Discrimination by design: The politics of urban spaces in modern cities

The Daily Star September 16, 2020

I was reading a harrowing report in the New York Times that revealed startling data about how federal officials in the United States during the 1930s demarcated or “redlined” certain areas of different cities as “hazardous” or “risky for business,” based on the concentration of poor Black people or immigrants in them. As a result of this unfair policy, inhabitants in these areas were denied access to federally backed housing loans or other credit. The situation entrapped them in a never-ending cycle of poverty. No real-estate businesses would come in, keeping the areas perpetually impoverished. There would be meagre investment in quality healthcare and education. Generations of children would grow up without dreams.

The most insidious aspect of this discriminatory practice was that city governments refused to invest even in “soft” infrastructures like sidewalks, urban trees, greenery, and parks that would otherwise improve the quality of everyday life in these ghettos. Mindless concrete pavements everywhere created overheated dystopias. Large heat disparities between the poor and wealthy sections of the city became a pattern. Research shows that a “greenless” neighbourhood like Gilpin in Richmond, Virginia, has unusually high heat-related ambulance calls in the city. Unfortunately, this type of discrimination by design continues today.

The New YorkTimes wrote: “There are places like Gilpin all across the United States. In cities like Baltimore, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Portland and New York, neighbourhoods that are poorer and have more residents of colour can be 5 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter in summer than wealthier, whiter parts of the same city.” The pattern shows how a combination of racial injustice and anti-poor attitude directly results in a wide range of public health crises and urban inequalities. There is no brute police force that perpetrates this type of social injustices. There is no need for a heavy knee on anybody’s neck. It is done with the covert deployment of race-based policies and prejudiced urban strategies.

Discrimination by policy and design is, of course, not an American problem alone. This has long been a global problem since urban poverty began to define the nature of the industrial city in the 19th century. The politics of urban space in London, the capital of the “first industrial nation,” began with the separation of different economic classes. In Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities (2012), Carl Nightingale wrote: “The city was the site for the world’s first use of government-protected legal instruments—restrictive covenants—to divide neighbourhoods for the rich and “respectable” (the West End) from the poor, the “paupers,” and the “unrespectable” (the East End).”

The lessons learned from the segregation and sanitisation of the wealthy areas in London reached the colonies of the British Empire. In colonial cities, the division was often about creating separate zones for different racial groups. Calcutta’s urban DNA developed around the contested division of White Town and Black Town or the English colonists and native Indians, although the boundary between the two urban blocks became increasingly blurred and more a mental construct than a physical entity. In one way or the other, many colonial cities, including Dhaka, went through a similar urban process of segregation.

Furthermore, the ruling class internalises the idea that only it can manage and emancipate the poor through its exclusive and expert vision of prosperity. This elitist paradigm has spawned an interventionist culture in which the poor receive only what is given to them as “aid.” They are often not allowed to participate in their own development, although nowadays sometimes routine “participation” opportunities are offered to them.

As the whole world urbanises at an unprecedented rate, the urban poor face systemic marginalisation and inhumanity often legitimised with the dominant neoliberal attitude towards poverty. That is, poverty is inevitable and even necessary in a laissez-faire free market economy and the poor are those who failed in the market’s economic Darwinian environments. So, the poor must fall in line to participate at the bottom of the so-called trickle-down economy of global capital.

In a scenario like this, policymakers, urban administrators, urban planners and designers often feel that they can unilaterally decide what to do with the poor, their lives, and their ghettoised neighbourhoods. Give them a bit of “slum improvement,” entice them with a few carrots for social mobility, give them a park with a fancy coffee shop, or put in a modern-looking school next to their slum. What a typical city mayor’s office often fails to understand is that by its very “design,” imposed from above, it discriminates against the people it wants to help. The design itself creates a mental barrier which the poor often fail to overcome. The design itself becomes an instrument of segregation.

Today, the world population is estimated to have reached a staggering 7.8 billion, out of which urban populations are more than 4.2 billion. According to a 2018 United Nations report, 1.3 billion live in slums (over 30 percent of the world’s urban population) and “an estimated 3 billion people will require adequate and affordable housing by 2030.”

As the American urban theorist Mike Davis reminds us, we live in a “planet of slums.” This planet has ironically become a site of bourgeois experiments, feel-good benevolence, chic activism, aid-mongering and the luxury of not doing anything at all. Slums, bastees, favelas are everywhere but the dominant mitigation philosophy is to hide them or make them invisible or cordon them off (with the promise of “improvement”), so that they cannot pollute the urban body of the upper class. Segregation dehumanises the poor and the marginalised.

In many developing countries today, policymakers, urban administrators and urban planners assume—in their zealous bid to emulate neoliberal models of growth and prosperity—that gentrification is the answer. Gentrification could be a nebulous term though. According to its eager proponents, gentrification is beneficial because communities in distressed neighbourhoods experience an influx of capital, goods, and services that were previously unavailable or denied to them. As a result, their economic mobility would accelerate. Its detractors, on the other hand, argue that gentrification leads to more segregation as the increase in property value displaces low-income families and small businesses.

Furthermore, the visuality of affluence and middle class lifestyle (such as a fancy coffeeshop, a paid gymnasium or an upscale supermarket) in impoverished areas could create insurmountable mental barriers that eventually re-segregate the poor households within their own neighbourhoods.

As Bangladesh urbanises rapidly, we need a new generation of urban thinking that would show the subtleties of people-centric and environment-conscious development. An aesthetically pleasing or “cool-looking” development may not work for the people it is intended for. It may even backfire. We frequently see variations of riverfront developments across Bangladesh—initiated by both public and private sectors—that are full of “Singapore-style” amenities, overhanging amphitheaters, glitzy coffeeshops and restaurants, and expensive concrete walkways for the leisure class (not considering the daily boat commuters and how they use their ghats). What we need first is empathy for the people we design for and then a deeper anthropological understanding of the problems they face.

Alejandro Aravena, the Chilean architect and the winner of Architecture’s highest honour the Pritzker Prize in 2016, said: “There’s nothing worse than answering the wrong questions well.” It is important to ask the right questions first before we answer them in our cities. And then we must learn how not to discriminate and segregate people by our misguided design and development.

 

Adnan Zillur Morshed is an architect, architectural historian, and columnist. He is a professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and serves as Director of the Centre for Inclusive Architecture and Urbanism at BRAC University.

He can be reached at morshed@cua.edu

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