December 19, 2017
The City is a Weapon: How Design Controls and Monitors Public Space
This expansive new publication aims to arm citizen activists and urbanists with greater knowledge about the forces at work in their cities.
“Armrest” appears early on in The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion (Actar). The encyclopedic volume by Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore with Riley Gold (plus contributions from a host of architecture, urbanism, and planning notables) begins with “Accessory Dwelling Unit” and ends with “Youth Curfew,” but it is the armrest placed on a public bench to ward off unsanctioned sleeping that most efficiently summarizes what’s at stake throughout this 459-page book: access, control, and space.
As the three partners of Interboro—a Brooklyn-based architecture, planning, and research collective—Armborst, D’Oca, and Theodore are well versed in the contentious history of urban design and policy in U.S. cities. They manage to strike an editorial tone that is forthright but not strident. If anything, it is a bit self-effacing in regard to the legacy of urbanism’s discourses past and present. “For many nascent urbanists, this is where it all begins, with an excerpt from Mike Davis’s City of Quartz and an ensuing epiphany about space and power,” they write in a sidebar to the “Armrest” entry, all too aware that their example could be, in their term, “hackneyed.” Still, the trio stays with the lesson.
“The armrest is all the more insidious for how subtle it tries to be, masking its exclusionary intent as a utilitarian or decorative element of the bench’s design,” they write, adding specificity to the implications for public space.
True to the book’s title, the armrest is not simply a tool designed to deter the homeless—it is a weapon. Although it is tempting to take the “arsenal” of The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion as rhetorical styling and read the term as a stand-in for “archive” or “atlas,” the editors are literal in their interpretation, thus placing the volume in a canon of countercultural texts that ask a reader to be complicit in radical wordplay. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog made normative the techno-ecotopias of the back-to-the-land movement in the ’60s and early ’70s. The Anarchist Cookbook, published in 1971 as a protest against the Vietnam War, put recipes for revolution within reach. (When I was a high school student in Berkeley, California, I read the Cookbook while sitting in the reference room of the main branch of the Berkeley Public Library.) “Bomb,” however, is the only actual weapon listed in The Arsenal’s table of contents.
Rather than mix up a batch of Molotov cocktails, Interboro’s publication arms citizen activists and urbanists with greater knowledge about the forces at work in the cities. The Arsenal comes at a critical time when interest in the urban realm has moved beyond the innocence of tactical urbanism, with its ubiquitous vocabulary of parklets and bike lanes, and now includes protest movements to fight the perceived agents of gentrification. In the introduction, entries including policies, artifacts, and practices are broken into munitions categories, such as weapons both housing-related (“Insurance Redlining”) and public space–related (‘“No Loitering” Signs”).
Other entries entice with ambiguous meanings. Under seemingly benign weapons: “Book.” At first, this entry promises a “pen is mightier than the sword” explanation—that the printed word is the last stand for equity. And while the editors clearly believe in the distribution of content as a democratic act (otherwise, why go through the arduous task of publishing such a book?), it is a relief to find a more pedestrian description: In a nod to the First Amendment, New York City street vendors can mostly circumvent business licenses and fees by selling books and magazines. Deployed in this way, books are used as a weapon of inclusion, a legal tool that allows more people to occupy the street.
Interboro began work on much of the content that would ultimately make up The Arsenal in 2008 when the practice was asked to curate an exhibition for the 2009 International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam addressing the theme “Open City: Designing Coexistence.” Looking back after nearly a decade, the reflection on an open and inclusive society seems idyllic, even idealistic—as if the Summer of Love had followed the Manson Family murders. Economic and political events in the U.S. in the past few years have had an indelible impact on our culture and cities. Assumptions, especially within design and architecture circles, that we are moving toward a societally just (or even simply a politically neutral) urbanism no longer hold water. Armborst, D’Oca, and Theodore do their best to address this temporal shift, ticking off several critical moments during the decade. On the changes between then and now, they write: “The St. Louis suburb of Ferguson was unknown to most Americans outside Missouri. ‘Black Lives Matter’ was not yet exploding across social media platforms. Zuccotti Park was just another Privately Owned Public Space in Lower Manhattan.”
