Walls in the City: Building Social Exclusion

Sana Ahrar & Tazrin Islam

Graffiti protesting gated communities.

Graffiti in California, (Tenderloin, San Francisco) depicting the culture of gated communities in the United States. (Source: Almonroth)

Fortified cities and walls have been used to keep out foreign invaders since ancient times. In today’s socio-political context, walls symbolizing national and international disputes have become notorious.  Typically, a dispute or conflict takes place between the parties on either side of the wall.  Yet in some cases, there is no direct “us vs. them” conflict. Instead, values common in academic discourse, such as the “right to the city” and “inclusive design” have been cast aside in favor of walls that build social exclusion. 

In the absence of a specific enemy, walls are often justified by security concerns against the unnamed “others”.  This has resulted in either poor neighborhoods encircled by walls and becoming ghettos, or wealthier communities that deliberately choose to live in enclaves.  With walls placed around each homogeneous group, cities turn into labyrinths of enclosures that can exacerbate social segregation based on race or income.

To show how physical barriers can be used as an instrument for social exclusion under the pretext of security measures, we look at three examples of walls from around the world. Despite the different national contexts, these examples all resulted from an expressed security concern that masked an underlying issue of racial or class-based segregation. We argue that carving up the urban fabric in this way is detrimental to cities, as it leads to social exclusion rather than more security. Creating an idealized enclave at the social cost of segregation is, we argue, unethical.

A Wall to Hide the Poor in Ahmedabad, India

Workers construct a wall in front of a slum ahead of Donald Trump's visit to Ahmedabad, India.

Workers construct a wall in front of a slum ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Ahmedabad, India.(Photo: Ajit Solanki/AP, The Guardian, 2020)

Renowned Indian architect and urbanist Charles Correa has pointed out that urban poverty can be considered the worst pollution of all; more visible than the smoke in the sky or sulfur in the air. In dense South-Asian cities, societal indifference and planning inequalities are evident in exclusionary city beautification movements and anti-slum drives.

In February 2020, during President Donald Trump’s two-day visit to India, media attention was diverted to a seemingly tangential incident. In the north-western state of Gujarat, a 1640 foot long wall was hastily put up along the path to his welcome rally in the Ahmedabad Stadium to hide a slum area with 2000 inhabitants from Trump’s view. 

The wall drew both satirical and serious attention to the issues of social segregation and injustice in Indian cities. In the absence of media attention resulting from VIP events, most anti-slum measures in India go unnoticed. The physical barrier constructed by the city as a part of a “security” and “beautification” drive reflects India’s urban reality and the inadequacies of the system to provide citizens access to the city. 

In news reports, state officials claimed that the wall was built because of security concerns and to “beautify” the city. The inhabitants retorted by asking why the money spent on the wall was not used for improving the slum rather than hiding it. Hiding the urban poor raises ethical concerns because it treats the residents in informal settlements, and not their poverty, as the problem to be dealt with.

A case study report published by the Overseas Development Institute in 2016 critically assesses major state-endorsed and capital-intensive developments in India. The report highlights exclusionary planning approaches, such as the removal of residents from slum areas in the center of Ahmedabad to the city’s periphery. Erecting a wall at the edge of a slum just before a diplomatic event can be seen as a further anti-poor strategy unrelated to any security concern. Visually excluding the urban poor to create an image of a developed, slum-free city raises ethical questions about policy makers’ decision making and implementation process. 

Walls to Segregate Rich and Poor in Lima, Peru

The approximately 6-mile wall, a response to a wave of migration in the 1980s, now divides the Peruvian capital's rich neighborhoods from its poor ones.

The approximately 6-mile long wall, a response to a wave of migration in the 1980s, now divides the Peruvian capital’s rich neighborhoods from its poor ones. (Megan Janetsky, The Atlantic, 2019)

Rural to urban migration is part of the urbanization process, often resulting in an excessive demand for affordable housing and an increased load on existing infrastructure. The marginalization of economically weaker populations is evident in Latin American cities facing this type of migration. One form of marginalization has been an infamous concrete wall in Lima, Peru that spans over 6 miles. Created in 1985 between the poorest areas of San Juan de Miraflores and the rich districts of La Molina and Santiago de Surco, the wall is an example of a consciously created barrier designed to keep migrants out. . The poor neighborhoods lack civic facilities and amenities, while public spaces are limited to the rich side of the wall, where poorer residents have no access. 

The wall not only denotes the economic disparity between the neighborhoods on either side, it also widens the gap between the poor and the rich by restricting employment resources, thus minimizing upward mobility for a stigmatized population. The wall in Lima has become both a physical and symbolic divide between two polarized worlds and is known in Peru as the “wall of shame”. 

One can easily argue for removing the physical divide and creating opportunities and amenities in the poorer areas bordered by the wall.  A fictitious security concern, however, continues to be used to justify separating the poorer areas from the richer ones. This is all the more striking as a majority of the service providers employed by the rich live on the poor side of the wall and must cross the barrier to get to their place of work

Despite the presence of the “wall of shame”, most of Lima’s upper-class communities have been developed as walled-off residential zones, ironically served by people beyond the walls. This has influenced the development of many middle and lower-class neighborhoods, resulting in at least 3000 physical barriers and some 300 residential enclaves. An increasing reliance on physical barriers has turned Lima into an assembly of exclusionary spaces that minimize public spaces, obstruct mobility, and hampers the citizens’ rights to the city.

Gilded Cages: Gated Communities in the U.S.  

The entrance to the Hidden Hills gated community in Los Angeles

The entrance to the Hidden Hills gated community in Los Angeles, one of the luxurious gated communities known for celebrity houses. (Source: Hidden Hills)

Gated communities are enclosure-based residential areas grounded upon the idea of safe neighborhood planning. The wall in this case keeps outsiders from using the amenities of the gated community by controlling access. 

In the United States, gated communities were the fastest growing form of housing by the end of the 20th century and continue unabated . During the 1980s, companies started marketing gated neighborhoods as providing American dream houses with the added lure of safety, exclusivity, and prestige . According to the American Housing Survey, by the year 2000, 1. 7 million houses across the U.S. were in gated communities, with more than one million homes behind such walls in the Greater Los Angeles area alone .

Gated communities in the United States present a reversal of the walled areas in India or Peru, outlined above. In the United States, walls have not been placed around poorer neighborhoods; rather, middle- and upper-income groups have enclosed themselves in homogenous social enclaves . Although this may seem like an individual lifestyle choice, gated communities negatively impact urban life by creating new forms of exclusion. Planners of gated communities often privatize public resources, manipulate civic rights to serve a specific income group, and obstruct access to public space and amenities, and thus add to taxpayer-funded municipal service costs.

Urbanist Setha Low’s research reveals that the notion of security from “others” has been a dominant excuse for creating such enclaves . Her interviews with residents show that the majority of them were not sure about the extent of the security offered and were still afraid of “outsiders” working within the community. They pointed out that perceived security features allow them to let their guard down, although they were aware that the walls and gates did not mean that non-residents would not enter the enclave.

In their book  Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, Edward J. Blakely and  Mary Gail Snyder analyze statistics on whether gated communities actually serve as a deterrent to crime. The results are ambiguous,  as police reports show crimes are as likely to come from within the gates as from outside. Setha M. Low presents the example of the Simi Valley gated community in Southern California, a walled community with open guardhouses and no guards. The security measures are feigned, creating a false sense of enclosure as a selling point. This exemplifies the role of these symbolic enclosures devoid of actual functional demand .

As Low points out, children in gated communities growing up without the exposure of social diversity are less able to thrive in a more heterogeneous world. Blakely points out that the more places are locked up, the more places left unlocked become susceptible to problems. Will the resulting solution be to lock everything up? Where would that lead? The very idea opposes American values of an open society. As Blakeley and Snider argue, the nation cannot have a “social contract” without having “social contact”.


The three scenarios discussed above show walls ostensibly used as a security measure. The result has been urban fragmentation and class-based exclusion. In the case of Ahmedabad, a wall around a slum had a negligible impact on security protocols for a state visit. In Lima, the six-mile “wall of shame” cutting through the city did not restrict people from passing from one side to the other. And in the United States, gated communities create more “leftover spaces” and “left-over citizens” than safe spaces. Under the cover of security concerns, walls and gates have become a spatial manifestation of social bias, prejudices, and public indifference towards economically weaker sections of society.

Geographer David Harvey has analyzed spatial distributions from the normative ethical concepts of social justice. He suggests a system where mechanisms (institutional, organizational, political, and economic) should prioritize the economically least advantaged. In the cases presented above we see the inverse scenario, where a capital-driven decision-making process has carved up space, marking some areas with a higher price tag while stigmatizing others. The city has become a labyrinth of many cities, making a just distribution of scarce public resources nearly impossible.

Both community-level awareness and policy-level approach will be required to eliminate such problems. Architects and planners must advocate for a built environment free from barriers that promote social exclusion.  It is important to think of the city as a homogeneous system, instead of a piecemeal set of fragmented problems.


Contentious Histories: Out of the Belly of Christopher Columbus

Enam Rabbi Adnan and Will Mattern


The Landing of Columbus

Image of the frieze of American History- The Landing of Columbus, Photo: USCapitol

United States history contains many legends about how our nation was founded and how it expanded. Such myths have been handed down over the generations. While presented as historical fact, our national myths often exclude and contradict the realities of the native American perspective. National myths are presented through stories but also cemented in time through monuments and other visual means, such as paintings. This has led to a contested history that continues to be portrayed and perpetuated throughout time.

This article investigates the ethical dilemma presented by three historical monuments: commemorative statues of Christopher Columbus such as the one at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, the paintings in the United State Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., and the presidential sculptures at Mount Rushmore National Park in South Dakota.

Columbus Circle in New York

Columbus Circle in New York City, Photo: TarHeel4793

To Build a New World

Christopher Columbus has become a highly contentious figure in American history. Popularly heralded as an explorer who “discovered” North America, his expedition in 1492 came at a grave cost to indigenous lives. Nevertheless, many monuments celebrating his life and conquests continue to portray him as a brave adventurer.

In 2017, the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, declared a review of all “symbols of hate” in the city’s public spaces. With this, de Blasio targeted monuments that whitewashed history or ignored painful consequences. Among the statues considered for removal was that of Christopher Columbus at New York’s Columbus Circle, located at West 59th Street in Manhattan. Sculpted in 1892 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, the statue became a subject of contested history, with many activists calling for its removal.

The possibility of removing the Columbus statue was met with strong resistance from New York’s Italian-American community. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo became a high-profile individual who objected to the removal of the Columbus statue. Even if the statue were removed, would the name “Columbus Circle” remain?

Many statues of Columbus have been vandalized and defaced in cities such as New York, Baltimore, and Detroit. The defacements have pushed the debate about Columbus into the realm of public awareness. As de Blasio stated in a New York Post article: “This is complicated stuff. But you know it’s a lot better to be talking about it and trying to work through it than ignoring it.”

