Social Housing and Segregation by Michael Nugent

The Design, Intended or Not, of Segregation

October 23, 2020

[Reading List]

Suburbs are socially ‘designed,’ intentionally or (more often) not, to achieve certain collective and individual goals. They are designed either explicitly through the logic of top-down centralized planning, either public and corporate, or indirectly through a plethora of public policies, market decisions, social attitudes and local regulatory practices. Most suburbs, in reality, reflect both logics. This is not meant to suggest yet another conspiracy theory of urban development. Rather, it is a reaffirmation on the one hand of the crucial but problematic role of the state, and on the other hand of the uneven consequences of individual decisions and corporate actions in shaping the nature and form of the suburban landscape. My hypothesis is that this landscape is becoming more unequal, fragmented and socially polarized. There are mounting troubles in paradise and those problems will increasingly come to dominate our research and planning agenda in the next decade (Hayden, 1984; Baldassare, 1986; Blakely, 1992; Langdon, 1994; Palen, 1994; Downs, 1994). The need to redesign the suburbs, both old and new, may well be the next frontier in urban research and planning (Bourne 1996, 164).

A quarter-century after Larry Bourne wrote his 1996 essay, “Reinventing the Suburbs: Old Myths and New Realities,” its thesis appears as a warning sign in the rear-view mirror. Blissfully ignored along the road it is commonly known as the status quo. Yet, as is always the case with hindsight, it is now rendered with vivid clarity. It demands a heightened re-evaluation of the term “systemic racism.” If the individual public and private decisions and actions which Bourne describes are encoded with racial biases, then the resulting urban environment, intentionally or not, will privilege certain ethnocultural groups and disadvantaging others.1 Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of individual policies favour a “normative” white culture, while disenfranchising Black, Indigenous, Latino, and other ethnocultural minority groups2 resulting in a cumulative assemblage of marginalization which manifests within the fabric of our cities and suburbs. A phenomenon that George Lipsitz refers to asthe racialization of space and the spatialization of race.”3

Lipsitz frames spatial imagery through “whiteness,” reflecting a normative majority benefitting from the cumulative assemblage of individual policies and mechanisms, and “blackness,” ethnocultural minorities which develop sociability and insular community values to subvert and circumvent the obstacles imposed by whiteness.4 Spatially, whiteness manifests as the capitalistic commoditization of land and space and the resulting financial power which it accrues. While blackness emerges within the gaps in white society, and therefore spatially manifests in the overlooked and interstitial areas of the city. “Journalists, politicians, scholars, and land-use professionals have long been cognizant that these views represent the experiences and opinions of different races, but they have been less discerning about the degree to which these differences in views stem from the experiences and opinions of different spaces.”5 The resulting socio-spatial formation of blackness emerges as a result of the shroud which whiteness places on the urban citizenship rights of Black residents. Lipsitz clarifies that not all whites embrace whiteness but do inherently benefit from it; while not all Blacks identify with blackness but are subjected to it.6 In cities and regions of increasing financial polarization, these spatial imageries lead to segregation as income inequality and economic disparity pushes groups geographically farther apart.

Perhaps one of the clearest examples of segregation that emerged as a result of the dichotomy between whiteness and blackness can be seen during the Postwar years. Rapid suburban expansion, due to a growing white middle class, “hollowed out” many of the inner cities leaving behind impoverished pockets of ethnocultural communities within urban cores. Such was the case in St. Louis in the early 1950s.7 At first, this resulted in a rapid decline of real estate values within the central city, with areas functionally becoming ghettos or slums.8 However, within a few years, the increased vacancy rate allowed for a spatial reclamation of the central city and organic de-ghettoization that achieved the goal set forth by the social housing policies of the city.9 In her essay, Katharine Bristol dismantles the myth that the Pruitt-Igoe housing project was a “failure of High Modernism”10 and the inability of architecture to provide low-income housing. However, when viewed through the context of Bourne’s thesis and Lipsitz’s spatial imagery of whiteness and blackness, it becomes clear the “failure” of the project was precisely the policy decisions and broader financial mechanisms imposed by whiteness that designed a social housing project doomed to fail. Ironically, the modernist housing project proposed by city officials, business owners, and made possible by the agenda of a normative white federal government, failed to predict what would become central to Neo-liberalism and the financial advantages entrenched in whiteness: “the self-regulation of the free market.” Pruitt-Igoe was both conceived of, and killed by, whiteness. This is not because of the failure of its architecture. This reframes the discussion about what role literal designers, architects and urban planners, have in addressing racial-spatial segregation. In many ways, segregation is the manifestation of much broader and deeper-rooted inequalities and institutionalized racism within North America’s socio-technic construction. While designers have significant influence over the physical configurations and qualities of the built environments they contribute to, their agency is often limited by budgetary considerations and the financial agendas of their public or private clients—systems which in themselves are deeply embedded with whiteness.

