Lawrence J. Vale on Design-Politics
by Larry Vale
May 14, 2018
This interview with Lawrence Vale was conducted and condensed by frank news.
Lawrence Vale is a professor of Urban Design and Planning at MIT and director of the Resilient Cities Housing Initiative. He is the author of ten books on housing, urban design, and planning, most recently Purging the poorest: Public housing and the design politics of twice-cleared communities, Architecture, power and national identity, and co-editor of The resilient city: How modern cities recover from disaster.
I grew up in Chicago, immersed in a place where people actually talked a lot about architecture. I thought that I might want to study that when I went off to college. But also I remember jotting down in a notebook in high school that I want to go to Yale and study architecture and psychology. And I didn't go to Yale. I didn't study formally either of those things initially. But I knew that I wanted to figure out how to tie together the design world and the social world in some way. I tried to do that somewhat sequentially by applying to both architecture and planning schools but also studying politics - particularly international politics. Eventually, I came to what I call design-politics. I like to have a hyphen between design and politics: to treat the design side inseparately from the political side. To understand some of the ways that I thought that they were really connected. As I go around places I am always asking myself,
Why is this here? Why does the world look the way it does? What are the juxtapositions that we see and how might those have come about? What is being expressed symbolically? What does this say about the role of power?
Why isn’t that connection made more often?
I think a lot of people see the spatial aspects of power but stop short of talking about it in terms of actual built artifacts. There's of course Foucault looking back at Bentham’s Panopticon and finding relationships between knowledge and power and surveillance and things like that. But I've found that very few people who are interested in the phenomenon of power take the role of design particularly seriously. Similarly, a lot of the people who see themselves as designers don't necessarily want to be as explicitly involved in the politics as their work tends to force them to be.
Planners are focusing less and less on design, separating the physical from the social, but the physical is so important to every social question we ask.
I feel like you can look at almost any drawing that is made of a prospective place and extract from that at least an implicit discussion about social relationships. I like to point to a new evolving site plan for one of the mixed income communities built around Cabrini-Green in Chicago. Public housing was being replaced, and the drawing reveals how the designers and developers grappled with how to program this space to attract both the returning public housing families and the new market rate households.
Chicago, USA - April 11, 2015: Frances Cabrini Rowhouses in the Carbrini Green housing project, Near North Side of Chicago. Fenced off and boarded up.
There was going to be a little bit of open space. The early drawings show a tot lot and places that are oriented to families with children – with benches and things like that. Yet the final site plan turned the lot into a dog park. In other words, the target audience was people with little dogs instead of little kids. Here’s the result: it isn't saying explicitly, in words, ‘this place is really for people with dogs and not kids’ or – more pointedly – This is not for your large black family. It's simply revealing unstated preferences. The developer wants new families who have few if any children but may have a dog.
Design-politics reveals the things that are often difficult to verbalize. There are sensitive conversations that you can have through a drawing, by simply changing the program to accommodate one audience rather than another. Implicitly, through the mechanism of designing and programming, this makes a judgment about who is likely to feel more welcome in a space, and who is likely to feel less welcome.
It takes lots of different formats. It can be the way a gate is treated in a gated community. What is the threshold of entrance to a new realm? What do you go through and what does it feel like to become an insider? What do you have to do when you move from a fully public part of the city to a managed part of the city where there may be a private security force or there may be a private government that is taking care of cleaning the streets and the sidewalks? The dimensions of the roads are subject to different standards than in the public city. What does it mean to be open and what does it mean to be closed? And how does that vary across the globe? When people create gated communities they may have different agendas behind them. Southern California and Southern India may operate differently even if they each have gated communities.
Boarded up row houses in Atgeld Gardens. A 1940's housing development in Riverdale, a Chicago community on the Far Southeast Side.
How did this model of mixed income housing projects happen? And what was the intention there?