De Blasio has proposed keeping the controversial monuments, but augmenting them with material that would offer more nuanced versions of their history. While the monuments recognize historical events, it is necessary to frame them within the historic context in which they were created. A monument may carry a deeper and more painful meaning than can be read on the surface level.

The Landing of Columbus by John Vanderlyn, 1847

“The Landing of Columbus” by John Vanderlyn, 1847, Photo: USCapitol

Beneath Concrete and Steel

The United States Capitol Building is the seat of the United States Congress. Its towering dome and rotunda are well-known symbols of the federal government. The Capitol Building was constructed in two distinct phases. The rotunda was conceived by the original architect, Dr. William Thornton, and completed by Charles Bulfinch in 1826. It was intended to be the heart of the Capitol and contains artwork that tells a history of the North American continent.

The Capitol Building was expanded to accommodate the nation’s growth in the 1850s and 1860s. The rotunda was enlarged and capped with a new, higher dome designed by Thomas U. Walter. New artwork added with the expansion included the Frieze of American History. Authored by the Italian-American painter Constantino Brumidi, the Frieze of American History shows Europeans interacting with native people fairly, and ignores how Native American culture was destroyed. The works embalmed inside the rotunda tell a selective version of American history that marginalizes the Native American perspective and ignores the suffering that native tribes endured during the European and American expansions. Christopher Columbus’s likeness appears three times in the rotunda, more times than any other person aside from United States presidents. The emphasis on Columbus, and the heavily edited version of history portrayed in the artwork, perpetuate the myth of Columbus as a heroic pioneer.

Mount Rushmore monument at South Dakota depicting founding fathers and Presidents of the United States (From Left- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln)

Mount Rushmore Monument at South Dakota depicting Founding Fathers and Presidents of the United States (From left- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln) Photo: Jim Bowen

Forever Closed, Forever Lost

Many miles to the west, Mount Rushmore, South Dakota has become a further site of contested history. Originally, the Black Hills from which the monument is carved was the sacred ancestral land for Lakota and Sioux Native Americans. With the treaty of 1868, the United States government formally stripped these Native American nations of their land. In 1876, the Lakota and Sioux defeated the United States army in the Battle of Little Bighorn, yet despite this, the U.S. government soon forcibly took the land without any compensation.

In 1927, the state historian of South Dakota, Doane Robinson, proposed a monument at the Black Hills to observe the contribution of the western pioneers and Native Americans. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum countered with a proposal to depict the founding fathers and presidents of the United States (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln). Borglum’s proposal was chosen and the monument, funded by the federal government, was finished almost fourteen years later.

Today the Black Hills are formally owned by the United States government as part of Mount Rushmore National Park, preserved and restricted from development. The famous monument to key U.S. presidents deflects from a painful history of the site. The U.S. government forcibly deprived native people of their sacred land and erected a monument that promoted a history of U.S. exceptionalism. The moral and ethical questions bound up in this process are cast aside through the monument.

Native Americans have continued a legal fight for their land. In 1979, the U.S. government agreed to pay for the land after decades-long protests by the Native Americans. Many of the Native Americans refused to accept the small annual stipend offered, and they continue to demand ownership of the land. Meanwhile, the Mount Rushmore monument continues to present a historical narrative that presents nineteenth-century colonizers in a positive light. The monument and its narrative ignore the sacrifice and contributions of the Native American people.

In 1948, after rigorous appeals from the chief of the Native Americans Henry Standing Boar, another monument named after defiant native Lakota leader ‘Crazy Horse’ was erected to commemorate the contributions of Native Americans. The later monument, erected without federal funding, was meant to amend past narratives that ignored Native American history and culture. As of this writing, however, the new monument is still not listed on the park’s main website. This means that most visitors will remain unaware of important aspects of Native American history connected to the site, including the contested views of land ownership.

"The Baptism of Pocahontas" by John Chapman at the Rotunda of the Capitol, painted in 1840

“The Baptism of Pocahontas” by John Gadsby Chapman at the Rotunda of the Capitol, painted in 1840 Photo: USCapitol


The Capitol rotunda and the art it contains were completed during the same time period that Mount Rushmore was taken from the Native Americans. Pocahontas, a Native American woman noted for her friendship with white settlers in the seventeenth century, appears in the rotunda three times. She is twice portrayed as saving Captain John Smith, an English explorer. This likely never happened, as Pocahontas was very young when Smith was in North America and Smith is known to have fabricated two other similar stories. Truthful or not, this story has made Pocahontas a symbol of native cooperation with white settlers.

The third representation of Pocahontas is in a painting called Baptism of Pocahontas by John Chapman. The painting shows Pocahontas adopting the Christian faith and by proxy European culture. Chapman shows Pocahontas in the light and all other Native Americans in shadow, perhaps suggesting assimilation as the righteous path for Native Americans. The expectation was for Native Americans to assimilate or be removed.

Baptism of Pocahontas was installed ten years after President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. This law displaced native tribes to make room for European settlers in what became known as the “Trail of Tears”. The Cherokee nation saw some of the largest casualties during this event. A statue of Andrew Jackson, the man responsible for this genocide, stands proudly a few feet away from the painting, creating yet another ethically problematic reading of U.S. history within the Capitol Building.

The contested narratives presented above have shaped and influenced the life of Native Americans across the country. Beyond this, they continue to shape our beliefs about our national legacy. The portrayal of Christopher Columbus as an adventurous explorer, the portrayal of “good” Native Americans as taking on the settlers’ values, and the portrayal of how Native American lands were lost is part of a pattern that remains ethically problematic.  Reframing such portrayals to provide a more nuanced historical context is a first step towards encouraging a more ethical treatment of those involved. 


Gender and Religion: A Closer Look at Inequality in Sacred Architecture

Mona Mirzaie, Stella Murray, and Olivia Shotyk

Separation between the female portion of the western wall.JPG

“Separation between the female portion of the western wall.” Photo: Peter van der Sluijs

Gender segregation – and consequently, gender inequality – have been a constant factor in many religious communities. In the Book of Genesis, the first book of both the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament,  the first humans are introduced as Adam, a man being shaped from the “dust of the ground” and Eve, a woman being made from a rib “taken out of the man”.  This description begins an allegorical gender inequality in Abrahamic religions and the subsequent orientation of both Eastern and Western societies towards man as the ideal human being.

Since the conception of Adam and Eve, religious communities worldwide have continued to be shaped through a patriarchal framework. Women and femininity continue to represent sin, deceit and uncleanliness, due largely to how they are represented in religious texts. Masculinity, on the other hand, is associated with ideas of progress, civilization and politics.

Sacred architecture has followed suit, highlighting the role of men and concepts of masculinity. Even religious professions are male-dominated. Sacred architecture has diminished the presence of women, sometimes to the point of their exclusion. In other cases, women are not excluded, but are relegated to spaces separate from those of men. This is problematic when one considers that segregation of gender is correlated to the lower status of women.

Architectural historian Daphne Spain argues that the spatial segregation of women has kept them from accessing knowledge that has allowed men to hold power. By disregarding women’s roles in religion and religious spaces, society is reaffirming a patriarchal religious narrative that women are less valuable. We argue that sacred architecture is a symbol of power, and that excluding women from such settings prevents them from acquiring positions of power within religious organizations, where they are sadly underrepresented. To show how physical segregation of women in sacred architecture reaffirms the beliefs of women as second-class citizens, we look to examples in Hinduism, Orthodox Christianity and Islam.

Hindu Temples: Who has the right to pray?


“Sabarimala Rush.” Avsnarayan, 2010. Photo: Avsnarayan

Religion is entrenched in Indian culture. While politics symbolizes power, Hinduism symbolizes it to a greater extent. With religion so embedded in politics, the line between the two is sometimes blurred. In a political climate where the Prime Minister is shaping national identity based on the lineage of Hindus and legitimacy of Hindu scriptures, “Hindu first” is becoming a growing movement.

The dispute over access to religious space has become a power dispute within Hinduism as well. If Hindu women cannot fully participate in a Hindu temple’s community, how can they truly possess power?

Currently, Hindu temples in India ban women from the religious process, disempowering them and dissuading them from participating in religious society. In 1991, the Kerala High Court ruled that in order to respect the essential rites of temples whose chief deity is Ayyappan, women should not be allowed to enter outside of the main pilgrimage seasons. The gender restriction is connected to what some call the “myth of Ayyappan.” In this myth, the male god Vishnu takes on a female form to conceive the deity Ayyappan, who shares companionship only with males. Women may only worship this god once male worshippers cease visiting the temple, effectively excluding them from this religious space.

One such temple is the Sabarimala Temple, a site of recent controversy. In 2016, a social media outcry with the hashtag #RightToPray, raised awareness of the discrimination against women in holy places. The Indian Young Lawyers’ Association filed a petition to repeal the exclusion of women of childbearing age from the temple. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of India ruled that Sabarimala must allow female worshippers to enter the temple and that the exclusion of women from holy sites is unconstitutional.

After the ruling and controversy surrounding women’s rights in India, members of the Indian Young Lawyers’ Association received death threats, A lawyer representing the Sabarimala authorities attempted to explain his client’s position: “You can’t look at the issue from the angle of worshippers alone. It has to be seen from the point of view of the god being worshipped, a celibate”.

Tradition alone cannot explain why women have been banned from the temple, however. Before 1991, women were allowed to enter the Sabarimala temple .  Even after the 2016 ruling allowed women to once again enter this space, local protesters continue to deny them access, reinforcing the view that gender politics, and not tradition, is driving women’s exclusion.

Orthodox Christianity: Avoiding temptation or reinforcing harmful stereotypes?

“Meeting of Russian Orthodox Church Bishops' Council.” President of Russia Office, 2017.

“Meeting of Russian Orthodox Church Bishops’ Council.” Photo: President of Russia Office, 2017.

Orthodox Christian churches provide a further example of religious institutions that have deliberately segregated men and women. Despite the church defending its position as an effort to avoid temptation between sexes, many see this segregation as a means to reinforce gender stereotypes. In most Orthodox churches, congregations are separated  to discuss the different lessons taught to males and females. For example, men talk about coping with lust and pornography, while women discuss body image issues.

Tailoring moral lessons by sex promotes gender stereotypes and gender absolutes, with no room for overlap or acknowledgment that both genders can struggle with body image or lust. We argue that the church is reinforcing the message that these “sins” or weaknesses are genetic and therefore cannot be overcome – an example of a “boys will be boys” mentality. Explaining character failings as driven by inherent gender differences becomes a way of excusing moral failures.

