Social Housing and Segregation, by Andrew Ashbury

Deconstructing Modern Myths: The Spatial Imaginaries of Racial Segregation and Social Housing

October 23, 2020

[Reading List]

In The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race, George Lipsitz calls upon design professionals to “disassemble the fatal links that connect race, place, and power.”  Lipsitz’s call to action is a “two-part strategy”: he argues that architects and urban planners must dismantle systems of economic segregation and re-examine what values are privileged in their designs. Today, this call to action remains as urgent as ever. Architects must dismantle the systemic forces of settler colonialism and white supremacy that pervade our profession, our pedagogies, and the built environment.  To guide this rethinking, Lipsitz points to the metaphorical construct of racially specific spatial imaginaries2: the exclusionary white spatial imaginary and the counter-imaginary of the Black spatial imaginary.  These contrasting imaginaries offer a powerful lens for challenging the prevailing ideals of architectural discourse, particularly as they apply to the sociopolitical battleground of social housing. Katharine G. Bristol’s The Pruitt-Igoe Myth3 demonstrates architecture’s mystification of the demise of the Pruitt-Igoe social housing complex and how flawed ideals ignored systemic oppression and segregation.

Contesting the White Spatial Imaginary by Embracing the Black Spatial Imaginary

Lipsitz outlines the diverse mechanisms of racial segregation that persist today throughout American society.Racial segregation has a similarly long history in Canada that has targeted diverse communities, including settler colonial violence against Indigenous peoples, Transatlantic slavery, and immigration policy while persisting today as systemic discrimination and inequality affecting countless dimensions of everyday life for BIPOC communities. Lipsitz demonstrates that the white spatial imaginary perpetuates segregation and privileges white property ownership: “A white spatial imaginary, based on exclusivity and augmented exchange value, functions as a central mechanism for skewing opportunities and life chances in the United States along racial lines.”5 Contesting this hegemonic white spatial imaginary, the Black spatial imaginary fosters an inclusive enclave, a supportive community, public investment, and a value system of use-value. This counter-imaginary reveals forms of resistance: “They augment the use value of their neighbourhoods by relying on each other for bartered services and goods; by mobilizing collectively for better city services; by establishing businesses geared to a local ethnic clientele; and by using the commonalities of race and class as a basis for building pan-neighbourhood alliances with residents of similar neighborhoods to increase the responsibility, power, and accountability of local government. Black neighborhoods generate a spatial imaginary that favours public expenditures for public needs.”6

Social Housing as an Architectural Epicentre of “Racialized Space and Spatialized Race”

Lipsitz emphasizes the historical legacy and ongoing harm of exclusionary housing and real estate practices that emerge from the racist ideals of the white spatial imaginary. The “private, properly-ordered suburban home”7 is central to the white North American home ownership model favouring defensive privatism over investment in public services. Lipsitz demonstrates how inequality in residential real estate culminated in discriminatory economic, educational, and diverse other social injustices that prevent access to capital. Social housing must respond to the intersectional challenges of racial segregation and socioeconomic inequality. It is continuously undermined by the white spatial imaginary’s individualistic opposition to public investment and community support. To further examine these spatial imaginaries in specific buildings, the architectural discourse surrounding social housing projects provides insight when read in these terms.

Imagining Myths vs. Imagination of Space at Pruitt-Igoe

In The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,8 Katharine G. Bristol explores the deeply problematic mystification within the architectural discourse surrounding the iconic demise of the Pruitt-Igoe social housing complex in St. Louis. Bristol shows that the primary cause of the demise—ultimately demolished just 22 years after construction—was not its architectural design, despite this common assertion among architectural critics. Instead, this notorious failure’s primary causes were twofold: the prevailing racist segregation and oppression of the urban poor left the residents in extreme poverty, while the associated chronic underfunding of public housing failed to maintain the low quality buildings.  Racist false narratives have commonly blamed the residents of Pruitt-Igoe, asserting that the project “imploded from within” as its residents caused their own problems.9 Bristol highlights false architectural narratives that indirectly echoed this racist scapegoating: Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space blamed the design for the “presence of excessive ‘indefensible’ public space,” criticism that was based on the racist “assumption that certain ‘populations’ unavoidably bring with them behavioral problems that have to be designed against.” Lipsitz’s spatial imaginaries offer insight into the missing perspectives that fueled the myth. The architectural discourse failed to question the broader white spatial imaginary that had systematically undermined racialized communities and left the Housing Authority hopelessly underfunded.

Benny Farm: A Canadian Social Housing Example

In our class discussion, we explored how Lipsitz and Bristol’s readings can help to analyze design projects and their discourse. As an example, Benny Farm, a large social housing neighbourhood in Montreal, was reviewed. Benny Farm’s complex design and history differ from that of Pruitt-Igoe. However, in the early 2000s, hints of myths and gaps in the architectural discourse surrounded its most controversial period, as it was threatened with a nearly total demolition.