Public housing began with some range of incomes. Back in the mid-20th century, these were carefully constructed communities that were, explicitly, not for the poorest of the poor. They were for people that had some stable income and were soon likely to increase that income to the point where they would no longer need the public housing, and some new family would move in. With that in mind there were people at various levels of income, all of them still fairly low, but many on the way up and out. Then, starting in the 1960s, public housing increasingly failed to attract those upwardly mobile families. Especially if they were white, they had other opportunities for mortgage loans and things of that nature that were easier for whites to get from the Federal Housing Administration. This relegated public housing to increasingly economically desperate people. By the end of the 1980s housing officials realized that the national average income of those in public housing was only about 17 percent of the median. So, what would be called in the trade “extremely low-income” – not just “low income,” not just poor, but really the poorest households were there.
Sociologists then and now said that "concentrated poverty and all sorts of bad things will happen to communities if they're only composed of extremely low-income households."
Therefore, redevelopment ought to take a different model. And while there is certainly a lot of evidence to suggest real problems caused by concentrated poverty, it's still a little overgeneralized for me. Sometimes, we need to say well, wait a minute. If it's a relatively small housing development next to a very mixed-income neighborhood is it really concentrated poverty when there are all sorts of amenities and all sorts of ranges of incomes just five-minute walk away?
Or, if you're talking about mixing incomes do you need to bring in lots of people paying market rate rents or owning homes purchased at market rates? Could you have a mix of incomes that's more like the public housing of the early days where it's some “extremely low,” some “very low,” some “low” and some at least fairly moderate on the way up? In other words, we have the single term “mixed income” that is allowed to cover a huge range of circumstances. When Shomon Shamsuddin and I looked at 260 examples of these mixed-income communities we found that they that they bore very little relation to one another. The article is called “All Mixed Up”.
The desire to add in market-rate housing is often directly proportional to the newly-found attractiveness of particular neighborhoods. in other words, places that might have seemed a bit marginal a few decades ago are now being reclaimed for higher income occupancy using the rationale of “concentrated poverty”. Instead, we get the reality of concentrated gentrification.
Yes. Think parts of Brooklyn, or Cabrini-Green in Chicago. That’s is a perfect example. Cabrini-Green was probably too big. 3,600 apartments. But it was also the largest concentration of affordable, deeply subsidized housing on the North Side of Chicago. To lose that, or to lose 80 percent of those kind of affordable units, is a loss – not just a gain for the neighborhood that has new investment. It means that it's harder for people with lower incomes to find housing they can afford on the entire North Side of Chicago.
It’s really a question then of “for whom”, who gets included and left out of the conversation?
Yeah, I think that's very much the case. Again, decisions are being made again but not verbalized explicitly. Political decisions can be encoded into the design simply by what I would call the design-politics of the unit mix. In other words, the mixture of apartment sizes – how many one-bedroom, how many two-bedroom, how many three-bedroom how many four-bedroom. You can see why, financially, if you're trying to make this work in terms of profits you might want to have lots of small apartments. This could be a completely rational discussion. But it's also implicitly saying "We don't really want your large family here anymore." And sometimes it's extreme. In New Orleans, another city that I've studied, when they redeveloped the St. Thomas project into River Garden, the developer chose to remove the three- and four-bedroom apartments to some offsite location that would be built later with other funds. The developer didn't want to have a lot of large families on the mixed-income site, and preferred to let them live somewhere else in the city. Perhaps, predictably, the new four-bedroom never got built. It's not always as explicit as that but it's not just the question of who gets to come back. It’s also how does the combination of apartment sizes constrain the social mix of that returning constituency. In other words, is this going to be a community of large families or a mixture of family sizes, or is it going to be chiefly very small households, often with a dog park rather than amenities for children – let alone amenities for teenagers.
Photo via Larry Vale. New Orleans, March 2006
How are some of the implicit design decisions public housing making these projects more vulnerable or less to questions of coastal resilience?