Completely external to the traditional role of designers are the civic relationships and social tensions within neighbourhoods or between ethnocultural communities. Progressive planning practices have placed greater emphasis on “social mixing” as a means of addressing wealth polarization,11 however, this assumes that desegregation is the desired outcome by all residents. For many minority communities within North America, particularly Black, the cultural wounds of racial oppression and marginalization are still too fresh.12 “Many people in our nation, especially white people, believe that racism has ended. Consequently, when black people attempt to give voice to the pain of racist victimization, we are likely to be accused of playing the ‘race’ card. And there are few if any public spaces where black folks can express fear of whiteness.”13 As designers grappling with these issues, perhaps the first step within a design process is to recognize the pain which the socio-technic systems informing our projects have inflicted. Reflections must be undertaken before even the first sketches. Secondly, to evaluate whether the whiteness of a proposal is impacting the solidarity and safe space that a community has fought to achieve. While the progressive knee-jerk reaction is to eradicate segregation, doing so within a society still deeply entrenched by racism14 takes away the counter-spatial asylum generated by blackness.15

Until these issues are fully recognized and addressed, whether, in the form of reparations16 or some yet-to-be-discovered alternative, the design of our urban and public space will continue to maintain a systemically racist status-quo. Much like the myth of Pruitt-Igoe, we cannot place the sole burden of this on designers. Instead, the responsibility is on us as a citizen to demand and affect change. It is only through repairing and rebuilding the individual attitudes, policies, and mechanisms17 of our wickedly-complex world that we can begin to design a world without segregation.


George Lipsitz, “The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape,” Landscape Journal 26, no. 1 (2007): 11.

Ibid, 12.


Ibid, 14.

Ibid, 19.

Ibid, 14.

Katharine G. Bristol, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” Journal of Architectural Education (1984-) 44, no. 3 (1991): 163.

Ibid, 164.

Ibid, 166.

10 Ibid, 163.

11 Justus Uitermark, “‘Social Mixing’ and the Management of Disadvantaged Neighbourhoods: The Dutch Policy of Urban Restructuring Revisited,” Urban Studies 40, no. 3 (March 2003): 531–49; Marion Roberts, “Sharing Space: Urban Design and Social Mixing in Mixed Income New Communities,” Planning Theory & Practice 8, no. 2 (June 1, 2007): 183–204; Lees, Loretta Lees, “Gentrification and Social Mixing: Towards an Inclusive Urban Renaissance?” Urban Studies 45, no. 12 (November 2008): 2449–70.

12 Bell Hooks, “Again – Segregation must End,” in Belonging: A Culture of Place, (New York: Routledge, 2009), 71.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid, 72.

15  Lipsitz, “The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race,” 14.

16 Ta-Hehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.

17 Steven J. Jackson, “Rethinking Repair,” in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, ed. Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot (MIT Press, 2014), 221-239.

11 responses to “Social Housing and Segregation by Michael Nugent”

  1. Ke Yan Ye says:

    George Lipsitz article ‘The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race’ present the social geographies of race in New Orleans and in the United States as a result of a ‘cumulative’ effect of structured disadvantages over generations. The reference to Shapiro’s work in ‘The Hidden Cost of Being African American’ was eye-opening for me because it really highlighted the inequal chances, opportunities and conditions from the moment of birth. As Lipsitz pushes landscape architects and other citizens concerned with the built environment to disassemble the fatal links that connect race, place and power, Bristol frames a whole other perspective where wider and external social forces such as declining economics and failed occupancy projections play a larger role than the one of the architect. In my opinion, architects cannot act alone but still need to acknowledge social conditions that result from decades of disinvestment, deindustrialization and defunding of public services that are unrepresentable relations in our traditional modes of expression (i.e. Euclidian space).