Countries with a majority Orthodox population report more conservative views on gender roles than countries with more liberal Christian populations. For example, a majority of Armenians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Russians, and Belarusians agreed that women have a responsibility to society to bear children.  In Orthodox-majority countries, 42% of surveyed residents responded that women should  always obey their husbands, while only 25% of those in countries without an Orthodox majority responded the same way.

This is in part due to the Pauline teachings, which state that women are best suited to nurturing and submissive supporting roles, rather than leadership positions. While Christian women across the world are on average more devout than their male counterparts, conservative social views in Orthodox-majority countries help explain why women are disproportionately underrepresented in the Orthodox Church leadership.

The Orthodox Christian Church, in separating men and women for church services, becomes a site of gendered space. Separating men and women can cause discomfort for families with children, or for mixed-sex partnerships where one person is new to the congregation. In some Orthodox churches, women are not allowed to participate in church life or enter holy places during their menstruation due to their perceived “uncleanliness”. The physical separation of sexes within the Orthodox church is a reminder to women that they play a lesser role in the Church itself.

As in the Hindu example cited above, tradition alone cannot explain discriminatory practices against women in the Christian Orthodox Church. Women deacons existed in the first thousand years of the Orthodox church, yet returning women to positions of power within the church hierarchy is not even a point of discussion today. Today, women participate in the Church only under the authority of male bishops and clergy. 

Muslim Mosques: Separate entrances

"Only For Women"

“Only for Women.” Photo: Quinn Dombrowski, 2010.

Islam has a tradition of separating genders, with women required to pray separated from the men in a prayer space. This division is evident in the Dogramacizade Mosque in Ankara, built in 2007. The women’s prayer space, which is on the mezzanine and out of sight of the main prayer hall, is much smaller than the men’s. Women can see into the main prayer hall through lattices that hide them from the men. The mezzanine segregates the women, while the lattices isolate them visually. The lattice and height of the mezzanine prevent the women from experiencing the glass dome that is intended to increase the worshippers’ spiritual experience. They also cannot see the imam as he leads the service.

Segregation in this mosque starts at the entrance. As in many other mosques, the male mosque-goers enter from the main door on axis with the prayer hall while the females enter from a side door. The infamy of secondary entrances for female worshippers is so great that bloggers have created online visual diaries of such spaces. The lesser entrance reinforces the notion that Muslim women’s religious devotion is not as significant as that of men.

Tradition cannot account for the separation of men and women in the mosque. The director of the New Muslims Project, Batool Al-Toma, said that while it is believed that men and women have always prayed separately, in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, both sexes had access to and occupied the same space. Islam began with everyone able to enjoy the same quality of worship.

In 2009, just a few years after Dagramacizade was completed, a very different mosque opened in Istanbul. Sakirin Mosque is believed to be the first mosque designed by a woman, architect Zeynep Fadillioglu. Confronting the male-dominant spatial organization of the mosque, Fadillioglu designed one of the best spots of the mosque for women. Instead of relegating women to an empty corner or a stuffy basement, as is commonly done in mosque architecture, Fadillioglu created a balcony with a clear view of the mihrab, or “door to Mecca”. Crystal droplets of a chandelier hang above women’s heads . The railings of the women’s balcony are of lace-like mesh, with an unusual level of transparency that minimizes the impact of physical segregation. The mosque has become a triumph to Islamic women, a place of equality, and a celebration of worship.

Aspects of the Sakirin Mosque

“Aspects of the Sakirin Mosque.” Photo: Charles Roffey, 2011.

Fadillioglu has gone on to design four more mosques: two in Qatar, and two in Bahrain. Perhaps this is a signal of change; the women’s rights movement has finally come to Islamic traditions.

The possibilities of this change extend far beyond Islamic teachings. As  Daphne Spain argues in her 1994 book, Gendered Spaces, “Status is embedded in spatial arrangements so that changing space potentially changes the status hierarchy and changing status potentially changes spatial institutions.”

When so much power is wrapped up in tradition and in religious beliefs, it is possible to spark change in the treatment of women by changing the way gender roles play out in places of worship. As designers, we have the opportunity to change the power roles expressed in sacred architecture by taking a self-conscious approach to gendered design. We argue that spatial access is a form of women’s agency. Through advocating for equal access to sacred architecture, we advocate for an equality of opportunities between women and men.

About the Authors:

Mona Mirzaie, Stella Murray and Olivia Shotyk are graduate students in the College of Arts and Architecture at the Pennsylvania State University. Their course “Ethics in the Built Environment”, taught by Professor Alexandra Staub, encouraged them to examine gendered architecture and to take a stance on women’s right to occupy space.


An Architect’s Responsibilities and the Ambiguity of Professional Ethics Codes

Sumaiya Mehjabeen, Mona Mirzaiedamabi, Shengnan Tang


Architects are an integral part of the vast building industry.  With responsibilities that include overseeing a building’s design and construction, architects facilitate the aesthetic and functional desires of the client and coordinate design criteria for contractors, consultants, and local authorities. This puts architects into a role that can be described as the project decision maker.

The role of the architect has become strikingly influential, a situation that has gone hand-in-hand with increased controversy. Architects have repeatedly been subjected to disputes and disdain as they try balancing the contradicting needs of clients, contractors and consultants. Moreover, architects are frequently held  responsible  when something in the building process goes awry. Such problems can be based on aesthetic, structural, financial, or ethical demands.

The AIA (American Institute of Architects) Code of Ethics presents guidelines for its members in fulfilling an architect’s obligations to the public, clients and the profession. However, because of the complexity of ethical issues in architecture and the ambiguity of the code, it can be argued that the code of conduct is not decisive enough to guide AIA members in their professional lives. Because of this, even established architects face difficulties in balancing professional ethical responsibilities with aesthetic pursuits, as the following examples will show.


Ray and Maria Stata Center - MIT campus

Ray and Maria Stata Center by Architect Frank Gehry, Photo: Nathan Rupert

Ray and Maria Stata Center – Frank Gehry

The Los Angeles-based architect firm headed by Frank Gehry is known for its unconventional, complex, sculptural and often audacious work that arguably helped make architecture trendy in the USA. One of the firm’s most celebrated designs is the Ray and Maria Stata Center at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), completed in 2004,

The building was soon publicly vilified as a faulty design. Sporting a crinkled form with an undulating facade made of shiny metal and red brick and roofs that collided at different angles, the $300 million building displayed structural and other problems soon after its completion. Problems included persistent leaks, masonry cracks, mold growth, and drainage problems in many parts of the building. In 2007,  MIT sued Gehry and the construction companies involved for negligence and design failures.

The MIT  lawsuit claimed that the university paid Gehry Partners $15 million to design the Stata Center and then, due to faulty construction, had to pay another firm $1.5 million to rebuild the amphitheater and install a new drainage system. Gehry claimed that Skanska, the construction and development company or its applicable subcontractors were responsible for the failure of the amphitheater drainage and the ensuing damages. Skanska maintained that the problems were due to the architect’s faulty design. They stated that they had warned of design problems prior to construction, but that the architect had chosen to ignore the warnings.

In an interview with The New York Times, Gehry stated, “A building goes together with seven billion pieces of connective tissue. The chances of it getting done ever without something colliding or some misstep are small…. I think the issues are fairly minor, MIT is after our insurance.” He added that “value engineering,” i.e. trimming design elements to cut costs, was the primary cause of the problems. The lawsuit was “amicably” settled in 2007 after the issues were deemed resolved.

In its 2007 version, the AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct does not mention the architect’s role regarding construction issues. A decade later this had changed: in its 2018 version, the code does refer to the architect’s responsibility to guarantee the soundness of a building. In a section called General Obligations the code stipulates:

“Members should employ their professional knowledge and skill to design buildings and spaces that will enhance and facilitate human dignity and the health, safety, and welfare of the individual and the public.”  

Despite the new wording,  the AIA code fails to define “health, safety, and welfare of the individual and the public”, nor does it indicate how responsibility for such issues should shape the relationship between  architects, contractors, and clients. The AIA code’s failure to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the architect and other stakeholders in a project points to an ambiguity that easily leads to finger-pointing when things go wrong.


Frank Residence (House VI) ,Cornwall, USA by ofHouses

Frank Residence (House VI), Cornwall, USA Photo: ofHouses

House VI – Peter Eisenman

Lawsuits involving well-known architectural firms are perhaps more common that popularity assumed. Peter Eisenman, a “star” architect known for his pioneer role in  the Deconstructive architecture movement of the 1980s, has been criticized for his “unusable” residential buildings, including his design for House VI.

House VI, one of Peter Eisenman’s earliest buildings, was built in 1975. Emphasizing his own theoretical ideas  inspired by Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories, Eisenman purposely countered modernist ideas of “form follows function” in a show of force that highlighted new architectural design directions. In doing so, Eisenman applied what he saw as the relationship of words to architectural elements. His emphasis on theoretical aspects of design hindered the functionality of spaces in House VI, creating spaces that are unconventional to live in.

Although the clients later claimed that they loved living in the “poetic spaces” Eisenman had created for them, the building remains known for the architect’s lack of concern for the client’s needs

One example of the building’s unconventionality is a slot between two beds that extends to the floor, wall and roof: ‘This forced us to sleep in separate beds, which was not our custom’, says Suzanne Frank. The dining table has a column that ‘unequivocally separated diners at the table’. The 1500 sq. ft. house, although small and timber framed, took three years to be completed. It cost twice as much as Eisenman had originally estimated and quoted to the client. At the time of the house’s construction, Eisenman was  known almost exclusively as a theorist. His lack of construction experience led to budget overruns and an extended construction period. As Suzanne Frank wrote: “He was somewhat cynical about practical construction matters in general,” and “Working drawings were lacking in specific detail.”  She concluded:  “From the beginning, we had problems with leakage, and by 1980 they had become serious […] By 1987 the house was already in a frightful state.”

The client never sued Peter Eisenman for damages, but this example is still contentiously debated in the architectural community. The architect built a home in which occupants were forced to live within a work of art. Rather than meeting the clients’ financial and functional expectations, the architect opted to make architectural theories come to life. House VI pits the architect’s autonomy against the clients expectations and raises the question if architects should be allowed to use a client’s project for their own ends. The AIA Code of Ethics does not offer a clear response.


AIA Code of Ethics and the Ethical Role of an Architect

The AIA Codes of Ethics  begins by reminding architects that they must “continually seek to raise the standards of aesthetic excellence, architectural education, research, training, and practice”. Architects are responsible for the aesthetic expression as well as the functionality of a building, making architecture different from other forms of art. Architectural works are sometimes appreciated for their aesthetic qualities, while remaining functionally unacceptable to clients, contractors and other stakeholders. If architects cannot agree on a standard of professional responsibility, how can professional codes make a clear case for such standards?