And still, it is with a sour sensation that a reader knows that so many more moments—from the Women’s March to Muslim bans to white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia—have rocked U.S. cities over the past year. The most contemporary entry is “Sanctuary City,” with that movement’s stated resistance to the administration’s deployment of ICE squads to round up undocumented immigrants. The figure and agenda of President Trump haunts each page, of course—especially in a discussion of racist and classist practices, both historical and contemporary, that have limited access to housing and services. (It was just over a year ago that stories surfaced about the Trump Organization’s deliberate segregation of minority tenants, its total disregard for the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and the subsequent lawsuit leveled against Trump and his father, Fred, by the Department of Justice.) Three successive entries—“Racial Deed Restriction,” “Racial Steering,” and “Racial Zoning”—tell a narrative, beginning in the 19th century, of methodical discrimination against nonwhite populations on the part of private developers, real estate brokers, and city government.
That segregation, both physical and sociological, is still with us today. The Arsenal covers it as it sprawls across the United States, stretching from Manhattan to Malibu and from Detroit to the U.S.-Mexico border. In bonus material accompanying “Racial Steering,” the editors cite a 2006 case study in which the Corcoran Group, a large New York City real estate firm, was allegedly caught privileging white clients in an investigation by the National Fair Housing Alliance for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And under the very innocent-sounding “Farmers Market” you’ll find a lengthy and ongoing narrative regarding Kercheval Avenue, a long-standing boundary between Detroit (with an 82 percent black population) and Grosse Pointe Park (85 percent white). Because it closes the street between the two cities, the farmers market, a revitalization amenity much touted by progressive mayors and neighborhoods, unwittingly re-creates the barricades erected during the 1967 riots to keep black Detroit residents from crossing into Grosse Pointe Park. For some, no amount of fresh produce will undo a history of spatial discrimination.
There is a fine grain to Interboro’s understanding of what is inclusionary and what is exclusionary—who is allowed in and who is kept out: It notes that the very techniques that make a space welcoming to some might ward off others. Writing on “Cultural Preservation,” architect and urban planner Toni Griffin surveys a practice so contingent on heritage, identity, and belonging that it is balanced on the precipice between inclusion and exclusion.
Some “see neighborhood symbols of cultural preservation as a segment of the community separating itself from the larger dominant American cultural norms, and as a result excluding those who are thought to not belong to that community,” she writes, but later offers a converse argument. Others “understand cultural preservation as an acknowledgment of our society’s acceptance of difference—the inclusion of all cultural narratives and their various representations as a reflection of the American story.”
When reading Griffin, it’s tough not to consider the debates going on across the country on the future of Confederate monuments and how such markers, many installed during the rise of Jim Crow not long after the Civil War, are weapons in a continuing fight over whose version of the American story will prevail. That Griffin doesn’t explicitly call out Confederate monuments in her text is not a criticism per se but instead illustrates just how quickly conditions on the ground are changing (and the near impossibility for publishing to keep up).
Indeed, throughout The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion, the editors stress the complex reality of urban life and the dual functions of many of the weapons included in the pages. They offer several “tours” through the alphabetical volume, synthesizing entries into overarching narratives. Each comes with an enticing polemic. Tour 3 (“So you want to know the weak tactics of the strong…”) and Tour 6 (“So you want to fight fire with fire…”) suggest that the book could function as instructions for those wanting to build better policy, better housing, and better public spaces.
But it would be a mistake to understand The Arsenal only as a DIY handbook to the agonistic public realm. The subject at its center is not necessarily the citizen, the urban designer, or the politician, but the city itself—a constructed phenomenon shaped by the weapons of our own design. “We hope that this book will help us understand that things like segregation and spatial injustice aren’t the product of invisible, uncontrollable market forces but of human-made tools that could have been used differently (or not at all),” writes Interboro. The text ultimately embraces history over how-to. The Arsenal, then, could be thought of as an urbanist’s I Ching, but rather than divining the future, each entry tells us about where we have been and where we are right now.
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