How malls and freeways helped tear America apart


Jumping in a Chevy Bel Air and driving from the suburbs to a job in town or stopping at the nearest mall to shop or hang out with friends at the food court – these are concepts sold in the part of the American Dream when they were introduced to the United States in the 1950s.

But some architects and design critics argue that these innovations were actually segregationists that destroyed communities of color in the United States and further separated them from white America.

Adam Paul Susaneck is a New York-based architect and creator of the project Segregation by designwhich examines urban renewal, freeway construction and redlining – a discriminatory practice which he said involved “ranking each neighborhood according to its investment value, according to race”.

“I am not saying that the average architect who participated in these urban renewal projects was a racist. But I am saying that [they were] take part in a process that was started by racist redlining. The system was,” Susaneck told Nora Young on Spark.

“They say don’t invest in this neighborhood, because of who lives there.”

This comparison of historic aerial photos shows the impact of the construction of Chicago’s Dan Ryan Freeway (I-90) on the south and west sides of the city. According to the Segregation by Design project, the highway displaced more than 81,000 people, and 64% of those displaced were black. (Segregation by design)

To demonstrate how these architectural projects could devastate certain areas, Susaneck compares historic aerial photographs of cities to photos taken after the construction of certain highways and shows how neighborhoods have been reshaped to accommodate them.

“[I’m] trying to give people an idea of ​​what it actually was because it’s described in a way in the documents…and usually these [places that were destroyed]they have been described as slums,” he said.

“So I really like to show that they just weren’t. And a lot of them, frankly, are indistinguishable from what we consider some of the best neighborhoods in cities today.”

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Spark54:52549: Designing an Inclusive World

From the first shopping malls to the first network of highways, a glimpse of how urban planning and design have been used as tools of exclusion in the past – and how indigenous earthly architecture can offer a way forward for a more inclusive.

Move to the suburbs

Susaneck says a few factors have contributed to the architectural segregation he studies. This includes the abandonment of trams and trains in major cities, which paved the way for cars.

White Americans drifted to live in the suburbs, while still working in the city. This meant that more roads and highways had to be built.

Susaneck says the United States government helped expedite this process with two particular bills: the Federal Housing Act of 1949, a law that aimed to improve housing and help cities clean up areas then defined like slums, and the Federal Highways Act of 1956 which provided 90% of the funding for cities seeking to bring their highways up to Federal standards.

Adam Paul Susaneck is a New York-based architect and creator of the Segregation by Design project. (Submitted by Adam Susaneck)

American soldiers returning from World War II also received housing in the suburbs, and although this same offer was extended to black GIs, they were unable to claim it.

According to Susaneck, it was written directly in the deed that the houses could only be sold to Caucasians. So technically, black soldiers returning from the war were eligible for the GI bill, “but in practice they weren’t.”

He says all of this has contributed to the “white flight” from urban areas.

“There’s a lot of incentive for the white middle class to move to the suburbs and drive. And that naturally reduces the number of people using public transit systems,” Susaneck said.

“The effect of the highway is to encourage automobile-based suburbanization…to provide the literal route of white flight.”

How malls have contributed to inequality

The creation of the mall has also contributed to this shift to the periphery, and by extension, to inequality.

America’s first mall, the Southdale Center, was built in Edina, Minnesota in 1956. Edina is a suburb of Minneapolis, and many subsequent malls were also built in the suburb. As a result, they weren’t as accessible to communities made up mostly of people of color.

Dayton department store at Southdale in Edina, Minnesota, 1956. The store was part of the first mall in the United States (Associates Gruen)

“A lot of the early suburbs were only implicitly or explicitly open to white families. So everyone living around the mall would have been white families,” said Alexandra Lange, Brooklyn design critic and author of Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside Mall Story.

“So the mall was really designed to give women and children who were home during the day a place to go to shop and socialize.”

Alexandra Lange is the author of Meet Me By the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall. (Mark Wickens)

And it wasn’t just the location of a mall that served white Americans. Lange said the design itself also contributed to segregation as many shopping malls were only created for car owners.

“Mall owners have actively fought bus stops, in some cases near malls, or made them stop in inconvenient places to try to keep their customers to high-income people who could afford cars and could drive longer distances to the mall.”

Building an inclusive architecture

Architect Shawn Bailey says there are ways to avoid the mistakes of the past and build a more inclusive future.

Bailey, an Indigenous scholar and assistant professor in the faculties of architecture and engineering at the University of Manitoba and a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, says the highway and mall are examples of the kind of harm the architecture can cause.

“I think we have to be very careful in what we do, and sometimes the architecture can be extremely hostile,” he said.

“That lack of openness and that lack of discussion and collaboration and kind of those exchanges about what’s important to a place, often creates prejudice.”

Bailey works closely with Indigenous communities and Elders to help create a more diverse field of study. He achieves this in particular by taking his students to the territory to put them in contact with the keepers of indigenous knowledge.

Architect Shawn Bailey is an Assistant Professor in the Faculties of Architecture and Engineering at the University of Manitoba and a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario. (Submitted by Shawn Bailey)

“The first step in the process is to really understand the place, the [context] of the place,” he said.

It does more than encourage diversity. According to Bailey, it also enhances the design process and promotes creativity. He says the way architecture is done now doesn’t need to be completely thrown out, but rather changed.

“We can take these teachings of Indigenous knowledge and Western knowledge and find a new paradigm to just try to make things better.”

Produced by McKenna Hadley-Burke and Michelle Parise.