  2. Genna Kalvaitis says:

    Both Lipsitz and Bristol’s articles regarding social housing and segregation were very thought provoking reads for me. The deep systemic penetration of racism throughout out social housing systems was made abundantly clear throughout Lipsitz’s reading. His suggestions in conclusion highlight potential opportunities of intervention architects and designers must take up to begin to challenge the racist systems we design in. While I found Bristol’s criticism of the Pruitt-Igoe myth significant and enlightening in many ways, I remain critical of her stance of “the architects’ passivity” in the realm of social change. Reframing the Pruitt-Igoe failure as a purely architectural one does a disservice to the complex issues of social housing and racial injustice undoubtedly. But I do not believe that as architects we are “essentially passive in [our] acceptance of the dominant practices of [our] society. As Lipsitz outlines, we have to take up the “serious commitment to implement and strengthen fair housing laws [that] would encourage the development of new kinds of spaces and spacial imaginaires.”

  3. michellebrais says:

    Of the points discussed by Lipsitz, the one that I am discussing the most lately with fellow urban planning students, is the notion of wealth accumulation and endowments through generations from property ownership. Is it how families (often white) keep wealth and privilege in the family while lower-income families (many of whom are racialized) are stuck paying rents and can difficulty accumulate wealth. This compounded with the barriers to affordable loans and insurance based on income and race perpetuates the inequalities through time, in a way that institutionalizes the racism. Furthermore, with housing ownership also comes NIMBYism, which in order to keep property values high, rejects projects that increase housing stock and density near homeowners, making less affordable housing for renters and lower-income folk. The Economist wrote an article on how home ownership has contributed to the slowed housing construction and the housing crisis today where there is high demand but very low supply of housing and thus a lack of affordable housing: When examining the housing crisis in Canada, it is also peculiar to note that when this system of wealth accumulation in housing is causing unaffordable housing prices, like in Vancouver, we are ready to blame Chinese people and chastise them rather than the system initially perpetuated by white wealthy culture. Rose Wu speaks about this eloquently in The Tyee:

  4. Aamirah says:

    Lipsitz clearly outlines the layers of racial discrimination that make it nearly impossible for ethnic minorities to advance to home ownership and acquisition of spaces that can appreciate in value. Relegating them to housing projects and spaces that are underfunded, groups them into low-income communities without access to the services and programs that can facilitate integration into established economic and social networks.

    The myth that architects are the sole solution to social problems through the buildings they design, as Bristol mentions, fails to acknowledge the role of institutions and policies in enabling segregation. Structural sources dictate budgets to the architect and enforce constraints. When construction costs are low, social housing projects end up poorly constructed or not made to last beyond a short number of years. We see the consequences of poor construction in cases like the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in London. Moreover, in parallel to the numerous instances of displacement of poor communities for Olympic villages, urban renewal is often thought of in the context of the white spatial imaginary. People who are already in a position of privilege receive the benefits of urban renewal, leaving the disadvantaged to deal with the repercussions of ill-conceived social design projects.

  5. Christina Mahut says:

    Thank you Michael for your eye-opening essay. The excerpt that struck me the most was the following: “Pruitt-Igoe was both conceived of, and killed by, whiteness. This is not because of the failure of its architecture.” It seems that Pruitt-Igoe was almost built to fail, and reinforce even further the social and racial disparities in St-Louis. As Lipsitz described, space was highly racialized, and its segregation was an important strategy in the control of movement and in maintaining the status quo (i.e. one of oppression and racial subordination). Architecture is a reflection of societies, not of architects. This is so importantly linked to Tara’s essay on prison abolition as it reiterates once again how architecture can be used as a weapon of control. How do we deconstruct this cumulative, collective, and continuing legacy of racialization of space? What role can change in policy and regulations play, at different scales to allow this movement for spatial equity to emerge?

