Design Decency at the Urban Front

There is an old design adage of “spoon to city,” the idea that every aspect of the physical environment needs to be considered in tandem and be rendered in a coherent way. In 20th century practice, this typically meant something like having the simple lines of a household toaster, say, resemble the similarly geometric shape of tower blocks and site layouts. Architects strove to design every piece of furniture, every incidental object, as an intrinsic element of the larger design scheme. The resultant rationality would help create better citizens and human experience. Although the early modernist tradition that advanced the slogan is of limited utility in my discussion, what is relevant are two important features: 1) attention to the physical, and its design, as linked into the social and 2) taking up the physical at different scales, the micro of the spoon and the macro of the city.

For this writing, my emphasis is at the mid-level scale of urban instrumentation and the two-way physical-social encounters they encourage, sustain, or frustrate. Urban instrumentation includes things like traffic lights, stop signs, turnstiles, street curbs, bike racks, toilets, and trashcans. These are not urban goods simply by being located in the city but by having public encounter as an intrinsic aspect of their existence. These are the artifactual “tips” through which infrastructure, great and small, surfaces in ordinary life.

The creation and deployment of these urban elements, true in this way to the modernist image, play their own role in shaping satisfactions and distributing costs, benefits, and dignity. They are crucial elements of the public sphere, a term usually given over to a grander focus on overall architectural configuration and circulation of ideas, imagined in terms of the classical agora or approximations at City Hall plazas, the Washington DC Mall, or Tahrir Square. However much seemingly more trivial, the micro public artifacts not only have significance in themselves but also link into – and evidence – the larger systems of ideology and control in which they are embedded. So my spoon-to-city is the study not of mere resemblance in motif across analytic scale, but of continuities and substantive relations across them.

To clear the air about the word “design.” It does not mean decorative sheathing – whether of a toaster or a skyscraper. Design – at least in my usage, and it is a common one -- means providing affordances: mechanisms that permit people to accomplish things with greater effectiveness and pleasure. Sometimes, even within design circles, form and function are presented as design alternatives, or of two values needing to be in proper “balance”. But at least for me, they are intrinsic to one another and rise and fall as one. Aesthetics operate in conjunction with utility and vice-versa.

At a very basic level, object utility occurs through the way it beckons, warns off, or otherwise invites or demands human engagement. The history of art is itself within commonplace things; Picasso’s forms got themselves into car parts and machine tools and can (now) work because people have come to know those forms and press/push/pull in just the right way and feel comfortable about it. All objects exist through what might be termed their “semiotic handles” – the aspect of their toolness that facilitates approach and guides toward proper manipulation. It is form as function. In the way the elements combine, outcomes are positive or negative, decent or indecent for particular individuals or collectivity. The result also mightily affects– and this is a severely undervalued topic in urban academic discourse – whether people have a nice place or a nice day.

Background: Things and the Urban

Material objects have an uneven history in social science in general and urban studies in particular. For anthropology, they were intrinsic to the discipline’s development, with the human-object relationship central to understanding culture. Sociologists, alas, were at best indifferent to such materiality, treating objects, Alex Preda remarks, “as marginal, irrelevant or passive with respect to the production of social order."1 Their general absence -- except for occasional disparagement -- was the basis of Bruno Latour’s needling query of so-called materialist sociologists: “Where are the missing masses?"2 In part through the development of Latour’s school of Actor Network Theory (ANT) and Science Technology Studies (STS), there has been a useful shift toward the material-social assemblage as central for analysis. Complementary, at least at the methodological level has been Material Culture Studies (as led by Daniel Miller) in anthropology.

