there’s the blood-relative ordinance that a development in the New Orleans area tried (unsuccessfully) to instate post-Katrina that forbade the rental of property to anyone but blood relatives, allegedly in an effort to keep out the many African-Americans displaced by the hurricane. Also disturbing are the armrests often used on park benches to prevent the homeless from getting comfortable enough to sleep, and the now obsolete “ugly laws” that pervaded some cities until the 1970s.
Other examples of subtle, exclusionary tactics in the US can be found everywhere from the sunny south to coastal Queens—take, for instance, the curb-cut communities of The Villages, Florida. In suburbia, it’s natural that curb cuts—the little sloping ramps that connect a sidewalk to the street to enable cars, wheelchairs, mothers with strollers, and others using wheels, to move from one to the other without difficulty—exist in abundance as entrances to the driveways of each home. But in these communities, the curb cuts are not cuts at all, because there are simply no curbs. Perhaps the developers saw no point in creating the constant up and down of a sidewalk in a community where barely anyone ever walks. Or perhaps, the folks at Interboro suggest, it is an effort to keep non-residents out of the neighborhood by eliminating any opportunity for them to legally park, or even stop their cars, in the area.
Interboro posits that a similar approach is behind the fire zones that stretch all the way along a beach in the Rockaways in Queens, New York. Is the entire oceanfront really at code-red risk for a blaze at any point, they ask? Or is it simply a convenient way to make visiting the seemingly public beach entirely inconvenient for anyone but private residents?
Armborst, D’Oca, and Theodore describe The Arsenal as part history book—with some of the entries written by experts and historians—and part invitation to look at the built environment “not as a sort of evolutionary process” (Theodore) but as a product of “tools that people use to demarcate territory” (Armborst).
“Much of the book is really about understanding the importance of place: that place really matters in the sense that living in a place comes with certain good things and bad things,” said D’Oca. “There are places that have higher life expectancies than others. There are places that have better access to jobs and education. The purpose of the Fair Housing Act was to say that we understand . . . that we can’t discriminate and keep people out of certain neighborhoods, because by doing that we’re denying people all kinds of opportunities. . . . I think once you understand how place matters, you start to realize how wrong it is to exclude people from other communities.”
As much as The Arsenal intends to bring light to the way exclusionary tools are used, the partners also see it as an invitation, or even a challenge to planners and architects. “A lot of the tools we found, if you use it one way you use it for bad, but if you use it another way it could be seen as used for good. So it puts a lot of pressure, or you could say opportunity, on the designers because we could actually design new tools to open up the city,” Theodore says.
Learn more about The Arsenal on Interboro’s blog by the same name.