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America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress

Architects and planners have an obligation to protect health, safety and welfare through the spaces we design. As the George Floyd protests reveal, we’ve failed.
Police line up outside the White House in Washington, D.C. as protests against the killing of George Floyd continue.
Police line up outside the White House in Washington, D.C. as protests against the killing of George Floyd continue.Oliver Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

This moment is heartbreaking. Again. It is emotionally exhausting. Again. It is enraging to watch yet another black body plead not to be executed in public. Again.

There is nothing more representative of the state of and abuse of power in America than the scene that transpired in Washington, D.C. on Monday night: After watching U.S. cities erupt for days with pain and grief in response the police murder of George Floyd, President Donald Trump emerged from his White House bunker to forcibly remove clergy and tear-gas Black Lives Matter protesters — all in order to pose with a Bible in front of D.C.’s St. John’s Church. The Episcopal diocese oversees the 1815 structure and has expressed outrage at the action. It’s important to understand his intentions, as the president did all of this to marshal the physical architectural symbolism of the church to buttress his claims of moral, political, and racial authority. It was an escalation on the highest level, from the highest office.

For nearly every injustice in the world, there is an architecture that has been planned and designed to perpetuate it. That’s a key principle of the Design Justice movement, upon which I base my practice. Design Justice seeks to dismantle the privilege and power structures that use architecture as a tool of oppression and sees it as an opportunity to envision radically just spaces centered on the liberation of disinherited communities.

That built-in oppression takes many forms. It’s in the planning decisions that target non-white communities for highway projects and “urban renewal” schemes conceived to steer economic benefits away from existing residents. It’s in a design philosophy that turned neighborhoods into mazes of “defensible space” that often criminalize blackness under the guise of safety. And it’s in the proliferation of public spaces that often fail to let certain cultural communities congregate without fear of harassment.