by Christo Hall
“Contested space.” I first heard that term in reference to the communities that surrounded the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There — where political, religious and geographic disputes brought about physical violence and an interruption of shared space — the term was apt, but using the language of conflict and competition to describe issues of public space overshadows what is surely the greater objective: harmony.
A new collection of essays, The Arsenal of Exclusion and Inclusion (Actar Press, 2017), seeks to address strategies and interventions it calls “weapons”, which have been used with the ambition to create both exclusive and inclusive spaces in cities. Weapons that have historically — especially considering the focus of the book on American cities — often brought about racial segregation, such as Robert Moses building low bridges along the Long Island Parkway in New York to prevent poorer black communities — who were travelling by bus — from accessing beaches built for the overwhelmingly white suburbs.
But is the language of weaponisation appropriate in the discussion of public space? My feeling is that to describe the guerrilla attempts at spatial inclusivity like the wide-ranging Occupy movement or the wade-in protests that accessed “private beaches” as examples of public space warfare is counterintuitive. These were peaceful challenges to schools of thought that encourage inequality; they were not looking to inflict harm.
Nevertheless, as a reader from the UK, I’m aware that many of the tools of spatial exclusion that we see in this country are latent forms of manipulation rarely addressed or understood until recently.
The fact is that many tools of exclusion are covert. Many mixed-tenure developments have one door for private tenants and another for its social housing tenants (something that has become known as the “poor door”). Many public benches are designed with armrests to prevent homeless individuals sleeping on them, while some cities have banned people from providing food to the homeless in public space.
In the suburbs of Cleveland and Chicago, neighbourhoods lobbied to remove basketball hoops from public space to prevent the arrival of “outsiders”, which was code for a white neighbourhood seeking to keep its neighbourhood white. A Baltimore neighbourhood demanded one-way streets along every road that led to the avenue which divided them from a majority black community living on the other side.
Examples like these are eye opening, and the book is an excellent resource to spot the exclusive policies that are often executed under the guise of another aim, with more than a hint of sleight of hand. But as a resource it also helps identify those tools of inclusion that might not be immediately obvious: design elements such as detectable warning surfaces or building ramps that work to better include people with disabilities in the public realm, for example.
Not all the tools of exclusion and inclusion are hidden: gated developments, or the proposed bill in US congress that will provide lactation rooms in all American airports, are hard to miss.
The hundreds of listed ‘weapons’ in this book, many in relation to housing policy in the United States, contribute to portraying a situation where access is often regulated by affordability — and, increasingly, desirability. For example, regulations against non-criminal behaviour such as skateboarding, parkour and “loitering” — whether implemented by public or private orders, and often by groups such as ‘block clubs’ and Business Improvement Districts — are prejudices against certain groups of people in the name of so-called “common decency”.
To regulate what is desirable in public space is an ambiguous business, and one that suggests that someone or some authority knows best. And in an era of state relinquishment of public space to the private sector, what is desirable is often defined as what people and behaviour leads to the most profit rather than what can lead to social good, and where wealthy members of the public are privileged over others.
While the book’s essays do a great job of assessing the individual “weapons”, they do little to propose a cohesive thesis as to how to tackle opposing ideas about space and civil liberty. It is, largely, a safe study and an epidemiology of public space disorder. What’s needed now is discussions that weigh up what is needed to accommodate attitudes, whether we should be trying to reach consensus in public policy or instead somehow trying to find a solution that works for all, or if indeed there is such a thing as a city which is too permissive. To crack attitudes of fear and closed-mindedness we don’t need weapons — we need conversation.