  6. Muhammad Awan says:

    Lipsitz (2007) provides a compelling case outlining why Black communities in America continue to live under racism and discrimination. Heartless government policies and “successful white resistance” have created a landscape where Black communities are being systematically deprived of vital community resources that are foundational to health and well-being. Although exploitative regulatory structures and governance behaviors are extensively discussed in the paper, the idea of what justice looks like could have been explored further. The author brought up the shocking inheritance gap and its roots in institutional racism; however, the need to engage experts on crafting appropriate lawsuits and remedies for this cavernous gap in resources was only partially touched upon, while this issue is foundational in terms of providing these communities with the financial agency to improve their quality of life.

    In another indictment of systemic discrimination, Bristol (1991) clearly makes the case that the designers of Pruitt-Igoe were unduly scapegoated (but weren’t completely in the clear due to their passive acceptance of dominant contemporary practices that had disastrous outcomes) in the context of deeply entrenched social and economic factors that they were powerless to change. The first sign of trouble was the Public Housing Authority essentially dictating what will be built and insisting that the lowest-quality construction be employed – it conveyed an indifference for the exclusively Black low-income community that the project was eventually built for. This showed that Pruitt-Igoe was another in a long line of built-environment decisions based on institutionalized socioeconomic and racial discrimination.

  7. Rachel Law says:

    Lipsitz apply makes tangible the physicality of racial and social movements: “African-American battles for resources, rights, and recognition have not only taken place, in the figurative term…, but they have also required black literally to take places.” He highlights that the freedoms of occupying space are only given to those that add “value”, as seen through the capitalist lens – one which historically captures solely the “white” spatial imaginary and is inherently racial. Those individuals that threaten the capitalist structures are relegated to designated places where zoning, policing and investment practices allow more control. Unfortunately, as Michael mentioned, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other ethnocultural groups are typically targeted.
    For me, the demolition experiment of Pruitt-Igoe in 1972 showcased the presence of these external powers. The invisible forces that drove many of the decisions were made visible that day.
    While Bristol’s criticism of the myth of Pruitt-Igoe is well supported, it is easy to place emphasis on the failures of design due to its physicality in space. It has a physical presence. It is visible to the public eye, unlike the political-economic drivers and social structures that remain elusive.
    Design is the realm where architects are trained to operate in. However, Bristol and Lipsitz challenge us to think of the broader systems in which we contribute to, and find a way to make those visible as we interrogate our role as citizens and as architects.

  8. Olivera Neskovic says:

    As architects we often fall into the trap of proposing singular solutions to problems or reasons for the failure of those solutions. An isolated perspective on failed social-housing projects can never provide an in-depth explanation of the factors leading up to the failure, and furthermore impedes post-processing or learning.

    Bristol’s analysis of the Pruitt-Igoe project argues that architects play but a minor role in the failure of the project, and that economic and political structures provide an unstable and unreliable framework for the conception social housing projects. Although I agree that many important factors are often missing from architectural failures, I also question that Bristol seems to refuse to hold architects accountable for the social implications of architecture. Architecture is not the cause, but a symptom of a larger systemic problem.

    Architecture often approaches projects with a biased privileged, and white perspective on how and why “slums” and “rough” neighborhoods should be “rehabilitated” and developed, without considering the experiences of minorities already occupying the spaces.

    Lipsitz’s reading presents the social geographies of race within the United States because of structural inequalities and is more hands-on with disassembling the links between race, space, and power. How can designers challenge the systemic racism which is often at the root of social housing?

    I believe that as architects, we can fight for more government involvement and support in projects, and policy on social housing. Designing within constrained budgets is often a reality for architects, but there is a moral line that is crossed when budgets become so constrained that they deprive people of basic amenities. These under-budgeted projects often house minority populations, and their failure continues to perpetuate racial inequality within our societies. Design is not and cannot be the only solution to issues of social housing. If we are to play a positive role in the fight against systemic racism, we cannot passively accept to design under-budgeted, under-thought and poorly managed social housing projects, simply because it makes our portfolios and firms look generous and socially “involved”.