The  AIA code of ethics states that “members should be involved in civic activities as citizens and professionals, and should strive to improve public appreciation and understanding of architecture and the functions and responsibilities of architects.” It is worth highlighting these two roles architects take on, that of “professionals” and of “citizens”. While architects have a professional duty to encourage the public to better understand architectural expression;  architects as citizens must do their utmost to understand the sum of their responsibilities to the public.




How Marketing Tourist Destinations Can Be a Detriment to Local Economies and Identity


Madhubala Ayyamperumal, Nick Backer, In Pun


Tourist crowd

Tourist Crowd in Venice. Flickr/Harald Groven

What makes for a popular tourist destination?  The most visited are often the ones that have been successfully mass-marketed through word of mouth, or, in recent years, the “buzz” of social media. Successful marketing strategies  create a desire to quickly and cheaply see far-off locations. There is a problem with this type of marketing, however: Emphasis on a single aspect of a tourist location or one major building complex creates a false sense of culture. While singular “must-see” attractions are lauded, important cultural elements located nearby go unrecognized.

The problem is compounded when considering a tourist site’s local economic context. Lopsided marketing creates “hotspots” for tourists that move foot traffic from local businesses in a surrounding area to the marketed location. Concentrated marketing allows commercial attractions to dictate which building complexes are more valuable to the city and its culture. We argue that the uneven marketing can create major problems for a locale. Selective marketing means that market forces, rather than the people closely associated with the location, determine a tourist destination’s local economy. This happens as cash flows through a few highly marketable locations. As marketing leads to economic gain, the potential for such gain – and not other values such as cultural depth or local context –  dictates what the most popular and lucrative attractions will be.  

The focus on profit creates an interesting dilemma: as tourism increases in “hotspot” locations, the location becomes more reliant on tourism money and has to cater more and more to the demands of the visiting population. This is turn leads in a downward spiral to compromised cultural identity and, in some cases, economic vulnerability as other sources of economic activity dry up.

As designers of the built environment, and purveyors of how it is marketed and used, we see an ethical imperative in maintaining a site’s accurate cultural portrayal and the economic wellbeing of its residents.

Venice: Excessive Tourist Marketing Hurts Local Economy

Tourism has become a worldwide industry, with much of the industry focused on profit, rather than on local sustainability. Venice has become a prime example of this trend. The city has advertised itself as a tourist destination for centuries, and for a time thrived on its influx of tourists as a form of cultural exchange. Jeremy Black, author of Italy and the Grand Tour, points out that, “In so far as broad trends can be discerned in the tension between xenophobia and cosmopolitanism [….] as facilities for tourists developed, so they became less alien figures to the Italians…”.

As of the 21st century, however, Venice is groaning under the weight of constant tourism. The city’s photogenic appeal attracts so many travelers that on a given day there are more visitors than residents.  The vast majority of tourists do not stay overnight in Venice, but are day-trippers.  The short-term tourists spend their money and time in the  areas of the city that cater to and are most marketed for the tourist. Two main attractions especially are highlighted as the top spots to visit in Venice, St. Marks Basilica and the Doges Palace. The focus on these two buildings leads gigantic human waves to arrive into the city and flow back and forth between the two landmarks, creating a makeshift commercial channel frequented by tourists.  

The result has been predictable: As a local travel writer laments, “Small businesses and artisans’ craft shops have been replaced by identical souvenir stalls and fast food restaurants to cater to day-tripping bargain hunters.  Two landmarks within walking distance of each other have impacts that are felt city wide. Coupled with this is the fact that the Venetian population continually decreases every year as the influx of tourism has destabilized its local economy, bringing with it an increase in the cost of living, a decrease in the quality of life, and a lack of spaces for youth.  Venezia Autentica, an organization dedicated to the preservation and sustainability of Venice, notes that, “The daily saturation of the city leads to an overwhelming invasion of cheap, imported souvenirs and tourist traps which are destroying local businesses and artisans’ shops as they cause an increase in the cost of living and renting. The consequences of this are a decrease of life quality and opportunities for the locals…”.

Piazza San Marco Venice

Tourist activities in Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy. WikiCommons/Rolf Benedikt.

Much of the increase in day-tripper tourism is due to large cruise liners who market Venice as one of the top three destinations in the world. The cruise ships make port in Marghera, Venice and from there passengers are led from the port through the crowded avenue between landmarks, passing by souvenir shops along the way.

It is unclear whether or not Venice will be able to recover from its tourist problem, since tourist marketing has set in progress changes to the local economy to the point that tourism is Venice’s major source of revenue. But at what cost? Carlo Beltrame, a researcher in humanities at Venice’s Ca’Foscari University, sums up the voice of his compatriots: “It feels as if we’re at a point of no return because it’s already out of control.” He proposes reducing tourist numbers while focusing on new methods to steer Venice’s economy away from its dependence on tourism. To improve the quality of life in the city, he has suggested establishing it as a hub for scientific and maritime research.  


Goa, India: Excessive Marketing Harms Cultural Identity

Lake Crescent

Lake Crescent, Goa, India. Flickr/ Kunal Baweja.

The territory of Goa on India’s West Coast is known for its beautiful beaches and coastline. The topography consists of the Western Ghats, smaller hills in the central part, and low lands along the coast. Goa was ruled by the Portuguese until 1961, when it became a part of the Indian Republic. The cultural heritage of Goa is heterogeneous due to interventions from various dynasties, and is enriched by several different civilization streams.

Despite Goa’s rich cultural history, tourism marketing focuses largely on its recreational aspects: sun, sea and sand. This limited focus sidesteps the rich cultural heritage that the destination has to offer: renowned forts, classic churches, varying types of temples and mosques; and picturesque colonial architecture. For example, the gleaming whitewashed churches with Portuguese-style facades set Goa apart from the rest of the sub-continent. Such features are, however, not marketed as readily as the beaches and cheap liquor that are highlighted in marketing campaigns

Large, western-style hotels and resorts have become enclaves set into the local environment yet completely oblivious to it . For example, the main feature of a Goan house is the ‘balcao’; a type of porch where residents sit to pass the time, greet neighbors as they pass, and in turn, be acknowledged. It promotes “communitas”, the spirit of community. “Communitas” is an important cultural concept in Goa. Smaller, family run hotels that offer a more holistic experience of Goa have retained this cultural concept.  However, the  marketing efforts by larger hotels often create a false representation of this experience. The result is that most tourists experiences fall short of the authenticity of the local culture and customs.

Many of Goa’s cultural traditions have been commercialized through marketing. For example, the Goa Carnival was originally introduced into the culture by the Portuguese, yet shares characteristics with the Hindu festival of Holi, the festival of colors. The carnival lost its spontaneous atmosphere as marketing agencies targeted its tourism potential. Overnight, the festival became a “‘big show” with sponsored floats, live bands, and cardboard cut-outs of sponsored products. 

Tourism and one-sided marketing has impacted the socio-cultural identity of Goa. It has commercialized traditions as it has allowed artificial versions of Goa’s culture to flourish. Excessive commercialization has led to a loss of identity and the destruction of heritage sites in the name of tourist development and “beautification”. Local residents are now denied access to certain beaches. Tourism has brought a feeling of estrangement to a large number of Goa’s residents.


Mass tourism in a historic setting. Flickr/ *Kicki*


While on the surface tourism seems like an economic opportunity for a site, mass marketing of popular sites can lead visitors to overlook a destination’s deeper cultural treasures and traditions. In both the Venice and the Goa examples, marketing has been concentrated on a few local, popular aspects that are easily taken in. This has caused not only shifts in a site’s cultural perception, it has also altered the local economy to accommodate the needs of mass tourism. Local residents have seen their cultural traditions diluted as their economy becomes vulnerable through its singular focus on mass tourism. While tourism has always been a popular way to experience other cultures and civilizations, an ethical approach demands that tourism should not work against the interests of local citizens or contribute to a destination’s cultural and economic downturn.



Black, Jeremy. Italy and the Grand Tour. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003. https://books.google.com/books?id=RPUCjv1u4qYC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Chase, Gregory and Ilan Alon. 2002. “Evaluating the Economic Impact of Cruise Tourism: A Case Study of Barbados.” Anatolia 13 (1): 5-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/13032917.2002.9687011.

Edwards, Catherine. 2017. “Tourism is Killing Venice, but it’s also the Only Key to Survival.” The Local. https://www.thelocal.it/20170718/mass-tourism-killing-crowded-venice-survival-authentic-travel-local.

Falleiro, Savio P. 2015. “Economic and Socio-cultural Balance Sheet of Tourism in Goa: Future Options” International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications, Volume 5, Issue 2, February 2015. http://www.ijsrp.org/research-paper-0215/ijsrp-p3815.pdf

Giuffrida, Angela. 2017. “‘Imagine Living with this Crap’: Tempers in Venice Boil Over in Tourist High Season.” The Guardian, July 22, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/23/venice-tempers-boil-over-tourist-high-season.

Menon, A.G. Krishna. 1993. “Case Study on the effects of tourism on Culture and Environment – India (Jaisalmer, Khajuraho and Goa)”  UNESCO Principal Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok, 1993. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001216/121600eo.pdf

Meyer, Dorothea. 2004. Tourism Routes and Gateways: Key Issues for the Development of Tourism Routes and Gateways and their Potential for Pro-Poor Tourism. London, UK: Overseas Development Institute. https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/4040.pdf.

Stokes, Robyn. 2008. “Tourism Strategy Making: Insights to the Events Tourism Domain.” Science Direct 29 (2). https://ac.els-cdn.com/S0261517707000763/1-s2.0-S0261517707000763-main.pdf?_tid=049c2891-19d2-4ac1-ac59-4930e0156d3f&acdnat=1544541676_dc0b4ad0543d7f0d702388b48feb6928.

Venezia Autentica. 2018. The Current State of Tourism Us Hurting Venice. Impact. Venice, Italy: Venezia Autentica S.R.L.S. https://veneziaautentica.com/impact-tourism-venice/.




Are we programming computers to be biased?

By In Pun, Berfin Evrim, Yanan Cheng

A Robotic Arm in the Construction Industry. Source: https://flic.kr/p/25TfZSq:

Computers have been gaining skills on what seems like a daily basis. Behind the tasks computers can do, however, are humans who develop new systems and new ways to encode algorithms. Yet, despite the fact that humans have control over computers, popular myths continue to portray computers as taking over the world. Who then is ultimately responsible for what computers “decide” and do?

One of the most important questions for designers – of products or buildings – is the role of computers during the design process. Machines can be used as designers, constructors, and assistants. After encoding the correct algorithm, computers are able to do most of the things that human can do. However, they cannot make their own ethical decisions and they thus reflect their designer’s moral values.  Consequently, computers have biased systems that can end up making unethical decisions. In an article on computer ethics, computer specialists Batya Friedman and Helen Nissenbaum have noted that, “a system discriminates unfairly if it denies an opportunity or a good or if it assigns an undesirable outcome to an individual or group of individuals on grounds that are unreasonable or inappropriate”. Therefore, as computers perform according to data input that humans coded, the result can be designs that are biased or sexist, as a few examples will show.

