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This article is part of the FA series “A City of Our Own: Urban Feminism for the 99%.”

In Jess Myers’ piece, How More Security Makes Women and Queer People Feel Less Safe,” she argues that contemporary policing and its surveillance apparatus make women and queer people less safe in urban environments precisely by virtue of their alleged efforts to do the opposite, and argues that spatial designers, and others professionally involved in the production of the built environment, should combat these negative effects and contribute to a broader social justice effort professionally – through better, more radical urban design. The article is as eloquent as it is timely. The question of how the built environment reinforces violent structures of gender is an urgent one, as is that of how spatial designers can respond to the growing demand for police abolition. This essay aims to add a historical perspective to this compelling collection of arguments in hopes of inspiring a broader set of conclusions. Many of the issues at hand stem from politically and economically related origins, a fact worth considering when assessing how to confront them best. And while, as Myers illustrates, it remains imperative that spatial design professionals continually interrogate their role in upholding the status quo and strive to apply their work toward meaningful political ideals, I suggest that it is equally crucial to recognize the present limits of exercising political power from within the confines of those professions, and to imagine more creative and direct ways to engage in struggle.

A clarification of terms is warranted. While “women and queer people” as a composite class often function well as a shorthand to refer to people of marginalized gender or sexual identity as a whole, when considering the ostensible “protection” afforded by police and other state forces, this aggregation falls short. For instance, trans people are approximately 3.7 times more likely to experience violence at the hands of the police than their cisgender counterparts. Beyond the plain truth that “people who present in a stereotypically feminine way…are seen as most deserving of and subjected to paternal protection,” the state protection afforded to cis women and that afforded to trans people of any gender are so profoundly different – and indeed, frequently at odds – that it makes little sense to refer to them in the same breath. It is not least because queer and trans people, who pose a threat to the status quo by virtue of existing, are more likely themselves to be the presumed aggressor in an altercation – the party from whom others need protection. Meanwhile, cis women, while certainly derided for asserting any degree of autonomy – particularly if they are poor or women of color – are much more broadly protected by the law.

The reasons for this are well documented, and include but also extend beyond Myers’ explanation that “paternal protection assumes that, like a child, a woman or a queer person out in the world is naturally incapable of looking after themselves.” The basic Marxist contention that just about everything boils down to a property relation merits some consideration here. Much of the material origin of cis women in particular as a class in need of “protection” can be traced to the historical roots of the phenomenon of primitive accumulation, per scholarship by Silvia Federici and others. In fact, they challenge more orthodox Marxist interpretations of capitalism’s history to explain that this system, as we know it, stems largely from the domination and ownership of reproductive labor. Racially, of course, this particular property relation was (and still is) compounded by the slave trade. As capitalism can only continue to reproduce itself through expropriated capital, the historical expropriation of women’s unpaid labor is posited as not only a precondition to contemporary wage labor but a lens through which to apprehend later iterations of primitive accumulation and enclosure. These ongoing historical cycles of various forms of privatization preclude the project of communalism. Following this thesis, women do not require protection simply because they are helpless and inept, although they may well be. Paternalism is an effect of gendered subjugation, but not its cause. Cis women require protection because, historically, they – or more specifically, their reproductive labor – are men’s property. Thus, the main beneficiaries of this protection are indeed men, rather than women.  It is also often in service of coercive forces of cultural supremacy such as those inherent in femonationalism. And so, they deserve protection from those who are deemed perpetrators regardless – Muslim men in France, as Myers discusses, or Black men in the United States, or trans women in bathrooms, and so on (as in any discussion of “protection”, it is crucial to specify protection from whom). But as previously noted, we can also see clearly from the incidence of women in prison for resisting or killing their abusers (see statistics published by the ACLU and the work of Survived and Punished, for example) that when women refuse this property relation, their legislative protection disappears. Such figures illustrate how the continuity of this history directly informs the current circumstance.

It is precisely this form of property relation, which also gave rise to policing as we know it. Modern-day policing in the United States evolved more or less directly from slave patrols, gangs operating with impunity to protect the right to property. While that property is no longer explicitly Black people, the primary function of the police as defenders of both structural white supremacy and property writ large remains unchanged – as has also been frequently discussed, and indeed plainly evidenced, since last year in the context of Black Lives Matter and the corresponding increase in popularity of ideas such as abolitionism and restorative justice. That the cops who killed Breonna Taylor in her home in Louisville were indicted only for shooting into a nearby wall and not for murder is one high profile example that drives the point home. As is George Floyd’s chilling death at the hands of Minneapolis police after they accused him of using a counterfeit $20 bill. If there was any remaining doubt, the widespread protests that followed have erased it. Businesses who had already boarded up their windows for fear of looting were additionally guarded by police, whose brutal actions during the demonstrations were often – as is typical – most violent in response to acts of property destruction. For example, local law enforcement has openly welcomed far-right militia members who publicly executed multiple people in ostensible defense of small businesses during the protests.

All Design Is Political, Not All Politics Is Design

Police in San Francisco guard Bloomingdale’s from Black Lives Matter protesters, June 1st 2020.

Quinn Norton

Such exposition shows that the mechanism of property relation which deems (cis) women objects of “protection” is the same as that which threatens their safety in the first place. It also forms the basis for policing, which both dictates what such protection should look like and then allegedly provides it. A historical materialist analysis of these conditions and their shared points of origin allows us a more profound understanding of how they have come to be and how to transform them better.

