The Architecture of Black Lives Matter

One of my first design projects after grad school was a police station. While I was working on that project, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered by the police. As I watched the outrage and protests unfold, I felt my own anger begin to rise  but then immediately felt conflicted. I was literally in the middle of designing a police station. What was I doing?

In the following weeks, my boss presented me with a question and empowered me to begin to find an answer.

What is the role of architecture in police-community relations?

In my search, I stumbled on a design proposal by an architecture firm done in response to the growing anger over police violence. The project proposes that police stations become mixed-use facilities that house both social/recreational spaces and city services so residents and police don’t only interact when something goes wrong. In this design solution, police stations would be more like community centers.

But this only works if officers work in the communities they live.

For decades, officers did work where they lived but this changed with the invention of the car and the suburbanization of white America. Patrolling went from guarding your own community on foot to watching over other neighborhoods by car.

American policing has always been connected to political and economic conflict. While officers were to maintain “order”, what that meant differed from place to place.

Police officers in cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, served businessmen and politicians. They were tasked with controlling the working class and large waves of immigrants. Concern about labor strikes along with fear of immigrants who looked and acted differently resulted in calls for law and order…sound familiar?

In the south, where policing grew from slave patrols, sheriffs used their power to enforce segregation, and deprive Black Americans of their rights.

An effort to “professionalize” policing instead created large hierarchical institutions. Police stations moved from buildings embedded in neighborhoods to fortresses that were set back from busy streets and surrounded by parking lots. This new found “professionalism” isolated officers from the communities they served. That is one reason why police presence can often cause fear, unease, or even annoyance.

So can design really help build trust between police officers and citizens?

The proposed design for a mixed-facility police station included a library, cafe, a community garden, and outdoor sport courts. The designers decided to make their proposal a reality by starting simple. A basketball court was built next to a local police station in hopes that it would give residents the opportunity to get to know police officers in a neutral recreational space.

Simple but effective, right?

A few months ago I received an update on what happened after the basketball court was installed.

The short answer is, nothing.

While the court is used by kids in the neighborhood, they do not play with police officers. In fact, the only contact with officers on the court is when kids ask to borrow a basketball.

One of the most frustrating things as a designer is watching people misuse your design. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “But that’s not what it was designed for!” or “You’re using it wrong!”

But maybe it’s important to step back and ask why that happens.

Are buildings, spaces, and programs created to improve communities designed just to look cool and say we did something? Or are they designed for those who will inhabit and benefit from them?

Perhaps we are forcing our personal ideals and beliefs on people without respect to their history, culture, and perspectives.

There is a lot of talk about police reform and the need for community policing but what does that really look like?

Is it appropriate to think a new basketball court next to the police station can improve police-community relations but ignore the FBI report confirming that racist extremists have infiltrated local and state police departments?

We often present oversimplified solutions to very deep and complex problems in our society. American police violence goes back hundreds of years and cannot be fixed without radical, comprehensive change.

Maybe the question isn’t what can we build to fix this, but how can design help to facilitate change?

Designing policing that ends state-sanctioned violence requires us to understand the past, be honest about the present, and set realistic goals for the future.

And yes, a basketball court won’t fix everything or maybe anything. But perhaps one day it might be a good start.

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