Facebook and Billions of Users. Image: https://flic.kr/p/84654V

Fighting Over Data Sources

To be able input data, computers need enough data to encode an algorithm – a step-by-step process for performing an assigned task. Larger data collection can assure more accurate results. This is why data-monopolies like Google and Facebook collect so much information about their users. The question is how they receive all this data and how they use it.

Facebook uses a myriad of ways to gather data on its users; Google gathers information through Google Drive, Gmail, Google Search, Google Maps and YouTube. Every time, a person uses these applications, all steps are recorded in the information pool. There is no permanent deletion in these data sources, and the data collection itself has become contentious. Recently, Facebook struggled with a federal investigation about data sharing  As a 2018 Wall Street Journal article noted: “Facebook Inc. disclosed it gave dozens of companies special access to user data, detailing for the first time a spate of deals that contrasted with the social network’s previous public statements that it restricted personal information to outsiders in 2015.” The tech giant not only ignored privacy, which is a fundamental right of all humans as recognized by United Nations, it also misled its users about its activities. It is this kind of scandal that makes people question the trustworthiness of technology companies and sometimes the technology itself.

Compounding this issue, when third parties receive information about us, we do not know what they do with it. Even if information is collected anonymously, we cannot know if companies are using the data for encoding  neutral  systems – or biased ones.

Machines That Make Decisions: The Self-driving Car

MIT’s  “Moral Machine”, faced with the choice of who will survive a crash, asks: “What should the car do?”
Image: https://flic.kr/p/2bo7NxA

When designing a decision-making machine, people must first give it a moral sense. In 2016, researchers at the MIT Media Lab launched Moral Machine, a massive survey to gather human perspectives on moral decisions made by “intelligent” machines such as driverless cars. They presented various moral dilemmas to participants, such as whether a self-driving car should continue straight ahead to kill three elderly pedestrians or swerve into a barricade to kill three youthful passengers. As outside observers, the participants were asked to judge which outcome they thought was more acceptable. Over 2 million online participants from over 200 countries participated in the survey.

Edmond Awad, a postdoc at MIT Media Lab, noted that the researchers aimed to understand the kinds of moral decisions that driverless cars might have to resort to. The study found that there were three major elements that people seem to consider most frequently. They found that people tend to prioritize saving human lives over those of other animals, saving the lives of many over saving the lives of a few, and saving the lives of the young over those of older people. What is more, participants from poorer countries with weaker institutions were more tolerant of jaywalkers versus pedestrians who cross legally. And participants from countries with a high level of economic inequality showed greater gaps between the treatment of individuals with high and low social status.

The study further found that countries with close proximity to one another often show closer moral preferences, which fall in three dominant geographic clusters: West, East, and South. For instance, respondents in southern countries had a relatively stronger tendency to favor sparing young people rather than the elderly, especially compared to the eastern cluster. Participants from individualistic cultures, like the UK and the United States, placed a stronger emphasis on sparing more lives given all the other choices, because of the greater emphasis on the value of each individual.

The various preferences noted can serve in shaping the design and regulation of the vehicles, although this can create its own ethical problems. For example, carmakers may find that Chinese consumers would prefer a car that protects themselves over pedestrians. Knowing such preferences can  inform the way in which people can program autonomous vehicles. Although the study found that preferences were to some degree universally agreed upon, the degree to which participants in various countries agreed with them varied among different groups or countries. With a lack of moral consensus about how to program cars, researchers still need to think more deeply about the ethics of self-driving cars. Researchers must analyze who takes more or less risk, and more importantly, identify where and how the bias takes place that programs machines to spare certain lives over others. While it is often claimed that autonomous technology will make the roads safer and more efficient, programmed decision-making will always incorporate a degree of bias. If we program a machine to make a biased decision, we are ultimately responsible for the consequences.

Machine Learning

Stereotypical gender roles. AdobeStock/rodjulian  Source: https://stock.adobe.com/images/stereotypical-gender-roles/96748691

Computation is not limited to developing cars, it has become integrated with all sorts of design work, including architectural design. This has raised some basic questions regarding machine computing, and obtaining designs or aesthetic criticisms and judgments from machines. There are quite a few methods to produce designs via computers, including programming and geometric modeling. Computing is seen as a boon to design; however, designers are rarely taught to question the algorithms being used for design computing.

In a recent study, Vicente Ordonez, a computer science professor at the University of Virginia, was developing image-recognition software. He noticed a pattern in the program, in which the computer associates the images of a kitchen more often with women than men. He began to question if he unconsciously programmed biases into the program. Two research studies dealing with image collections by Microsoft and Facebook confirmed  how common such biases are. The studies showed a gender bias in the depiction of activities: Cooking and shopping were associated with women, while sports were tied to men.

People like to assume that computers and machines are neutral in their results., In reality, machine-learning software that uses datasets to “train” software often amplifies existing social biases. Companies are currently relying heavily on software that learns by sorting piles of data. This has led to computers taking on unsavory biases from both the programmer and society in general. To neutralize this phenomenon, the researcher must be sensitive to bias in the first place, and then specify what she or he wants to correct. When people blindly applying algorithms to solve problems without evaluating the consequences of those actions, ethical problems can arise. People have a tendency to not question computational results, because computers are seen as being “neutral”. This can lead to our not acknowledging ethical problems in our designs. When we assume that computers are “neutral” we often overlook the biases they generate or perpetuate.


Whether we are programming cars or designing buildings, computers are not neutral decision makers. Instead, we are programming them for potential bias. As architects and designers, we need to carefully evaluate what software and algorithms we use in our designs. Humans are arguably biased, and we program software to learn from society. While the datasets we use reflect actual statistics, we can no longer blindly utilize design technology without finding ways to better evaluate the data used and the results being generated.

In spite of the advantages computers have brought to the design professions, we must be aware of ethical problems that can arise due to the uncritical use of algorithms and computer software. As designers, we often use any software available on the market, especially when  it is promoted as enhancing productivity or providing convenience. We have largely taken on computing and machines without first analyzing the source of the data being used and how computers are utilizing such data. Built-in algorithms can thus potentially influence or even dictate our design decisions. Computers are extremely useful, as they are able to complete certain tasks at a much faster rate than humans. We must, however, try to control the values inherent within computational design, and not have computers end up dictating our values.



  • Aouf, Rima Sabina. “MIT Surveys Two Million People to Set out Ethical Framework for Driverless Cars.” Dezeen. October 26, 2018. Accessed December 12, 2018. https://www.dezeen.com/2018/10/26/mit-moral-machine-survey-driverless-cars-technology/.
  • Benes, B., D. J. Kasik, W. Li, and H. Zhang. “Computational Design and Fabrication.” IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications 37, no. 3 (May 2017): 32–33. https://doi.org/10.1109/MCG.2017.50.
  • Colvile, Robert. “Is a robot about to take your job?” The Telegraph, June 6, 2016. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/is-a-robot-about-to-take-your-job/
  • Curran, Dylan. “Are you ready? Here is all the data Facebook and google have on you.” The Guardian, March 30, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/28/all-the-data-facebook-google-has-on-you-privacy
  • Dizikes, Peter, and MIT News Office. “How Should Autonomous Vehicles Be Programmed?” MIT News. October 24, 2018. Accessed December 02, 2018. http://news.mit.edu/2018/how-autonomous-vehicles-programmed-1024.
  • Friedman, Batya and Helen Nissenbaum. “Bias in Computer Systems.” ACM Transactions on Information Systems (TOIS) 14, no. 3 (1996): 330-347. https://www.vsdesign.org/publications/pdf/64_friedman.pdf
  • Hao, Karen. “Should a Self-driving Car Kill the Baby or the Grandma? Depends on Where You’re From.” MIT Technology Review. October 29, 2018. Accessed December 02, 2018. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612341/a-global-ethics-study-aims-to-help-ai-solve-the-self-driving-trolley-problem/.
  • Simonite, Tom. “Machines Taught by Photos Learn a Sexist View of Women.” Wired, August 21, 2017. https://www.wired.com/story/machines-taught-by-photos-learn-a-sexist-view-of-women/.
  • Singer, Natasha. “What you Don’t Know About How Facebook Uses Your Data.” The New York Times, April 11, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/technology/facebook-privacy-hearings.html.
  • Sydell, Laura. “FTC Confirms It’s Investigating Facebook For Possible Privacy Violations.” NPR (National Public Radio), March 26, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/03/26/597135373/ftc-confirms-its-investigating-facebook-for-possible-privacy-violations
  • Wells, Georgia. “Facebook Reveals Apps, Others That Got Special Access to User Data.” The Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-reveals-apps-others-that-got-special-access-to-user-data-1530454712.



“It’s a Bird… It’s a Bat… It’s Wind Turbines”

Yanan Cheng,  Shayama Khan, and Stella Murray


Bats and birds are both at risk of flying into wind turbine blades. Is their mortality rate due to collisions with wind turbines reason enough to limit the number of wind “farms”? Collage based on the following images: https://www.maxpixel.net/Site-Wind-Turbines-Cabin-Wind-Turbines-2777465


At the turn of the 21st century, sustainable energy began to grow as an alternative to energy generated by fossil fuels. The kinetic quality of wind has become part of this alternative, as it has the potential to generate mechanical power. The movement of wind turbine blades generates power, which is consequently converted into electricity by a generator. Wind energy’s  popularity and publicity have grown over the past two decades.

Yet,  advertisements regarding improvements to humankind and our daily lives seem to disregard the effect on animals and their habitats. Wind power has proven to benefit the lives of humans in generating electricity without producing pollution and taking advantage of renewable resources. However, it has also proven to be a detriment to the animal world by killing birds and bats, creating disturbances to the environment, and only being beneficial in a limited number of locations. The pros and cons of wind power not only bring up the question of which side outweighs the other but also who has more precedence – humans or animals?

A 2018 wind turbine commercial by General Electric. Source: General Electric

Different Ways to Assess Sustainable Buildings

Simon Guy and Graham Farmer, who work at the intersection of architecture, engineering, and social issues, list six competing logics of “green” buildings and ethics: ecological, smart, aesthetic, symbolic, comfort and community. The six categories encompass varying approaches to designing a more ecological aware environment, but they are not exclusive. For example, both ecological and smart ethics use the benefits of renewable energy. Ecological ethics takes into account a building’s ecological footprint and the impact that it may have on the consumption of water, energy, and waste. “Smart” logics, on the other hand, espouses smart technology as a means by which the environment can be managed in order to stabilize and maintain the richness of resources.

Wind energy follows both ecological and smart logics as defined by Guy  and Farmer. In the following section, we investigate of the advantages and disadvantages of wind energy, and bring up ethical questions at a scale encompassing both humans and animals.

