Hopping into a Chevy Bel Air and commuting from the ‘burbs to a city job or pulling up to the nearest mall to do some shopping or hang with friends at the food court — these were concepts sold as part of the American dream when they were introduced in the U.S. in the 1950s.
But some architects and design critics say these innovations were actually vehicles of segregation that destroyed communities of colour in the U.S. and further separated them from white America.
Adam Paul Susaneck is a New York City-based architect and creator of the project Segregation by Design, which looks at urban renewal, the construction of freeways, and redlining — a discriminatory practice that he says involved “grading each neighbourhood for investment value, based on race.”
“I’m not saying that the average architect who participated in these urban renewal projects was a racist. But I’m saying that [they were] taking part in a process that was kicked off by redlining that was racist. The system was,” Susaneck told Nora Young on Spark.
“They’re saying don’t invest in this neighbourhood, because of who lives there.”
To demonstrate how these architectural projects could devastate certain areas, Susaneck compares historic aerial photographs of cities to photos taken after some of the highways were built and shows how the neighbourhoods were reshaped to accommodate them.
“[I’m] trying to give folks an idea of what it was actually like because it’s described one way in the documents … and generally, these [places that were destroyed], they were described as slums,” he said.
“So I like to really show that they simply weren’t. And a lot of them, frankly, are indistinguishable from what we consider some of the finest neighbourhoods in cities now.”
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Spark54:52549: Designing an inclusive world
Moving to the suburbs
Susaneck says a few factors contributed to the architectural segregation he studies. This includes the move away from streetcars and trains in major cities, which paved the way for cars.
White Americans were drifting to live in the suburbs, while still working in the city. This meant more roads and highways needed to be built.
Susaneck says the United States government helped accelerate this process with two particular bills: the 1949 Federal Housing Act, legislation that aimed to improve housing and help cities clear areas then defined as slums, and the 1956 Federal Highway Act that provided 90 per cent funding for cities looking to upgrade their highways to federal standards.
American soldiers returning from the Second World War were also given housing in the suburbs, and though that same offer was extended to Black G.I.s., they weren’t able to claim it.
According to Susaneck, it was written right into the deed that houses could be sold to Caucasians only. So technically, Black soldiers returning from war were eligible for the G.I. bill, “but in practise, they weren’t.”
He says all of this contributed to “white flight” from urban areas.
“There’s a lot of incentives for the white middle class to move out to the suburbs and to drive. And that naturally reduces the amount of people using the transit systems,” said Susaneck.
“The effect of the highway is to encourage automobile-based suburbanization … to provide the literal route of white flight.”
How malls contributed to inequality
The creation of the mall also contributed to that move to the suburbs, and by extension, to inequality.
America’s first mall, the Southdale Center, was built in Edina, Minn., in 1956. Edina is a suburb of Minneapolis, and many malls that followed were built in the suburbs as well. As a result, they weren’t as accessible to communities mostly composed of people of colour.
“A lot of the early suburbs were either implicitly or explicitly only open to white families. So all of the people living around the mall would have been white families,” said Alexandra Lange, a design critic in Brooklyn and the author of Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall.
“So the mall was really designed to give the women and children who were at home during the day a place to go to do shopping and socialize.”
And it wasn’t just a mall’s location that served white Americans. Lange said the design itself also contributed to segregation in that many malls were created only for people who owned cars.
“Mall owners actively fought off having bus stops, in some cases, near the malls, or had them stop in inconvenient locations to try to keep their customers to the higher-income people who could afford cars and could commute longer distances to the mall.”
Building inclusive architecture
Architect Shawn Bailey says there are ways to avoid the mistakes of the past and build a more inclusive future.
Bailey, an Indigenous scholar and assistant professor in the University of Manitoba’s faculties of architecture and engineering and a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, says the freeway and the mall are examples of the kind of harm architecture can cause.
“I think we have to be very careful in what we do, and that sometimes architecture can be extremely hostile,” he said.
“That lack of openness and that lack of discussion and collaboration and sort of having those exchanges of what’s important to a place, oftentimes creates a detriment.”
Bailey works closely with communities and Indigenous elders to help create a more diverse field of study. One way he does that is by taking his students to the land to connect them with Indigenous knowledge keepers.
“The first stage in the process is really understanding the place, the [context] of the place,” he said.
This does more than just encourage diversity. According to Bailey, it also improves the design process and promotes creativity. He says the way architecture is done now doesn’t need to be completely tossed out, but rather modified.
“We can take those teachings from Indigenous knowledge and Western knowledge and find a new paradigm to just try and make things better.”
Produced by McKenna Hadley-Burke and Michelle Parise.
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