Sarah Schindler: Invisible Barriers Within Built Environments

Part I and II of Sarah Schindler’s essay, “Architectural Exclusion: Discrimination and Segregation through Physical Design of the Built Environment,” argue that many manmade structures within society are both intentionally and unintentionally designed to segregate certain groups of people from others. Within her introduction, she outright states that seemingly trivial aspects of a city, such as the way streets are designed or the lack of sidewalks or even the routes of buses, dramatically affect how different cultures interact, if they ever do. She also shows how these built discriminators can shape a city demographically, totally unbeknownst to those living within it, which causes us to live in communities that have been shaped for us (1939-1940). Ultimately, we lack the control of who we interact with, where we interact, and what ideas influence our lives, until we can learn how to combat barriers.

Schindler often references our obliviousness to barriers within our communities, saying that we believe structures, like one way streets or bridges, are merely features of the landscape we inhabit. We fail to see the network between how it was built, why it was built, and who its building affected. Therefore, she presents her theory on built barriers: an idea that describes how landscapes and architecture, are in fact, types of regulation (1943). In other terms, aspects of our environment drastically shape who or what interacts within the space but, ultimately, leaves a certain population out. We tend to be very unawareness of this segregation not only from a citizen standpoint but also from the position of urban planning. Schindler says that planners make decisions based on infrastructure and not for the citizens, citing Nicholas Blomley’s idea of ‘traffic logic’: the idea that planners and civil engineers prioritize the flow of pedestrians and traffic through a physical space…rather than prioritizing equal access to a physical space for all” (1945). She supports this theory in an example which contrast how neighborhoods might be divided by a highway while others might be joined by a town square (1497).

The essay highlights how these theories directly affect human behavior and integration, showing how built barriers directly affect how and where different classes and races interact. She presents arguments that show how certain areas have very specific racial identities, ones that make it hard for a new identity to become a part of and, therefore, becoming effective tools for keeping them separate (1950). The essay utilizes examples such as the Long Island bridges that are too low for twelve foot buses on which racial minorities and members of the lower class tend to ride. Furthermore, she discusses how the lack of sidewalks in certain neighborhoods may hinder those who walk or ride a bike and use that route on their daily commute (1954). Other examples are more direct, including the Eight Mile Wall in Detroit which separated an old black neighborhood and a new white neighborhood. Schindler even dissects bus routes which leave more wealthy areas out from minority routes or visa-versa (1960).



(The Eight Mile Wall in Detroit takes on a friendly, colorful facade despite acting as a barrier between neighborhoods)

Along with her examples and research, Schindler provides a look at how lawmakers both contribute to the built barrier epidemic and attempt to fix some of the more noticeable forms of discrimination. Some communities have acknowledged the irregular, nuanced bus routes and have aimed for a wider, more community inclusive solution. Still, the author constantly returns to the idea that we are oblivious to the barriers around us. While she does take the time to say that these barriers are hard to identify, even in a court of law, not all hope is lost in Schindler’s mind. In the midst of her essay, she calls for built environment discrimination to be under the same legal scrutiny of other forms of exclusion, an idea that her work to be applied in real situations (1953).


(Many citizens are forced to walk or bike along busy roads and highways during their commute due to the lack of sidewalks)

Along with her call for action, Schindler’s essay wants to remove us from the darkness of unknown discrimination to the light of understanding just how our environment works. For those entrenched in studying built environments, as we are within our class, the author provides us with a new way to view the world around us: seeing every element around us as a object created with a specific purpose. Even without the academic applications, her work remains vital to us as we live in a country that prides itself in its advanced non-exclusionary ways, yet allows discrimination to slip right under our noses every day, as she explains thoroughly. However, after reading her essay, a bench is no longer just a bench. A road is not just a road. We can go into our built environments and see it for all it is: the elements that bring us together and the ones that keep us apart.

Works Cited

Schindler, Sarah B. Architectural Exclusion: Discrimination and Segregation through Physical Design of the Built Environment. The Yale Law Journal, 2015. pp. 1939-1960

Wasilchenko, Jamie. Eight Mile Wall. 2015, Clio,

Ronkin, Michael. FHWA Safety Program. U.S. Department of Public Transportation,

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