Wind Turbines Enhance Human Lives in More Ways Than One

Due to the development of low-priced renewable energy technologies, electricity produced by wind-energy generators costs between four and six cents per kilowatt-hour. In 2016, the U.S. wind-energy sector employed more than 100,000 workers  to operate these turbines. Because of the growth in this sector, wind turbine technicians have become  part of one of the fastest-growing American work fields. According to the federal government’s 2008 Wind Vision Report, the production of wind energy has the potential to create more than 600,000 jobs in manufacturing, installation, maintenance, and supporting services by 2050. The installation of wind turbines typically takes place on existing farms or ranches. This benefits rural-area economies and permits farmers and ranchers to continue working the land. Even though wind turbines take up only a fraction of their land, the owners of wind “farms” still make rent payments  to the farmer or rancher for the use of land, which provides the landowner with an additional source of income.

Texas Wind Farms

Texas Wind Farms. Image: Daxis (Flickr)

As a form of solar energy , wind energy is considered to be unlimited. The wind one feels is due to the sun heating up the atmosphere, and the rotation and the surface irregularities of the earth. As long as the sun shines, wind will continue to blow and to produce wind energy. Wind production doesn’t pollute the air like traditional energy generators that rely on the combustion of fossil fuels. Unlike fossil fuels, wind energy does not emit toxic substances or contaminants into the air. The substances and contaminants released through burning fossil fuels can potentially acidify land and water ecosystems, corrode buildings, and trigger heart disease, cancer, and respiratory diseases. Not only  does wind-energy production not contaminate water, it does not rely on water-consumption either. This is essential in conserving hydrological resources.

Yet despite wind energy’s advantages, what is its impact on avians?

Wind Turbines Negatively Impact the Mortality Rate of Avians

Do wind turbines affect avian mortality? The answer is yes, but perhaps not to the extent sometimes reported, especially with improvements in tower design.

The impact of wind energy on wildlife can be categorized into two kinds: direct and indirect. The mortality from collisions with wind turbines is considered to be a direct impact. One of the largest victim groups of wind turbines is birds. According to researchers, 0.15 million birds are killed by wind turbines per year in the United States. Other victim groups are bats and raptors. Researchers have shown that the main reason behind avian mortality is the tower design. For example, the Altamont Pass wind turbines located in Northern California account for most of the high bird mortality rate in that area. The majority of these older wind turbines have lower hub heights and shorter rotor diameters, compared to modern wind turbines. This requires tighter turbine spacing and turbine blades that spin at a higher rate per minute than in later models. Another aspect is that older wind turbines often have lattice towers that attract the nesting of birds.

Golden Eagle.  Image: Tony Hisgett (Flickr)

Indirect impacts of wind turbines include habitat disruption and displacement . The indirect impacts of wind turbines can be understood through a study that was conducted on Grassland passerines on the Buffalo Ridge Wind Resource Area in southwestern Minnesota. The research was conducted in the summer of 1995  to determine the relative influence of wind turbines on overall densities of upland nesting birds in the Conservation Reserve Program.

The Conservation Reserve Program, under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pays farmers to select crops out of production throughout the year and to convert them to vegetative cover. This is in an effort to reduce land erosion, improve land quality, and affect wildlife benefits.

The study found that the total bird density was lower in Conservation Reserve Program grasslands containing turbines than in Conservation Reserve Program grasslands without turbines. Despite this difference in density, it is a relief to know that according to recent research conducted by the National Wind Coordinating Committee, the impact on avians is relatively low and does not pose a threat to the species populations. The death of birds caused by wind turbines only constitutes a small part of anthropogenic bird mortality. Among an estimate of 925.6 to 1,804 million anthropogenic bird deaths per year in the U.S, only 0.15 to 0.44 million were caused by wind turbines.

The Negative Impact on Avians can be Mitigated

With the advancements of wind turbine design and ultrasonic technology, it may be possible to decrease the number of avian deaths. Researchers are already working on improving wind turbines through tower redesign, turbine lighting and adjusting rotor blade height. Earlier wind turbines were once located very close to each other. Their rapidly spinning blades and lattice tower mounts resulted in a high number of death of birds that perched on them. The new generation of wind turbines is large, spaced apart, and complete fewer rotations per minute. Not only can advanced design and technology reduce the number of deaths, but more research and proper management of wind turbines can also help mitigate the rate of death and even bring potential benefits  to some species. Avoiding sites with high avian activity can reduce the collision rate of birds and bats with turbine blades.

The wind that is used to generate energy is also what birds use to migrate across the U.S. Thus, a closer look into bird migration patterns and a study of why birds are attracted to wind turbines can help decide the location and the design of new wind turbines. Furthermore, researchers are now adopting further technological strategies  to protect avians  from  wind turbines. For example, wind farm developers are developing ultrasonic deterrents to warn bats away from turbines. Other than simply warning off birds and bats, managing the turbines in accordance to the life of inhabitants may be a better way of protecting them and may even result in potential benefits to them.

Healthy little brown bats. Image: Ann Froschauer/USFWS (Flickr)

Wind Turbines are Ethical Means that Benefit all Living Beings

 The potential of wind energy makes it a sustainability-centric approach to harvesting energy. Wind turbines are a sustainable means of harnessing energy without consuming excess water, they do not pollute the environment in the short-term but encourage the long-term survival of the planet, and they reduce the human ecological footprint. From a different perspective, the innovative technology behind wind energy makes it a “smart” approach to energy production. Even though wind energy is at the forefront of recent technological breakthroughs, the means by which energy is efficiently produced has different effects on humans and animals. Wind turbines are undeniably an ethical means of energy production from the human point of view, yet the negative impact of wind turbines on animals must also be considered.

As Guy and Farmer point out, “Moral judgments are fundamentally social; as part of the intricate cultural systems constructed within communities, they are built, refined, and transmitted through the process of communication and education.”

Who is part of this community? In a more perfect world, the community should consider both humans and animals. When discussing wind energy and its ethics within the framework of sustainable living, we should consider the needs of all parties involved. The benefits of wind energy over fossil fuel energy are very real – implementing them responsibly and ethically  is a human decision.



— “201: Wind Energy Benefits & Challenges – KOHILO Wind Turbines.” KOHILO Wind Turbines. Accessed December 09, 2018. http://kohilowind.com/kohilo-university/201-wind-energy-benefits-challenges/.

— “Advantages and Challenges of Wind Energy.” Department of Energy. Accessed December 09, 2018. https://www.energy.gov/eere/wind/advantages-and-challenges-wind-energy.

— “Causes of Bird Mortality.” Sibley Guides. Accessed December 09, 2018. http://www.sibleyguides.com/conservation/causes-of-bird-mortality/.

— “Why Solar and Wind Are Thriving Despite Cheap Fossil Fuels.” National Geographic. January 22, 2016. Accessed December 09, 2018. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/energy/2016/01/160122-why-solar-and-wind-thrive-despite-cheap-oil-and-ga/.

— Wind Turbine Interactions with Wildlife and Their Habitats. Report. American Wind Wildlife Institute. Accessed December 7, 2018. https://awwi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Turbine-Interactions-Summary-2018.pdf.

— “Wildlife Impacts of Wind Energy.” WINDExchange: U.S. Department of Energy. Accessed December 09, 2018. https://windexchange.energy.gov/projects/wildlife.

Fox, Warwick. Ethics and the Built Environment. London: Routledge, 2000. 

Leddy, K.L., K.F. Higgins, and D.E. Naugle. “Effects of Wind Turbines on Upland Nesting Birds in Conservation Reserve Program Grasslands.” Water-Resources Investigations Report. January 01, 1999. Accessed December 09, 2018. https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/70021928.

Redlitz, Heidi. “Wind vs. Solar – Which Power Source Is Better?” Green Future. May 05, 2016. Accessed December 07, 2018. https://greenfuture.io/solar/wind-vs-solar-energy/.

Saidur, N.A. Rahim, M.R. Islam, K.H. Solangi. 2011. “Environmental impact of wind energy.” Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews, 2423–2430.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364032111000669

Siegle, Lucy. “Do Wind Turbines Kill Wildlife?” The Guardian. September 26, 2009. Accessed December 09, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/sep/27/wind-power-wildlife-lucy-siegle.



A Fading Image: Why the loss of place and story in the built environment matters

Arunima Addy, Grant Davis and Berfin Evrim

June 17 Picture a Day
Lincoln Theatre on “Black Broadway” in Washington, D.C. is a historical marker in a gentrified neighborhood. Image: BARPhotography


In September of 2018, The University of Texas at Austin released a new comprehensive study of gentrification in the city’s urban core. Austin, like many mid-sized cities around the country, has seen an increase in population over the past decade, as millennials seeking the benefits of urban living repopulate city centers. While an increase in upper-income residents has provided economic revitalization, it has also brought rising housing costs for lower income residents, many of whom have lived in the city for years.

Gentrification is not a new phenomenon, but with the rebirth of urban areas nationwide, it is occurring at an alarming rate. While an increase in housing costs is the most publicized problem, changing neighborhood dynamics cause more than just financial harm. When a neighborhood undergoes transformations through gentrification, culture is displaced and erased along with residents. As the original population moves out, the businesses, organizations, and institutions through which they socialized are no longer able to support themselves and  often close or move elsewhere. The result is that the original residents’ culture and story can vanish. To the new residents of a gentrified neighborhood, the past life and character of the area may not even be visible. What results is an erasure we would like to call obliterated history.

In the following paragraphs, we argue that the cultural and constructed environments of historic neighborhoods should be maintained and nurtured. The power of heritage structures and spaces is their use as a learning tool and as a catalyst for community maintenance and growth.

The Importance of Architectural and Social History

Gentrification alters the narrative of a given place, yet a place’s history can be altered in other ways as well. We define the obliteration of history as the removal, editing, or concealment of a place’s history by either conscious or unconscious means. Historical narrative – the story of the events that occurred in a place – can  be colored through bias and is framed through whoever is telling the story. In extreme examples, one side tries to obliterate a story, while another tries to salvage it, depending on who benefits from the story. Ultimately, historical narratives are structured through the tension between knowledge and power.

We propose three terms for classifying forms of historical obliteration, each varying in their method and application. Erasure is the first form, consisting of the coordinated effort to erase the presence of a building place or function. Retelling is the coordinated effort to alter the story of a place to fit a particular agenda. Negligence is the loss of a place’s history through a slow process of forgetting. Gentrification, it could be said, falls into the category of negligence, which is the most complex of the three. Identifying the specific reasons for negligence is often difficult, as it happens gradually over time, often with many groups involved. This incremental process may make it easy to consider gentrification and negligence as unavoidable processes. The negative results of both gentrification and negligence make it important for city planners and designers to critically consider their impact.

