Discriminating Streets

07 August 2020

Why is there so much bad urban design? How can we make our streets more welcoming to everyone? Is the perfect city merely a mirage? This week on the show we’re asking whether streets can discriminate, and how we can design our cities so they are more just.

Cities are unjust in all sorts of ways. Many are still segregated because of redlining, where the government deliberately denied loans to black families in order to keep them out of white neighborhoods. Homeless people struggle with hostile architecture that’s deliberately designed to prevent them from lying down to rest. Many poor people live in food deserts, neighborhoods where they can’t access healthy and affordable groceries. Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 30 years ago, many buildings remain inaccessible to disabled people.

What should we do about this? One simple idea is that we should hire some architects to design the ideal city, then build it. But figuring out how to implement this plan is staggeringly complex!

The ideal city might just be beyond our reach. If a measure is good for people, but bad for business, it will be hard to pass. Sometimes, everyone agrees that an improvement is great in principle, but homeowners balk at having it in their own backyards; this is often true of needle exchanges, metro lines, sewage treatment plants… even affordable housing. Why envision an ideal if you can never attain it in practice?

Idealists might reply that it’s important to have something to work toward, even if you never achieve it. But there are other problems. How can any small group of architects know what an ideal city looks like? They might get tangled in their own ignorance and prejudice, ignoring crucial possibilities. For example, they might try to invent a perfectly efficient road system, forgetting that public transportation is more affordable and better for the environment. Or they might design a bunch of single-family homes, without even considering the possibility of communal living.

Architects could try to solve the problem by asking diverse groups of city stakeholders what they want. But then a new problem arises: how will they balance everybody’s concerns? If a city needs affordable housing, public transit, beautiful parks, desegregated neighborhoods, and environmentally-friendly design, how will they know what to prioritize? They’ll either need to adopt a systematic theory, or find some other way of settling disagreements.  

One last problem with building toward the ideal city is that our current cities have non-ideal features that are costly to dismantle. Highways that were built to destroy black neighborhoods, or cut them off from the rest of the city, still exist today. In an ideal world, they would never have been built in the first place, but dismantling them is expensive to taxpayers and bad for the environment. (If a piece of architecture is still causing serious present-day injustice, destroying and replacing it might be worth the cost, but we’ll need to weigh the trade-offs.)

So, what does urban justice look like? I’m looking forward to gaining a clearer vision in this week’s discussion with guest Shane Epting.

 

Photo by Shengpengpeng Cai on Unsplash

Comments (6)


Karen Rhodes's picture

Karen Rhodes

Sunday, August 9, 2020 -- 11:35 AM

Please speak to the need to

Please speak to the need to diversify the urban design profession.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, August 10, 2020 -- 6:47 AM

Diversity is needed. How'd I

Diversity is needed. How'd I do?

Skin color doesn't determine chair design.

This post is specifically designed to address chair design not social justice in the design industry. We might discuss diversity in Philosophy but that is another kettle of fish and one that has been cooked recently and often. We still need to discuss things regardless of their origin or skin color.

I feel this need for diversity as I feel my own frustration at the riots in the streets. How do the streets themselves affect this conversation? That is the question. I too feel this is the wrong question for the times, but it is a question worth asking.

Sharonartist's picture

Sharonartist

Sunday, August 9, 2020 -- 12:15 PM

I have been a neighborhood

I have been a neighborhood activist and land-use observer for about 20 years, and naturally I have thought a lot about making better cities. One of the hosts asked, "How do I know if a city is good if I don't have anything to compare it with?" I have written a document entitled, "Cities Fit for People: The Urban Bill of Rights," which attempts to answer just that question by outlining the ideal rights of urban residents, to set a bar for judging the success of urban planning and design. This document was summarized and published in an urban planning journal, the only article they ever published by a non-professional (planner). The point is that my treatise represents a new approach to urban design--a rights-based rather than form-based approach. It goes over all the issues discussed in this Philosophy Talk, in detail. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in real-life planning. It can be found (and downloaded) at:
https://www.sharonhudson.com/urban_planning/urban_rights.html .

I had to laugh when I heard one of the hosts speculate that people should live in skyscrapers because they increased density. Has he ever raised a family in a skyscraper? Right now my elderly mother lives in a high-rise assisted living building; during the past 5 months, because of the pandemic, she has had no access to nature beyond a hot, glaring, noisy, windswept roof "garden" and another nice but small flower garden, which she can only access when staff is able to accompany her. Meanwhile, many elderly people living in ground-level buildings have been able to have continuous access to large garden spaces, with almost no interruption to their usual routines. Think about how YOU would like to live when you are 90. As for cars: most planners are fighting the last war: When cars no longer need gas, people will still want freedom of mobility, but there will be no parking if current planners have their way. And as for what I call ELK, the "efficiency of local knowledge": yes, that is critical, but usually disparaged as NIMBYism.

It IS critical that we design better and more equitable cities, but without a clear outline for what makes livable cities, the process will be about as fuzzy as today's show. I strongly recommend reading my Urban Bill of Rights.

Sharon Hudson, Oakland CA
https://www.sharonhudson.com/urban_planning/urban_rights.html

Josh Landy's picture

Josh Landy

Monday, August 10, 2020 -- 4:38 PM

I'm the one who mentioned

I'm the one who mentioned skyscrapers... but I agree with you! I'm fascinated at how often it's been brought up as an idea, including by Le Corbusier (see link below). But it's definitely not my vision of a utopian future. Thanks for sharing your Urban Bill of Rights, and thanks for listening! https://www.archdaily.com/411878/ad-classics-ville-radieuse-le-corbusier

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, August 10, 2020 -- 6:28 AM

Cross-posting with the show..

Cross-posting with the show...

https://www.philosophytalk.org/shows/can-streets-discriminate#comment-6664

We are not going to design our way out of discrimination, especially in a conversation and blog post picture that seems to imply good design of a park bench is to serve as a bed for the homeless. This is the same mistaken premise that foists social work onto our police, and I might add anarchists at our police stations.

Social injustice needs fundamental justice that respects human rights, not design criteria. Great design helps, but we're polishing turds here not rewriting the constitution. Turd polishing has ever, will ever, be the duty of design.

Pig lipstick.

Momarah's picture

Momarah

Monday, August 10, 2020 -- 7:43 AM

Yes, streets discriminate, or

Yes, streets discriminate, or at least those people who plan them do. In Orlando, between the downtown neighborhoods of Paramour (majority Black) and College Park (majority white) the streets have been fenced and only on the College Park side are the streets kept up. I’ve included a link that illustrates just one of these fences.

https://goo.gl/maps/ko9FyZURoDxJGaTGA