How Urban Design Affects Ethnic or Religious Tensions

You can't design your way out of conflict, but the way we build neighborhoods can either help or hinder polarized communities, and maybe even prevent radicalization in the first place.

Image
Flickr/Frans Schouwenburg

Building a new, improved pedestrian bridge between a Catholic neighborhood and a Protestant one in Belfast, Northern Ireland, must have seemed like a good idea back in 2007. But the designers were from out of town, with no connection to the community. The bridge was configured without consulting nearby residents. High elevations at both ends provided a perfect vantage point for troublemakers. The bridge quickly became a flashpoint for sectarian violence.

"There was a complete ignorance of the local situation," says Dr. Ralf Brand of the University of Manchester. "It allowed youth to use the bridgeheads as launching pads for throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. They opened the bridge, and rioting ensued."

Brand has been doing research into the ways the urban landscape can escalate social polarization and radicalization, or alternatively, work to bring divided communities together peacefully. With his colleague Dr. Sara Fregonese, he conducted fieldwork in four cities with histories of religious or political violence: Belfast, Beirut, Berlin, and Amsterdam.

What they documented, after hundreds of interviews and weeks of observation, is that urban design can raise tensions in cities where ethnic or religious conflicts are endemic. At the same time, design that is sensitive to local concerns and conditions can have a healing effect.

Sometimes cities build barriers with the express purpose of separating groups in conflict. In the case of Belfast, dozens of "peace walls" still separate Catholic and Protestant communities. They have been there, some of them, for more than 40 years. But such physical divisions can sometimes reinforce social divisions, entrenching a sense of separation and "otherness."

"Once you have artifacts like a wall or a ditch, people rearrange their ordinary routines," says Brand. "They have to take a different route. People develop a different kind of universe, and they hardly ever reflect on that. Especially if you grow up like that – it’s normal, and it’s normal not to talk to others."

The walls themselves can become magnets for those who seek confrontation. As in the case of the Belfast footbridge, thoughtless design and disregard of local history can contribute to violent flare-ups.

In other cities, Brand and his colleagues found more effective attempts to connect across ethnic and religious lines through urban planning. He cites a simple set of steps that made crossing a busy Beirut road safer. "Now the Christians on one side can check out the oranges on the Muslim side," he says. But, he emphasizes, design changes must always be made with close attention to local custom and sensitivities. He cites the example of a Beirut developer who built a mall to attract Christians and Muslim shoppers, consulting with representatives of both groups and taking great care not to offend anyone. The designers carefully considered elements as seemingly trivial as the color-coding of the parking areas. The builders did not use green because of its political significance.

Recreational activities and the spaces to pursue them can also help to bring different factions together, says Brand. In Amsterdam, where fear of a radicalized Muslim population has been a divisive political theme for many years, an open-air chessboard in an ethnically diverse neighborhood attracts people of all backgrounds. A similar chessboard can be found outside a Beirut McDonald’s. The management of the franchise paid to have it installed in order to attract "law-abiding citizens," Brand said.

In Belfast, organizers have developed an ice hockey center precisely because there is no tradition of ice hockey in the country and so it is not associated with either Catholics (as is hurling) or Protestants (as is tennis). The game provides a safe place for all to play together.

Brand says that fear of terrorism in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and the London bombings of July 2005 has led to design elements that can be counterproductive. An overemphasis on “target-hardening” by means such as such as iron bollards and surveillance cameras can heighten a neighborhood's sense of menace and distrust.

"Pure reliance on target-hardening sends the wrong signals," says Brand. "Sometimes it’s necessary, but I think you need to think very carefully. These things are so easy to erect and so hard to take down." Better, he argues, to create welcoming public spaces and bring "eyes to the street," in Jane Jacobs’s famous words.

Overall, Brand argues that when planners and citizens work together, good urban design can help depolarize communities and even potentially prevent radicalization.

"We’re not arguing that you can design your way out of conflict," Brand says. "But people should think more about how to enroll the urban environment as one of many players. You have to step back and think about how touching one part of the web affects all the rest."

Top image: Amsterdam's large chess board, by Flickr user Frans Schouwenburg, used under a creative commons license.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.