One of the things that I've tried to do is to connect my interest in low income housing to my interest in climate change adaptation and to see how these questions of design and politics come together. I'm seeing more of that in international examples than that in the U.S. For instance the huge Indian Ocean tsunami in late 2004 was very quickly followed – especially in Sri Lanka and in Sumatra in Indonesia – by directives that villages of low-income people along the shore should not be rebuilt within a mile of that coast afterwards because it would be too dangerous. But, conveniently, these now beautiful beaches would be perfectly amenable for well-constructed luxury hotels. Naomi Klein calls this out in a chapter called “Blanking the Beach” in her or her book The Shock Doctrine. But I found it very similar in Indonesia when we visited the Aceh province ten years after the tsunami and looked at what had happened in those cases where the villagers had been forced to move inland. They had much better houses but no access to jobs or livelihoods or transportation and therefore half of them abandoned the village or rented their units out to other people because they could not have a holistic livelihood.
In other words, the architectural problem was solved by moving the housing inland and upland. But the social and economic and cultural problem of that community was made worse.
What we have done at the MIT Resilient Cities Housing Initiative is to look at examples of what might be a much more holistic approach to resilience and how that might be linked to affordable housing. When we talk about housing in terms of affordability, we stop short of asking a deeper question which is what should affordable housing afford?
In other words, what should you be able to do in your life because your housing has been made more affordable to you? we've come up with a series of large principles — livelihood, environment, governance and security – that spell out the word L-E-G-S, although I try not to make too much of the acronym.
Affordable housing should afford access to livelihood. It isn't useful to you to have affordable housing if you can't also have some way of accessing your job – either within the home that you have or through some kind of accessible connection to your site of work. It's not housing for resilience if you are now in an environment that is more vulnerable to flooding or places you in other dangerous situations.
How do you say those things to the government of these places when they argue that they needed to build those hotels for economic reasons?
In Indonesia they actually had a community backlash and withdrew their policy. In Aceh, fishermen said "We need to be near the coast. Why don't you come up with a different solution?" One of the revitalized coastal communities that is now quite heavily touted in the province as a model invented a new building typology called the “Escape building”. That is a multi-storey series of concrete ramps that allows villagers to evacuate vertically, if a tsunami should threaten – assuming you have a little bit of warning. But in normal times it serves as a community center. It's a mosque. It's a place for playing recreational games. It's a place to hold weddings. it's a completely functional part of the community that in an emergency could also evacuate a large part of a village upward.
Part of the answer to the question of how you convince somebody to do this has to do with governance. People in these communities ought to feel that they have the right to share in their governance and to figure out ways of taking part in the decision-making process about their own community. In terms of what affordable housing should afford, our fourth principle of security is related to this. It’s security both the sense of people feeling physically secure from violence but also having a sense that they have some security of tenure – that they're not going to be evicted from their homes.
Post-disaster policies have sometimes formalized the right of a community to stay put.
Do you think the aesthetics of design in low income housing is important?
Yes, in many ways. If you take the long view, when public housing starts in the 1930s and 40s and 50s, modernist design offered as stark alternative to wooden structures that were vulnerable to fire. Such homes were in pretty dire condition, and modern construction with either concrete frame or masonry of some form offered a big contrast.
In those early years, it was not seen as stigmatizing people by having a kind of stripped and poorly constructed alternative. It was just the opposite: new modern electric appliances, hot and cold running water. and proper bathroom facilities. Public housing brought in a level of modern convenience to places that looked and felt very dangerous. It’s only later that public housing gets vilified for being this kind of cost-cutting stripped modernism that offered chiefly empty and ill-used open space. In the 1970s, Oscar Newman blamed these superblocks for lacking defensible space, observing that people don't feel any control over their territory. Accordingly, since the 1980s, the idea has been to redevelop housing by reintroducing middle class norms of porches and picket fences and reassuring things. It harkens back to a pre-modern set of norms seen as a kind of lost Americana. In turn, not coincidentally, such forms could attract a broader range of incomes. Those who would never go live in a modernist alien project that doesn't look like house might now be tempted to be part of something that looks like a perhaps slightly denser version of a condo complex in the suburbs, or even row houses, or in some cases single family homes.
