Schindler’s Theory of Architectural Exclusion

In Sarah Schindler’s publication, “Architectural Exclusion: Discrimination And Segregation Through Physical Design Of The Built Environment,” she identifies the features of city design that intentionally and unintentionally contribute to the exclusion of so-called “undesirable” populations. These often include people of color and the poor. Regardless of intentions, this form of social engineering leads to the division of racial and class identities in ways that are difficult to reverse.

Schindler describes three ways in which cities what she describes as “regulation.” The first two are blatantly obvious to viewers of most backgrounds: the use of laws and ordinances, and the use of threats and intimidation. The third is what she terms as the theory of “architectural exclusion.” The first two are clear and unveiled attempts at discrimination, making them easy targets in civil rights suits and activism. Architectural exclusion is much more difficult to address because its causal effect on regulation requires much deeper investigation to ascertain (1942). In many cases, the architect or urban planner is not even acting on conscious biases, but rather on the mandate to improve efficiency in the city. Schindler identifies two major categories of urban features that contribute to exclusion. These include physical barriers to access as well as transit system placement (1953).

Physical barriers describes a wide array of specific features but all share in the fact that, by design or externality, they hamper a specific group’s access to another area. Often it is the case that lower-class citizens and people of color are unable (without significant effort) to reach attractions or neighborhoods that are designed for and populated by upper-class, caucasian residents. Schindler cites the example of a road in Long Island leading to a popular local beach (1953-1954). When an architect was tasked with designing bridges over this roadway, he lowered them to the point that it would be impossible to fit city buses under them. Thus, he was able to exclude the large group of citizens who rely on public transportation, usually people of color and the poor. Biographical evidence points to racial bias as being the largest motivator of this architect.

While this anecdote suggests racial motivations behind this decision, most related barriers can be attributed to oversight or overridden priorities such as efficient traffic flow. An example of this is the construction of one-way roads in residential areas to support continuous travel while coincidentally making neighborhoods more confusing and unnavigable by outsiders (1969). Another example of this is the lack of pedestrian infrastructure that allows foot traffic through the expressways that so often divide minority communities from commercial and recreational centers (1954-1955, 1965). This may be described as being for the purpose of public safety or efficiency but nonetheless is effective in what may constitute a “blockade” of minority communities.

The other major method by which architectural regulations are made is the placement and operation of metropolitan transit systems including buses, subways, and light rail systems (1960-1961). Rationally, access to public transit would be beneficial to residents, but many upper-class citizens actively campaign against metro systems to prevent an influx of undesirable groups into their communities. This affects job access, recreational activities, and commercial opportunities for lower-class citizens and people of color. Another administrative option to enforce exclusion is the imposition of parking permits on residential streets (1972-1973). This prevents outsiders from accessing a community without express allowance by a resident and restricts the ability to travel freely throughout the city. Both of these features are common to many American metropolitan areas such as New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C.

The built environment carries with it a rhetoric that often goes unnoticed by the residents it affects. Nevertheless, it remains an integral part of the lives of millions of urban individuals throughout the world. Ostensibly, urban design may have the aim to increase efficiency and maximize economic output, but professionals in the field must maintain awareness of the externalities of architectural regulation that fragment communities and segregate groups into stratas of class and race.

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