Turf Wars: How Design is Used as a Weapon of Mass Exclusion

Written by: Shydale James,
"Architecture makes space for some people, communities and users by excluding others, for better or for worse."

A bench with armrests; “No Loitering” signs; cul-de-sacs; the Regional Contribution Agreement — all seemingly innocuous signs, objects, passages and policies that are used as weapons to restrict access to public spaces.

“At a very fundamental level, architecture makes space for some people, communities and users by excluding others, for better or for worse. In that sense architecture is always political,” said Georgeen Theodore, an architecture professor at the College of Architecture and Design at NJIT. “It is important for designers to be more aware of the social consequences, as well as the drivers of design decisions that might at first seem completely outside the realm of politics.”

Benches designed with armrests prevent the homeless from sleeping in public places.

Co-authored by Theodore, Tobias Armborst and Daniel D’Oca (all three are principals and co-founders of the Brooklyn-based architecture, design and planning firm Interboro), “The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion” cites 154 ubiquitous “weapons” used to both forbid and improve access to space.

“Much of our research was initiated simply by looking carefully and closely at the everyday built environment around us,” said Theodore. “In many ways, the book is a call for everyone to stop, look and critically examine the spaces that divide us and unite us.”

The authors visualize one inequity by using an illustrative map that demonstrates how the construction of affordable housing units was shifted from wealthy, high-opportunity communities to distressed and disadvantaged ones in New Jersey. Another entry takes on the anti-homeless armrest, describing how people who would want to lie down or sleep on a bench are made to feel unwelcome through its design.

The consequences of using such tools range from people not feeling welcome in a particular place to more far-reaching impacts, like the laws that zone children out of school districts, directly impacting educational and economic opportunities and limiting an individual's ability to thrive.

While working on the book over the last 10 years, Theodore says, the politics of space have entered architecture and urbanism discourse. She cites events such as the Ferguson unrest and the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin as examples of the acknowledged and unacknowledged rules of who gets to access space.

“By foregrounding the weapons or tools that are used by different actors to shape urban space, we tried to show that cities don't naturally evolve,” explained Theodore. “The conditions that we find in the built environment are the product of intentioned human actions. The city is makeable. Ultimately, designers, planners, even readers have the capacity to create their own weapons to fight for a more equitable and inclusive city.”