  9. Zoe Goodman says:

    Katharine G. Bristol’s argument against “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” removes design professionals from the failure of public housing. I do agree with Michael that a designers agency is often limited by things like budget. I do not believe that architects are the answer to every environmental/social/economic problem we face. I do believe we do need to do advocate for change where there is room for it. Whether that is choosing to build with local materials, holding community meetings or pushing for policy reform.

    In Tara’s selected prison abolition reading, the architecture activism and abolition, Raphael Sperry makes it clear that architects are capable of creating change. His example being ADPSR’s (Architects /designers /planners for social responsibility) petition to the AIA in hopes of prohibiting the design of spaces intended for execution or prolonged solitary confinement. George Lipsitz also urges landscape architects, planners and other land-use professionals to disconnect the united states “racial regimes from their spatial grounding” by including the under-represented into our drawings, truly allowing community groups to influence decisions and by diversifying our fields of practice. While many of the problems architects face are deep rooted systemic issues that require major policy changes, we are still able to make and/or influence decisions that are at the least steps towards greater change.

  10. Christopher Clarke says:

    Having worked for the social housing department of the Government of the NWT, and as an Indigenous person who has lived in that same housing, I understand first hand the issues of social housing. Although there are many similarities to the social housing discussed in the articles, Indigenous social housing has its own intrinsic issues. The first thing that I can already hear people think is, well, all Indigenous people get free housing and should be content with what they get.
    Not all Indigenous people get “free” housing; and when we do, there are a myriad of stipulations that go along with that. That said, first and foremost, a vast majority of Indigenous people were forced to living where they do. Although different that in the NWT where there is only one reserve, most Indigenous people on reserves in the rest of Canada cannot usually “own” the land their house is on; and they certainly cannot sell that house as others not from that First Nation cannot live on that reserve. Including other Indigenous people. So, although programmes exist for home ownership, no bank will give a mortgage, since if they repossessed that home, they cannot resell it on First Nations land.
    Next thing I can hear is, well, they got a free house, why can’t they take care of it? First of all, many people that now have that housing went through residential school and were never taught to take care of a home like someone else might naturally do. Secondly, if they did know how to make repairs, they were forced onto a reservation where there are very few jobs, so they have no money to do so. Lastly, if they are on a home ownership program because they have a job, they may lose that job and then not have the funds to pay that “rent to own” monthly payment.
    Thus, at all points, Indigenous people owning homes is often a system that was created for their failure. That system, which is built on us obeying a white construct of home ownership and maintenance, is ultimately set up to fail. It’s a system that was built that way, to ensure that there is never a transfer of funds from one generation to the next that many non-Indigenous people enjoy and depend on. Then, without the possibility of truly owning a home, and then have equity to finance other investments, which in the end creates a vicious negative feedback loop of poverty and disparity.

  11. Jugal Patel says:

    I really enjoyed the Lipsitz reading. Especially in their explicitly physical manifestations of broader embedded systems.

    I know I might be forcing it, but for fun: social housing as Agamben’s state of exception is clear in what Chris says above (in his blog response) about segregating housing for indigenous people. It can highlight what we stumble with: is planning normative?; does systemic mean systems of embeddedness or just broad and operating ‘everywhere’? Of course, yes; and the former for someone who believes the state is maintained by leaving people in a weird in-between wrt legal proctection. If society is designed around empowerment with home ownership and real estate equity, what does forcing people out of this reality mean? My opinion doesn’t extend to pointing blame at the existence of any* state; though I am sure these are inherent and intentional realities with the capitalist system we uphold today – one that relied on racialization, historically and culturally.

    I think, and as Lipsitz and Bristol suggest, the most relevant question is: to what degree is design of social housing meant to wrangle with embedded processes? (Yes I love the word embedded, but) It’s important that architects worried about social dynamics also concern themselves with multi-scalar processes of top-down design (architect >in> community >in> legal, social & cultural, and philosophical systems). No doubt, in my mind and in agreement with Bristol, architects aren’t the problem, but a symptom of the problem – systemic exploitation of racialized people. Well-funded community design is the way of doing this right, I think!

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