In a 2001 Canadian Architect review of Benny Farm Housing Phases 2 and 3, comprising two new midrise housing developments designed by Saia et Barbarese, Laverdière Giguêre architects, Pruitt-Igoe is invoked as an architectural and urban design failure: “But if [early Modernist’s] hostility to the street, made explicit at the 1927 Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), challenged historic urban form, it was post-war politicians and their architects, with the mass produced towers and housing estates—like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis—that contributed to a crisis of dysfunctional communities.”10 Even after Bristol’s article ten years later, the Pruitt-Igoe project was still seen as a Modernist design failure, rather than devastating segregation, poverty and underfunding. As documented in the Canadian Architect, the Phases 2 and 3 buildings were part of a planned total demolition and redevelopment of Benny Farm. Much of the land was to be sold by the Canada Lands Corporation (CLC), the site’s quasi-government owner, for private market developments. In 2002, the CLC and the architects were awarded a Governor General’s Medal of Architecture for the pair of buildings and the neighbourhood redevelopment plan.11 In 2002, a vast alliance of housing advocates and community groups united in protest under the name Friends of Benny Farm. They successfully shifted the CLC’s redevelopment plan away from disruptive relocations of residents, from the selloff of public land, and towards preserving several of the original buildings along with a variety of low-cost housing.12 The Canadian Architect article and the Governor General’s award seemingly ignore the ongoing controversy of community opposition rallying against the larger planned redevelopment.

From Building Myths to Building Change

Pruitt-Igoe and Benny Farm demonstrate how social housing projects and their surrounding architectural discourse are vulnerable to the white spatial imaginary and prioritization of ownership, development, and maximizing exchange value. Debates about architectural style risk ignoring the community’s larger challenges, thereby perpetuating the status quo and concealing the devastating impacts of segregation or displacement. As architects, we must continue to advocate for equitable housing and participatory design throughout spatial planning processes. Lipsitz shows us how to see past our modern myths and work towards change:

The dynamic, syncretic, and dialogic properties of the Black spatial imaginary have much to offer. They possess creative possibilities for remapping time and space, renegotiating the links between past and present, and between the local and the global. They can clarify the relations between people and property, independence and interdependence, materialism and morality, race and place. Yet advancing the creative potential of the Black spatial imaginary is not simply or solely the task of Black people. Changing the spatial imaginary of society is an enormous and daunting task. It cannot be engineered by experts or called into being by charismatic leaders. It requires endless agonistic struggle by ordinary people.13


George Lipsitz, “The Racialization of Space and Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape,” Landscape Journal v26 n1 (20070101): 10.

Throughout this blog post, unless noted otherwise, all references to racial spatial imaginaries draw from George Lipsitz, in particular from “The Racialization of Space and Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape,” Landscape Journal v26 n1 (20070101): 10-23.

Katharine G. Bristol, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” Journal of Architectural Education 44, no. 3 (May 1991): 163-171,

George Lipsitz, “The Racialization of Space and Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape,” Landscape Journal v26 n1 (20070101): 10-23.

Ibid, 13.

Ibid, 14.

Ibid, 15.

Bristol, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” Journal of Architectural Education 44, 163-171.

First-Run Features, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” Video, 2011,

10 Rhys Phillips, “Modern Living: Benny Farm Housing, Phases 2 and 3, Montreal” The Canadian Architect 46, no. 3; Mar 1, 2001: 20.

11 Canada Lands Company, “Briefing Binder for The Honourable Anita Anand, Minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada, January 2020”: 84, accessed December 1, 2020,

12 “Benny Farm From the Ground up: NDG History Workshop,” NDG Community Council, accessed December 1, 2020,

13 George Lipsitz, “A Place Where Everybody Is Somebody,” in How Racism Takes Place, (Temple University Press, 2011), 255,

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.

Social Housing and Segregation

Week 15 Social Housing and Segregation

Curated by Andrew Ashbury and Michael Nugent

October 23, 2020

Required readings

Lipsitz, George. “The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape.” Landscape Journal 26, no. 1 (2007): 10–23.

Bristol, Katharine G. “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.” Journal of Architectural Education (1984-) 44, no. 3 (1991): 163-71.

Further readings

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

Hooks, Bell. “Again – Segregation must End.” In Belonging: A Culture of Place, 69-88,  New York: Routledge, 2009.

Walks, Alan R. & Bourne, Larry S. “Ghettos in Canada’s Cities? Racial segregations, ethnic enclaves and poverty concentration in Canadian urban areas.” The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien 50, no. 3 (2006): 273-297.

Phillips, Rhys. “Modern Living.” The Canadian Architect, March 1,  2001.

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