Which brings us to the role of spatial design professionals in the urban sphere, faced with this history of gender and policing which extends so far beyond both the origins and the borders of anything we would recognize as a city, much less the diffuse professionalization of its development, how can these specialists understand their work within such a volatile ongoing context? Especially amid recent unrest, there is increasing speculation on this question.

Workers in such fields themselves are also professionally bound by this sphere of property as it functions in a city – the spatial designer’s work is frustrated by the boundaries between public and private property; which values will appreciate and where, how zoning corresponds to the possibilities of function and design, and the ubiquitous flows of investment capital which dictate how a city looks and operates, to which well-meaning designers are inevitably beholden.

An important ongoing discussion of the urgent need to mitigate these conditions is to make such professions less bureaucratic, less bound by corporate interests and hostile market forces, more equitable and more engaged in the public interest and fundamental political change. These ideas have been emphasized by Kate Wagner and others, and recently exemplified in practice by projects such as The Architecture Lobby and Design as Protest. But many of these reforms have yet to take hold meaningfully. In writing specifically about landscape architecture and climate change, Billy Fleming notes a misguided tendency to center design professions in political struggle and writes that “We may yearn to impart systems-level change, but we are working on discrete sites, with incrementalist tools, within structures that produce injustice. Before we ask the world to view design as an urgent necessity, we must look at those sites, tools, and structures and remake our disciplines to be more useful, in the moment, for the movements and ideals we aspire to serve.” I would argue that the necessary task of becoming more useful at this moment involves orienting those disciplines outside themselves.

There are innumerable political struggles in which spatial designers’ thoughtful intervention may be crucial or even paramount, particularly from outside the industry, making use of the same knowledge and skills. These possibilities must not be discounted. But it also bears mention that, as is the case with any other worker, their most important political weapon as a worker is always that of refusal. Here, we can return to abolitionism, looking to last year’s rash of statements, essays, and conversations regarding architects designing prisons. From the AIA New York, under considerable political pressure, calling for a complete disavowal of any complicity in such projects, to Michael Kimmelman’s characteristically timid suggestion that at the very least, professional architects should not design solitary confinement cells, design professions are, reluctantly or not, beginning to consider more seriously this horizon of professional protest.

Myers discusses several “gender mainstreaming” efforts to normalize women and queer people’s presence and increase their safety in public spaces, reminiscent of Henri Lefebvre’s “right to the city” and more recent feminist adaptations thereof. She then asserts that these are part and parcel of a broader restorative justice project. Her argument is thoughtful and sound, but still a stretch, given the more common definition and application of the idea of restorative justice. However, such initiatives still can be incredibly worthwhile in and of themselves, without assigning them to political projects to which their direct relationship is tangential. She later writes, “Rather than sending an armed police officer to do wellness checks, decrease homelessness, heal drug addiction, or deescalate domestic abuse, restorative justice would assign those cases to several other workers trained in handling them. Architectural workers can be among that number.” This thesis, in particular, gets to the heart of what Fleming describes – a broader tendency, well-meaning though it may be, to center spatial design professions within specific political struggles where their inarguable potential value may not be directly relevant.

All Design Is Political, Not All Politics Is Design
A New Court of Queen’s Bench, by George Cruikshank, published in Comic Almanack (1850).


Ruth Wilson Gilmore, whose groundbreaking work has rightfully shaped much recent political conversation, has indeed stated, “Abolition is deliberately everything-ist; it’s about the entirety of human-environmental relations.” But restorative justice, while undoubtedly inextricable from the question of urban safety, is itself less about establishing a secure environment and more a question of community care, conflict resolution, and addressing harm as tasks which must be wrested away from and reimagined in the absence of police and the carceral system. The suggestion that projects such as gender mainstreaming can be tied to restorative justice because they aim to forge spaces of increased safety for gender marginalized people sans police is reasonable, certainly, but does not address quite the same questions. In terms of those questions of harm and conflict resolution that the police are so often wrongly called to manage and are better addressed by social workers or immediate community members, spatial designers lack any de facto training from within their chosen fields that would especially qualify them to perform these tasks or step into these roles. An architecture degree doesn’t teach someone how to tackle addiction or abuse, mediate a dispute, or repair harm. Still, anyone with that degree can learn to respond to those same community challenges just as well as anyone else – not as an architect, but simply as a human being.

It is unnecessary to insist that spatial designers have a professional role in every political struggle, either for their broader liberatory work to have value or to contribute more precisely.  Workers in such fields can often more meaningfully and directly engage in these struggles in the same realm of capacity as baristas, farmers, day laborers, content writers, and teenagers. They can be trained in accountability, harm reduction, and self-defense; they can work towards subversive infrastructures of resistance, education, and care; they can burn cop cars at demonstrations; they can do all of this not bound by or in alignment with any professional mandate. While there is nothing negative to be said of embracing a multitude of approaches simultaneously, the present shift in consciousness and policy regarding the institution of policing was brought about through widespread, unsanctioned action, which at its best explicitly refused historical property relations, rather than professional mediation which cannot help but accommodate them.

Historically, broad systemic change is often made less through careful environmental planning than through sustained collective uprising, which often happens to upend it. Jess Myers is explicit that “design alone can [not] create safety.” But I do not believe that the solution is to attempt to expand the purview of design, to superimpose it beyond its political capacity. Rather, it is imperative to let such spatial intervention be what it is, to celebrate it with both its exciting potential and its inescapable limitations, but not to hesitate to look beyond it.