As society changes over time, we must ask ourselves whether the maintenance of a  place’s story is a worthwhile endeavor. As scholars of architecture, we argue that the answer must be “yes”. A selection of academic research has identified the retention of a place’s history as beneficial, both as a tool for building community and for teaching history. Textbooks and news media often selectively omit (or “obliterate”) elements of a story. What is left out often causes as much controversy as what is included. Research shows architecture is no different, and the maintenance of even seemingly insignificant neighborhoods contributes to the composition of the story of a city and a people.

In the following sections, we will show examples where the relative consistency of a built environment allows it to unite people, educate them or facilitate an experience. For academics studying history and anthropology, architecture’s key position as a framework for life and society makes a case for keeping the built environment as robust and readable as possible. Physical space can provide us with insights beyond those of a textbook.

San Francisco - Japan Town

Japan Town in San Francisco is an example of a neighborhood with a visible heritage. Image: Chocksta 

Legacy Neighborhood Preservation and Community Building

Popular belief maintains that historic preservation initiatives accelerate gentrification. Historic Preservation is thought to sacrifice community resilience and affordability on the altar of aesthetic maintenance. A recent study by James Buckley and Donna Graves suggests otherwise. They examine the challenge San Francisco has faced since the 1990s, as computer technology companies such as Google, Twitter, and Apple and the affluent workers they bring has driven up the price of real estate throughout the city. After a Historic Architecture Review Board appointed by the mayor was replaced with a board elected by the community, new historical designation solutions were enacted. The new resolutions helped not only in the preservation of existing buildings, they also helped longtime businesses and social groups ride out gentrification processes. The new focus is on promoting festivals, businesses, and legacy residents, not simply renewing bricks and mortar. Legacy business funds help to support businesses, which form the backbone of cultural heritage districts and solidify the history of the area for current and future generations.

Preservation Through Empowerment

On the other side of the globe, the two largest Israeli cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, faced their own gentrification struggles starting in the 1990s. As increased population and tourism energized the two cities, developers  were eager to build new developments and replace outdated housing stock. Seeking to minimize the environmental and urban disruption of massive new construction, the Israeli government implemented a program known as the Phoenix Strategy. This strategy relies heavily on the empowerment of existing residents (owners and renters) to make improvements to their spaces and structures rather than move or completely rebuild. Subsidized loans and legal assistance was provided to owner-occupants seeking to improve or enlarge their deteriorating 1950s-era housing. Renters occupying public housing or apartments were helped to purchase their homes rather than move, as economic conditions in the area improved and prices rose. This strategy prevented the disruption of neighborhood ties, and encouraged regeneration, while contributing to environmental goals by reusing structures rather than tearing them down. It also protected against the dislocation caused by gentrification through increasing resident ownership early in the neighborhood renewal process.

Architecture: A Physical Textbook

The strategic retention of legacy neighborhoods and structures has benefits beyond community preservation and resilience. Architectural preservation is sometimes seen as a means to re-create a building’s earlier condition – like restoring a painting in a museum – that gives us insights into life and society in the past. In her introductory essay for the March 2006 issue of The Journal of Architectural Historians, Nancy Stieber explores the educational power of architecture and the dialogue between architectural historians and scholars in other fields, such as anthropology. She argues, backed by her own experience and conversations with academic leaders, that buildings, even vernacular structures, create a useful mediator of cultural and social history due to the political and social processes by which they are created.

Citing Lizabeth Cohen, a social historian, Stieber explains how the physical study of architectural history benefits other academic fields. “The study of the built environment offers historians a unique opportunity to pursue a major preoccupation of our discipline,” Cohen states. Stieber further elaborates on the importance of preservation due to the intricate relationship between the constructed environment and issues of cultural development, political legitimacy, and economic processes. For Stieber and other social and historical professionals, the built environment is a potent primary resource for the study and understanding of past civilizations and cultures.

Trinity Auditorium / Embassy Hotel
The Embassy Auditorium: A Catalyst for 20th Latina and Progressive Movements.  Image: Hunter Kerhart 

The Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles

Author and urban studies professor Dolores Hayden, in her 1997 book The Power of Place, analyzes the efforts of her non-profit organization of the same name to preserve the structure of the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles and renovate it to serve as an education center and reading room. The auditorium, originally part of a church complex and designed in the Beaux Arts style, played an important role as the main host of garment workers union rallies in the mid 20th century. In an era riddled with racially charged urban and economic policies as well as anti-progressive McCarthyism, the Embassy Auditorium was one of few havens for Latino and workers’ rights movements. Prominent Latina union leaders Rose Pesotta, Luisa Moreno, and Josefina Fierro de Bright all organized rallies and meetings at the Embassy Auditorium during the 1940s and 50s. In the early 1990s, Hayden’s non-profit organization advocated for the establishment of a reading room for historical documents relating to union activities as well as a permanent installation outside the building entrance. They cited the double benefit of preserving the space as an educational center as well as a prominent example of Beaux Arts Architecture in Los Angeles. Sadly, the sale of the building by USC halted the plans, but nonetheless, the effort exhibited the credence of architecture as a tool for learning about history.


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“The Return of Black Broadway” Mural by Cory Stowers. Image: Ted Eytan

Lost Neighborhoods and the Complexities of Historical Designation

Black Broadway, a primarily middle-class African American neighborhood and entertainment hub in Washington, D.C., faced a danger of erasure after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. The community was self-sufficient, with a variety of community facilities such as doctors, lawyers, retail, banks and restaurants. It was a lively place that hosted numerous public figures such as Sam Cooke and even Fidel Castro. Historical reports spoke of music on the streets day and night, giving the area a vivacious identity of its own.

The area faced its downfall with the political disruptions after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. As riots in African American communities increased after King’s assassination, business owners were faced with losing their clientele and many moved out of the area. As historic buildings were shuttered and torn down, “Black Broadway” saw many of its landmark monuments eroded. The local historical society also faced difficulties in halting this trend.

After the riots of the 1970s, only a few of the legacy businesses returned in the 1980s to early 1990s. Because of negligence and the tarnished reputation caused by the 1970s violence, policy makers did not give much importance to the loss of the area’s African American identity. With successive openings of the Metro Green Line from 1991-2001, the area became better connected to downtown Washington. The result was a construction boom of high-end apartment buildings that brought gentrification and new development to Black Broadway.

Amidst the high-rises, one can still identify some of the remnants of African-American businesses and relics of Black Broadway’s bountiful past. The remaining structures still celebrate African-American success, with artifacts depicting local Black historical figures.One structure remaining from Black Broadway’s earlier era is Ben’s Chili Bowl, which opened in 1958, survived the violence of the riots, and continued operating for years afterwards.

It is through these retained legacy businesses that the oral and experiential history of Black Broadway has been maintained. These legacy spaces provide a physical environment for conversations that help transmit the history of a neighborhood to new residents who may have little understanding of it otherwise. This illustrates the power of the built environment, not only as a visual learning tool but also as a tool for oral history.

The Pros and Cons of Historical Designation for Legacy Neighborhoods

While the examples taken from San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Los Angeles demonstrate the successes of community preservation and the importance of maintaining architecture as an educational tool, the example of Black Broadway, where all but a few legacy businesses and buildings were lost, illustrates a less successful situation.

Anthropologist Michael Herzfeld argues that historical preservation movements have been hijacked by neoliberal agendas that take advantage of preservation tax remission to fund gentrification by inducing renovation and development. In his 2010 article for Current Anthropology, he asserts that preservation is seen as an ethical good that cements a historical narrative while sometimes ignoring current-day users. For Herzfeld, historical preservation provides an excuse for policymakers to intervene in urban life in a way that advantages a limited range of benefactors under the guise of common good.

N. Edward Coulson and Robin Leichenko counter Herzfeld’s position in a 2004 article that examines demographic shifts in downtown Fort Worth, Texas from 1990-2000, following the area’s historical designation. Their research found that few demographic shifts took place in the area after its historical designation. Owner-occupancy rates were also minimally affected. They noted, however, that designation as a historical district brought across-the-board increases in property value. They conclude that designation as a historical area is not in and of itself powerful enough to trigger gentrification, but that factors such as desirable location and economic conditions are greater indicators of potential development. We see the same phenomenon taking place in the Black Broadway example, where most legacy institutions were lost before the area received its historical designation. Displacement of legacy tenants was driven largely by increased housing demand and a newly accessible location. In the Black Broadway example, historical designation has been beneficial to the remaining older businesses, as it has provided resources to allow the few remaining legacy businesses to continue operation.


Urban regeneration, reinvestment, and gentrification have transformed the original character of places and re-written the narratives of their social and cultural contexts. We argue that given the benefits of preserved communities to residents, as well as their advantage as a historical tool, it is time for the public to examine urban regeneration with a more critical eye. In the cases we have presented, carefully thought-out and inclusive historical designation practices which respected legacy businesses and sought subsidies for existing residents helped maintain an area’s cultural and aesthetic qualities. We agree with Stieber’s assessment that architecture serves as a profound primary resource for historians, centuries after all human witnesses are lost. The way in which we read buildings, aesthetically and contextually, allows us to understand what humanity was and what it may become. Equipped with the knowledge of these possibilities, we, as architects and as citizens, must ask ourselves if we will continue to tolerate the negligent erasure of cultural heritage. Will we use the tools and methods available to us to create resilient neighborhoods that will allow the regeneration of urban centers? We suggest that we can and we should.


Buckley, James Michael, and Donna Graves. “Tangible Benefits From Intangible Resources: Using Social and Cultural History to Plan Neighborhood Futures.” Journal of the American Planning Association 82, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 152–66. doi:10.1080/01944363.2016.1141663.

Carmon, Naomi. 2002. “The Phoenix Strategy for Updating Housing Stock: Preventing Neighborhood Deterioration and Promoting Sustainable Development.” American Planning Association.Journal of the American Planning Association 68 (4) (Autumn): 416-434. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01944360208976283.

Coulson, N. Edward, and Robin M. Leichenko. “Historic Preservation and Neighborhood Change.” Urban Studies 41, no. 8 (July 2004). Accessed November 25, 2018.

Desai, Madhuri. “Mosques, temples, and orientalists: Hegemonic imaginations in Banaras.” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review (2003): 23-37.

Hayden, Dolores. The Power of Place. 191-209. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

Herzfeld, Michael. “Engagement, Gentrification, and the Neoliberal Hijacking of History.” Current Anthropology 51, no. S2 (2010): S259-267. doi:10.1086/653420.

Kaplan, Sarah. “The voices of U Street’s ‘Black Broadway’ days are fading. Time to hit record” The Washington Post, Aug 27, 2014.

Stieber, Nancy. “Introduction.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 65, no. 1 (2006): 5-6. doi:10.2307/25068224.

Thomas, Briana. “The Forgotten History of U Street.” Washingtonian. April 06, 2017. .Accessed September 30,2018.