In the first mid-century phase, the design sent the symbolic message of the design was "let's be as different as possible from these things that have been stigmatized as slums and blight." And in contemporary times, it’s "let’s be as different as possible from that old public housing seen as bleak and forbidding." In this new design-politics, the architecture has often returned to wood frame construction and painted colours. Unfortunately in many cases this has entailed going back to the same kinds of flimsy construction that had been decried and replaced by the solidity of public housing construction in the 40s and 50s.
It may look better for a little while but we may well be building replacement housing that is nowhere near as structurally sound as the solidly-constructed housing that became vilified.
Do you believe that there was really good intention behind making the design more modern?
I think especially in the early years public housing promoters absolutely viewed it as a reward for people who had lived in substandard conditions. Freed from such conditions, they wanted the new housing design enable them to flourish as a family. The missing piece of that reward system, though, was that there was remarkably little tendency to actually give a unit in the new housing to the people who were displaced from homes on the site cleared to build that housing. Public housing, with its modern conveniences, was not for that kind of poor person. The displaced former slum dwellers were often the ‘wrong’ race or ethnicity, the ‘wrong’ family size, the ‘wrong’ income. They were not rebuffed from places in public housing because they earned too much but in some cases because they earned too little. They were a bad credit risk and might not be able to keep up with their rent payments. They could be a family that had multiple generations and was just too big. It could be a family that was dependent income from lodgers. Certainly this was all based entirely on heteronormative assumptions about the nuclear family – one male, one female plus kids. There was never a place for same sex couples or households composed of unrelated individuals.
Public housing, by design, served as a sorting mechanism to pair ‘standard’ families with ‘standard’ housing. This connection between substandard dwellings and substandard social worthiness was pretty explicit.
Later on, especially with cost cutting in some of a highrises of the 60s in some cities, the sense of public housing as a reward rapidly disappeared. And this is why I distinguish the early period from 1935 to 1960 as really trying to build what I call “selective collectives” where you're picking the most deserving people to give them an improvement over their past housing.
Then, starting in the 1960s until 1990 or so, housing authorities simply tried to cope with housing the poorest of the poor. This is when “warehousing” becomes the metaphor of choice. You get people talking about “barracks-style” even though that's not a particularly accurate descriptor of what was being designed.
Next, beginning in the 1990s, it shifts again. There is a new wish to again market public housing to a broader range of people. Housing authorities and local politicians want to have a return of the selection process in ways that will attract those with choices, not simply those for whom this is housing of last resort. The attempt is to forcibly return the system back to a selective reward process instead of a place that is just used to house the most desperate – placed all together and out of view.
Do you think it will work?
It's been a struggle in a lot of places. I've studied some communities that have really tried to maximize the distance of incomes co-located on the sites, so that the mixed income housing gets polarized between extremely low-income and market rate renters or market rate owners. These extreme mixes seem less likely to work out socially.
There are a lot of assumptions about things like role modeling and transfer of social capital and terms like that. And every single social scientist I know who has been studying those communities has found very little of that. Instead, they find that mixing has caused tensions at least as much as led to mutual gain.
There's a book called Integrating the Inner City about Chicago by Rob Chaskin and Mark Joseph. They coined the term “incorporated exclusion” to describe the way many returning low income people feel within their new mixed-income community: they're tolerated but still a kind of a second class citizen in the community that used to be theirs. The systems of rules and rule enforcement and surveillance, especially with cameras, conveys a sense that crtain practices are forbidden not because they are dangerous or disruptive but because they are perceived as signaling activity that would be off putting to some of the new more affluent constituency. Things like large barbecue parties. The capacity to wash your car in front of your home. These things bring us back to design-politics. There are rules about the use of visible space that appear to be straightforward but have a kind of cultural encoding that is perceived differently by people of different races and different classes. These rules clearly prioritize one set of cultural expectations over another. That makes it more difficult to build a community
The mixed-income communities that I have found to be more successful have had narrower mixes. You have people that may be extremely low-income next to people who have stable jobs but who may still need the kind of discounted rent that is possible through housing developed with Low Income Housing Tax Credits. They may still be technically “low income” households but they have vmuch more stable socioeconomic lives than those who are struggling with the very lowest incomes. Those mixes may be easier to pull off than the polarized versions.
