metropolis on the human scale.


Urban Intersectionality: A Theory on the Way We* Live

When considering the merits of urban values, what do we envision a successful community design to be? Walkability, a sense of community, a strong tax base to support public projects, the perfect blend of density and open space– endless possibilities. But what are the underlying motives and consequences to such “desirable” qualities? As cities transform into a new age of municipal youth, one may ask for further clarification when asked– what do we* want? An asterisk implies terms and conditions that apply to a given prospect, thus being the most appropriate symbol to utilize when considering the limitations and exclusionary nature of urban design.

Who makes a city? It is tempting to see planners as individuals with a loaded god complex. But what about the architect that designs a plaza without public seating, or, more realistically, the architect who designs spikes on low walls to prevent the homeless from sleeping there? What about the local coffee shops with large, community tables that encourage interaction instead of tables restricted to two or three customers? These are the small elements that act as the threads that hold together the fabric which is the city…from the presence or absence of streetlights to the placement of school districts– there is no single source to blame for urban issues. I will argue that the main sources of urban intersectionality can be broken down into four main categories: architecture and planning, political climate, public policy, and economics.

Autopoietic systems & apathy

Before I begin to delve into the sources of urban intersectionality, it is important to recognize the bigger picture at hand. Rinse-and-repeat sprawl, exclusionary zoning, and automobile-centered designs have finally been recognized as the main sources of a wide range of urban issues. But these physical designs have deeper consequences than mere rush hour traffic. They determine nearly every aspect of the lifestyle we partake in– where we are educated, where we shop, what people we surround ourselves with, how long our commute is, even how often we spend time outside. However, so many of these problems have become so normalized that many believe these are inevitable, unavoidable problems, thus creating an immense amount of apathy. After all, if you have a white picket fence and a detached house with a two car garage, you have conquered the obstacle course for an idealistic life…minus the forty five minute commute to work. It is truly incredible the extent to which homeowners in the past have been willing to sacrifice in order to partake in the suburban lifestyle. In 2011, the average family spent more on transportation than taxes and health care combined, and as gas prices increase, this will only become more and more common. Social isolation, obesity, exclusionary zoning, pollution– all consequences of endless sprawl. Our addiction to development has left us with wasted space, disconnected communities, and demographically segregated districts. And now, as the desire for a more urban lifestyle is on the rise, possibly due to an attempt to return to a way of life before sprawl, the suburbs are left to dissolve as baby boomers age in place and neighborhood house values steadily decrease. People are flooding to cities like never before, and where affordable housing was once abundant, real estate developers are leaving no single family home, apartment, or townhouse behind that has the potential for higher profit. This phenomenon is pushing low income individuals from urban areas into the suburbs, far from public transportation and social service resources, creating major issues such as food deserts. With such a rapid change in such a concentrated amount of time, one may ask what factors contributed to the boom and bust of the once idealized suburban lifestyle, how it influences the layout of cities as they shift into a new age, and how it will determine how different demographics may inhabit the same space, yet have drastically different experiences.


What was it about suburbia that was so universally appealing? To understand this, we must understand the driver of human happiness: reward. This is a crucial aspect of design. Humans do not perceive value in absolute terms, we constantly adjust our definition of contentment according to the way in which we compare ourselves to our past, our present, our future, and of course, the people around us. All of which is to say, pure contentment is nearly impossible to achieve. But for a generation of baby boomers, the ideal lifestyle could not be more clear. Extrinsic motivators– the tangible, external rewards that drive us– began to overshadow the need for intrinsic motivators, which are far more durable and satisfying than their extrinsic counterparts. Intrinsic motivators consist of our desire for community and fulfilling relationships. Though certainly more valuable than extrinsic motivators, they are less tangible, require more effort, and are less advertised than capitalistic, extrinsic motivators such as money, property, and social status. When connecting this to design, it’s no surprise that suburbia became an extrinsic motivator for an entire generation of young families facing an era of newly accumulated wealth and higher standards of living. Suburbia was filling a gap where cities were falling short. The compartmentalization of residential, commercial, and industrial zones allowed for further separation of traditional community interaction that promoted the fulfillment of intrinsic motivators.

What was occurring in cities during this time? After white flight, low income communities were left with teetering tax bases for basic public education and infrastructure needs, however, they did not lose everything. While suburbs gained extrinsic rewards, the communities they left behind became what Jane Jacobs recognized as communities of “organized complexity”. An incredible era of social justice movements, cultural developments, and innovation were taking place in the busy streets of cities across the United States. It is crucial not to romanticize these phenomena as they certainly had problems of their own (extreme poverty, crime, segregation, et cetera), however, in the same way, we must not ignore the incredible liveliness cities like New York radiated during this time of suburbanization.

As suburbanites began to become intoxicated by the promise of city life, a shift in city demographics began to develop. Where there were once tight communities centered around corner stores and local commerce, real estate developers saw an economic opportunity to make cities everything suburbs were lacking– quite the opposite of the mid-twentieth century movement. Thus cities began to become increasingly high class places to live. Gentrifying at rapid rates, suburban poverty began to take root as house values in the suburbs began to decline.

How does this demographic shift take shape in urban design?  For starters, the rejection of the homeless in urban areas became increasingly clear through the use of bench dividers and spikes under bridges and on ledges. Areas that were once public spaces for everyone became surrounded by expensive retail boutiques and coffee shops. Though these areas are still technically labeled as open space, one may argue the implications of rapid economic development are clearly detrimental to low income residents, thus leading to exclusionary design.

The term renovation became indistinguishable from gentrification as developers and architects claimed to be “renovating” urban areas through slum clearance. It is crucial to that these terms not be intertwined, as true renovation would not result in displacement, rather an increased quality of life for existing residents without impacting them in a harmful sense.

As Generation Z enters into the workforce, and economists, policy makers, planners, and architects continue on their separate paths, it is crucial to consider the implications of this lack of communication and collaboration. Urban intersectionality demands the harmonious alliance of all professions that make the city what it is. In order to live our best lives, we must take back the city as a place of diversity, inclusion, innovation, and spontaneity. After all, a city is not made for cars or coffee shops, it is made for people. When the needs of the people are met, including consideration for the unspoken and the marginalized, the needs of the economy, government, and design fall into place, and their increased functionality will address to needs which will have become articulated.

Ellie Muraca