Way, Heather, Elizabeth Mueller, and Jake Wegmann. Uprooted: Residential Displacement in Austin’s Gentrifying Neighborhoods and What Can Be Done About It. Report. The Center for Sustainable Development, The University of Texas at Austin. 2018.


Amazon moves in

Amazon’s move will gentrify neighborhoods – at what social cost?

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The largest public housing complex in the country, Queensbridge Houses, is located near the spot where Amazon plans to put a new headquarters.
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Alexandra Staub, Pennsylvania State University

When large companies move into an area, politicians often proclaim how the new business will create jobs, increase tax revenues, and thus lead to economic growth. This is one reason local governments offer tax incentives to businesses willing to move in.

Amazon’s decision to locate offices in Long Island City across the East River from Manhattan, and in Crystal City on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., follows this pattern. The New York location borders the largest low-income housing area in the United States, with mostly African-American and Hispanic residents whose median household income is well below the federal poverty level. These people, local politicians claim, will benefit from Amazon’s move to the neighborhood.

However, when large companies with an upscale and specialized workforce move into an area, the result is more often gentrification. As economic development takes place and prices of real estate go up, the poorer residents of the neighborhood are forced out and replaced by wealthier ones.

Is such a market-driven approach that accepts displacement ethically justifiable? And how do we even measure its costs?

Can gentrification ever be ethical?

Although politicians don’t typically frame gentrification as a question of ethics, in accepting the displacement of poor residents in favor of better-off residents they are, in effect, making an argument based on ideas of utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism, developed as a modern theory of ethics by the 19th-century philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, seeks the greatest balance of happiness over suffering in society as a whole. Utilitarianism seeks the greatest net benefit in any situation. In economics, it is often expressed in monetary terms.

A classic example is of a new dam that will generate electricity, irrigate crops and provide a new lake for recreation. But it might also displace people and flood land that is used for other purposes.

Economists might calculate the dollar cost of the dam itself, the monetary value of the land lost, and the cost to relocate displaced people. They would weigh these monetary costs against the value of the electricity gained, the increased food production, and added income from recreation.

What economists miss in these calculations are the social costs. For example, they do not count the lives disrupted through displacement, nor do they determine if the benefits of the dam are equally available to all.

Gentrification, as an economic and social phenomenon, is not limited to cities in the United States. Gentrification has become a global issue. In cities as geographically dispersed as Amsterdam, Sydney, Berlin and Vancouver, gentrification has been linked to free-market economic policies. Put another way, when governments decide to let housing and property markets exist with little or no regulation, gentrification typically flourishes.

When neighborhoods gentrify, politicians and policymakers often point to physical and economic improvements and the better quality of life for residents in an area after gentrification. For example in 1985, during a period of intense urban renewal in New York City, the Real Estate Board of New York took out advertisements in The New York Times to claim that “neighborhoods and lives blossom” under gentrification.

Through the lens of utilitarianism, one could say that the population living in neighborhoods after gentrification experience greater happiness than before.

The fallacy of this argument is, of course, that these “happier” populations are overwhelmingly not the same people as were there before gentrification. As a scholar who works on questions of ethics in the built environment, I have studied how we, as the concerned public, can better equip ourselves to see through such arguments.

Economic development in an area leads to less poverty in that area, not because the personal economic situation of poor people who live there has improved, but because the poor people have quite simply been erased out of the picture.

Erasing the working class

Urban geographer Tom Slater points to a similar disappearing act within gentrification research.

Tenants being pushed out on account of rising rents in Harlem in 2007.
AP Photos/Bebeto Matthews

Researchers once focused on the experiences of those negatively affected by gentrification. For example, one study of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn found that gentrification commonly removed manufacturing from inner city areas, leading to blue-collar workers losing urban job opportunities.

Another study found that gentrification was associated with increased social hardships for residents. Not only did their housing expenses rise, social networks disintegrated as neighbors were forced to move elsewhere. In an examination of seven New York neighborhoods, for example, the researchers found that half of the poor households who had remained in gentrifying areas were paying more than two-thirds of their income for rent.

Where gentrification research once focused on evictions of low-income and working class residents, housing affordability problems, and torn social fabrics caused through changing neighborhoods, the talk has since turned to the experiences of the middle classes who are doing the gentrifying.

Terms like “competitive progress” and “regeneration, revitalization and renaissance” of urban neighborhoods are commonly used to describe a process whereby physically distressed areas of a city have their buildings renovated and updated.

Urban planner and best-selling author Richard Florida also focuses on the gentrifiers. In his much discussed 2002 book, Florida maintains that cities with a large gay and “bohemian” population of artists and intellectuals tend to thrive economically.

He calls this group of hip and affluent urbanites the “creative class,” and states that they are responsible for a city’s economic success. When Florida’s book came out, city leaders throughout the United States quickly seized on his ideas to promote their own urban renewal projects.

When researchers and urban leaders focus on the gentrifiers, the displaced poor and working class are doubly erased – from the gentrifying areas they once called home, and with few exceptions, from the concerns of urban policymakers.

The need to restore happiness

Amazon’s move to Washington and New York along with an influx of well-paid employees brings us back to the question of how we might apply the ethical concept of utilitarianism to understand the greatest balance of happiness over suffering for the greatest number of people.

In my view, this number must include the poor and working class. In an area threatened by gentrification, the economic and social costs for displaced residents is typically high.

To make ethical decisions, we must consider the people who suffer the consequences of rapidly rising costs in the area they call home as part of the ethical equation.The Conversation

Alexandra Staub, Associate Professor of Architecture; Affiliate Faculty, Rock Ethics Institute, Pennsylvania State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The American Dream: an ethical dilemma?

Is bigger really better?

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A luxury home near Philadelphia. Alexandra Staub, CC BY

Alexandra Staub, Pennsylvania State University

The United States is facing a housing crisis: Affordable housing is inadequate, while luxury homes abound. Homelessness remains a persistent problem in many areas of the country.

Despite this, popular culture has often focused on housing as an opportunity for upward mobility: the American Dream wrapped within four walls and a roof. The housing industry has contributed to this belief as it has promoted ideals of “living better.” Happiness is marketed as living with both more space and more amenities.

As an architect and scholar who examines how we shape buildings and how they shape us, I’ve examined the trend toward “more is better” in housing. Opulent housing is promoted as a reward for hard work and diligence, turning housing from a basic necessity into an aspirational product.

Yet what are the ethical consequences of such aspirational dreams? Is there a point where “more is better” creates an ethical dilemma?

The better housing craze

The average single-family home built in the United States in the 1960s or before was less than 1,500 square feet in size. By 2016, the median size of a new, single-family home sold in the United States was 2,422 square feet, almost twice as large.

A new single-family home in 2016. www.census.gov

Single-family homes built in the 1980s had a median of six rooms. By 2000, the median number of rooms was seven. What’s more, homes built in the 2000s were more likely than earlier models to have more of all types of spaces: bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms, family rooms, dining rooms, dens, recreation rooms, utility rooms and, as the number of cars per family increased, garages.

Today, homebuilding companies promote these expanding spaces – large yards, spaces for entertainment, private swimming pools, or even home theaters – as needed for recreation and social events.

Each home a castle?

Living better is not only defined as having more space, but also as having more and newer products. Since at least the 1920s, when the “servant crisis” forced the mistress of the house to take on tasks servants had once performed, marketing efforts have suggested that increasing the range of products and amenities in our home will make housework easier and family life more pleasant. The scale of such products has only increased over time.

In the 1920s, advertising suggested that middle-class women who had once had servants to do their more odious housework could now, with the right cleaners, be able to easily do the job themselves.

By the 1950s, advertisements touted coordinated kitchens as allowing women to save time on their housework, so they could spend more time with their families. More recently, advertisers have presented the house itself as a product that will improve the family’s social standing while providing ample space for family activities and togetherness for the parent couple, all the while remaining easy to maintain. The implication has been that even if our houses get larger, we won’t need to spend more effort running them.

In my research, I note that the housework shown – cooking, doing laundry, helping children with their homework – is presented as an opportunity for social engagement or family bonding.

Advertisements never mentioned that more bathrooms also mean more toilets to scrub, or that having a large yard with a pool for the kids and their friends means hours of upkeep.

The consequences of living big

As middle-class houses have grown ever larger, two things have happened.

First, large houses do take time to maintain. An army of cleaners and other service workers, many of them working for minimal wages, are required to keep the upscale houses in order. In some ways, we have returned to the era of even middle-class households employing low-wage servants, except that today’s servants no longer live with their employers, but are deployed by firms that provide little in the way of wages or benefits.

Second, once-public spaces such as municipal pools or recreational centers, where people from diverse backgrounds used to randomly come together, have increasingly become privatized, allowing access only to carefully circumscribed groups. Even spaces that seem public are often exclusively for the use of limited populations. For example, gated communities sometimes use taxpayer funds – money that by definition should fund projects open to the public – to build amenities such as roads, parks or playgrounds that may only be used by residents of the gated community or their guests.

Limiting access to amenities has had other consequences as well. An increase in private facilities for the well-off has gone hand in hand with a reduction of public facilities available to all, with a reduced quality of life for many.

Take swimming pools. Whereas in 1950, only 2,500 U.S. families owned in-ground pools, by 1999 this number had risen to 4 million. At the same time, public municipal pools were often no longer maintained and many were shuttered, leaving low-income people nowhere to swim.

Mobility opportunities have been affected, too. For example, 65 percent of communities built in the 1960s or earlier had public transportation; by 2005, with an increase in multi-car families, this was only 32.5 percent. A reduction in public transit decreases opportunities for those who do not drive, such as youth, the elderly, or people who cannot afford a car.

Redefining the paradigm

“Living better” through purchasing bigger housing with more lavish amenities thus poses several ethical questions.

In living in the United States, how willing should we be to accept a system in which relatively opulent lifestyles are achievable to the middle class only through low-wage labor by others? And how willing should we be to accept a system in which an increase in amenities purchased by the affluent foreshadows a reduction in those amenities for the financially less endowed?

Ethically, I believe that the American Dream should not be allowed to devolve into a zero-sum game, in which one person’s gain comes at others’ loss. A solution could lie in redefining the ideal of “living better.” Instead of limiting access to space through its privatization, we could think of publicly accessible spaces and amenities as providing new freedoms though opportunities for engaging with people who are different from us and who might thus stretch our thinking about the world.

Redefining the American Dream in this way would open us to new and serendipitous experiences, as we break through the walls that surround us.

Editor’s note: This piece is part of our series on ethical questions arising from everyday life. We would welcome your suggestions. Please email us at ethical.questions@theconversation.com.The Conversation

Alexandra Staub, Associate Professor of Architecture; Affiliate Faculty, Rock Ethics Institute, Pennsylvania State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.