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Inequality by Design

Due to the omnipresence of aesthetics in almost every sphere of life, it has become central to not just narratives surrounding the design of our everyday lives but also has configured an unprecedented link between society, design and politics. In an almost shocking revelation, shocking partly because of our collective ignorance, aestheticism bears a legacy of discrimination leading to, what many term as, ‘aesthetic gentrification’. In Kant’s ‘judgment of taste’, he claims that our taste and social class are intertwined with aesthetics: one always affecting the other.

Our obsession with the ‘hipster minimalistic aesthetic’ leads to a form of urban design that bases itself on policies such as slum renewal and clearance of ‘disorderly’ neighborhoods to satiate our craving for, what can be termed as, decadent aesthetics. The consequence of this is the growing urban inequalities which are exacerbating the current disputes over social inequalities in the urban sphere. For instance, let’s take the case of London. The city is currently undergoing a massive urban renewal in the form of large-scale gentrification. This involves planning and ‘designing’ the city in a way that allows the land value to increase for private developers, thus making London’s already inflated real estate even more unaffordable to the general population, especially to low-income communities.

The aforementioned design plan bases itself on the aesthetic of ‘harmony and order’: an aesthetic that is only afforded to the rich. Needless to say, this form of aestheticism and the consequent aesthetic gentrification is a direct consequence of capitalism, which equally justifies marketing these new urban projects in a way that attracts a particular social class and excludes the majority of the population, augmenting further the already existing divide between various social classes.

The concept of urban design also transcends into the realm of public services, and hence creates a discrepancy in the access to many of these services such as public transportation that disproportionately affect low-income minority neighborhoods. For example, many cities are designed in a way where public transit is made scarcer in certain areas in order to keep the elite neighborhoods isolated from the rest of the population. Such is the case in Long Island, where the overpasses are designed to be too low for buses to drive through thus keeping one of its beaches inaccessible to low-income residents.

Considering the profound impact of design in creating inequalities, it is also equally possible to solve these inequalities through finding a better and more sustainable way of designing.

Justin Moore, an architecture professor at Columbia University, argues for the re-education of designers to be the foremost step in this process of achieving a more equitable urban space. He illustrates the demographics of the design field, claiming that the domain has a severe lack of color or from low-income backgrounds thus leading to an underrepresentation of these communities’ interests. Moreover, he highlights the absence of people from these communities in leadership and decision-making positions. The representation of disadvantaged communities in this sphere is integral to both understanding the depth of the problem and, thereafter, solving this far-reaching problem of social and economic inequality.

A novel solution, which would lead to the creation of more egalitarian cities, is to plan cities around a ‘public life movement’. The existence of a deep sense of physical segregation in cities can only be undone through the encouragement of mixing public spaces racially and economically, bringing people from different spheres together; this would entail more equitable access to opportunities. Thus, public services need to be made more accessible to all communities. Cities need to be planned in a way that encourages the intermingling of communities and facilitates access to different parts and amenities in a city that serves all neighborhoods. Simply put, the deliberate lower overpasses in Long Island would have to go.

However, the design of these overpasses isn’t solely a result of an aesthetic decision by designers, but is testament to public policy which approves of these designs, and thereby shockingly accepts such inequitable design decisions. Hence, as much as there needs to be a fundamental change in the design philosophy, there also needs to be a change in the functioning of current civic bodies and their decision making.

To conclude, the emphasis on creating a dialogue between designers, policy makers and the population is imperative and long overdue. This dialogue begins with questioning existing forms in society and by encouraging the representation of the underrepresented and giving these voices a platform to highlight the painful ramifications of our inequitable way of living.

Photo: Unsplash

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