How much does it matter what kind of middle income market rate buyer comes in? Is that how it’s really set up as a system?
A lot of it depends on the way it's set up as a system in two senses. One is how the mix is allocated on the site. In other words, are people put in separate buildings or are they are they put on separate floors or are there identical units renting at very different costs immediately adjacent to one another? Do the buildings for low income people look differently on the outside from the buildings designed for the higher income people? Do low income people get to have access to the full range of building types – townhouses as as well as condos – or are some building types reserved for those people paying market rates? So, one side of this is how the distribution of units looks and feels on the site.
The second aspect is how is manage it. Is there a common set of rules for everyone or are there some things that are being enforced differently for those paying market rates versus those paying subsidized rates?
In certain building types it's easier to mask the variety of income located within precisely because there is not an external architectural expression of each person’s unit that would signal one thing or another. That said, in New York where there's been talk about densifying existing sites by building in the open space between building, there are new challenges, since the hybrid complexes could be all towers, yet have different income groups segregated by building.
Let’s talk about resilience and its definition, and also about narrative.
The Resilient City is an odd book in the sense that by the end of the book my co-editor and I questioned all three words of the title. That is typically not a good thing to do as an author but it actually reveals what we learned. First of all, we think we know what a term like resilient means. Because most architects and planners writing about resilience were talking about it in terms of “bouncing back.” it had a kind of engineers vision of what the term might mean. But once you started asking questions about whose resilience you found that many people were not very resilient before whatever traumatic event may have happened. So therefore the model of returning to some previous state would just mean returning to the extreme inequality and differentiated space of that immediate pre-disaster moment.
And therefore resilience to some people would not be a good thing. It would be returning to an intolerable set of conditions. And, similarly, using the word “city” assumed that the whole place was something that could be called resilient when in fact it seemed like disaster recovery was a much more micro-scale diverse experience. In any kind of traumatic event some parts of the city and the city-region proved more vulnerable and did suffer more, sustaining greater long term damage and challenges. So it made no sense in the end to talk about something as a city being resilient.
And then there's the “The” word. Are resilient cities all really one type of thing? It may be more accurate — but certainly not very catchy — to call the book “Resilient. Parts of Cities for Some Parts of the Population.”
Still, we wanted to push as far as we could to justify the sense that there could be something called the resilient city and to tryto identify some common principles. Even though some of the principles turn out to be about political vulnerability and opportunism.
You know so it's not just about how to become resilient. It's what to watch out for as you claim this thing called “Resilient City” because it can overclaim and overgeneralize about who is actually going to benefit from the investment
That’s what we're saying as well. Look carefully at how those choices about where, and in whom. to invest are being made and examine who isn't being invested in. We too easily assume this thing called “resilience” and we too easily assume that there is some common interests called “the city”. What we found when we looked at historical examples of this was that it has always been very differentiated and highly contested kind of thing.
I think the reason that the book caught on and the term “resilient city” seems to have caught on is that it opens up a set of questions that are deeply political in nature. I hope that most people who use the term “resilient city” will question it. I still find value in the term “resilience” and I still find value in the concept of “city” but it only makes sense to me to use these terms if you’re willing to push back as hard as possible. What you mean – and for whom you mean – when you use terms like that?
In New Orleans after Katrina, some planners proposed the infamous “Green Dot” map to suggest some “approximate” lowland parts of the city that should be devoted to parks and water catchment areas. Well intentioned people understood – some degree of evidence — that the city could be better off if some areas were not rebuilt with housing. But the design-politics of that sensible notion got insensitively rendered in the newspaper as large green dots that happened to land on the non-green neighborhoods of some citizens. Those people quickly read what was being said by the design-politics. They understandably asked,
Why is my house being sacrificed for some kind of drainage park? And, why not other people?
Image via Larry Vale
The challenge of trying to figure out how you manage the politics of design in a democracy takes a great deal of thought and a great deal of public engagement.
But, without that, the backlash will be as great as the initial disaster.