Sana Ahrar & Tazrin Islam
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
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
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.
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.