The very characteristics that define the urban – numbers, density, and heterogeneity, to invoke the classic trio -- create conditions that induce mechanisms to secure order. Things are involved in creating the need (cars running into each other) and in generating a potential solution (traffic lights and curbs). A very first and basic convention is that people must drive on either the right or the left. It doesn’t matter which, only that there be behavioral alignment. In regard to this issue, there is ordinarily neither a “leftist” social movement nor a “rightist” one. There is massive coherence (street alignments, signage, car design, etc.). Some such practices, whatever their source, become sufficiently embedded that virtually no external policing needs to be involved. Even those who might have some opposition remain largely quiescent in the face of the working consensus, made so evident through practice and artifact. So Canadians “loyal” to the Crown desist from acting on a preference for siding with the British in Toronto traffic and pro-Europe Brits seldom push to have their country join the right-driving French and Germans. They let things be. On other matters, of course, the operating consensus is less strong. As a matter of public sanitation, trash has to be put in certain places with bins made available for the purpose. Whose bins? Located just where? Of what design? Involved will be specific administrative procedures, financial mechanisms, and a labor force for regular pick-up and processing of waste. Here we see cracks in the consensus with different preferences and vested interests in determining who pays, for what level of service, and based on what metric (weight? pollution? “need”?). Depending on perspective, some types of waste should not be mixed with others and some not collected at all (e.g. vegetable matter should go into household composting; poisons should not have entered into use in the first place). There is a politics of recycling in terms of its overall value but also, starting with the cans, how it should connect with trucks, processing stations, and as raw material headed to (proximately located?) eco-based factory production.

Even as it is so intimately involved in creating and sustaining it, stuff needs community as much as the reverse. There has to be enough civic consensus to fund and administer public artifacts but also, at the most everyday level, to allow the stuff to survive. The nature of community, in both senses, is made evident in the specific states of the things. In the U.S., to take on a major internal contrast, public goods are poor in comparison to private ones. Standards of private consumption are higher than standards for public consumption. In terms of convenience, state of repair, and level of attention to “beauty,” US bus stations, airports, and other public facilities are mean and nasty. Collective goods in other societies, relative to private ones, are higher.

There is another kind of relation between public and private goods – both in terms of the individual and collective level. As individuals, each should have sufficient life resources to not need to steal public materials. In societies with high levels of deprivation, making off with unguarded goods of the public realm has high marginal utility. In some countries, cast-iron manhole covers cannot be used on streets and sidewalks because they will be stolen for scrap. This now emerges as a problem for U.S. cities, fed by parallel increases in income inequality and raw metal prices.

In some places, people may have a higher level of civic virtue in that, quite apart from pecuniary advantage, they watch out for the public artifacts, using eyes on the street and one another to protect public goods. They may even voluntarily mend infrastructure nearby, something observed generations ago to have been the case of Balinese tending rice-field irrigation pipes -- decoratively carving them as well! 3 As we would now say, they are the “support system” of the public apparatus. Perhaps short of such thing-level other-regarding, one can see, even in some very poor countries, wiring and plumbing lines running along buildings’ exterior walls – evidence of at least a benign neglect if not active citizen maintenance. By contrast, I am under the impression that US goods are more prone to vandalism (for whatever reason), rarely to voluntaristic maintenance. Across the world, resulting variations in what can and cannot be left unguarded is a clue to larger realities.

The specifics of public infrastructure also indicate the kind of concern, or lack of it, that has gone into mounting or altering a particular configuration. Private goods typically enter the marketplace only after intense study of how they will fit in with consumer preferences, including their levels of skill, the related products in use, as well as what amuses or stimulates personal enthusiasm. Getting a fix on such things is the mission of the product design profession. Public goods may or may not receive such advance attentiveness or the kind of continuous fixing, altering, and adjusting that changed conditions might warrant.

In her studies of health systems, Annemarie Mol has recently advocated for a “logic of care” by which she means something like collaborative and continuous alignment of technologies to varied and complex lives.4 This is a good idea for cities too, and corresponds to the doctrine of “universal design.” Universal design means not only making things good for a variety of “special users” (some of whom can not even be anticipated) but better as well for everyone already around. Properly understood, “care” or “urban care” in my adaptation, envelops and registers at different analytic levels and types of participants. It also involves, as with doctors’ and nursing practices, small things and small actions that, linking in to larger structures, repeat again and again. In the urban context, the full repertoire of encounters mount up in different ways depending on time and place. This makes the incidental, even when not much noticed, important to understand and affirm.

By concrete illustration, let me point out where logics of urban care are less in evidence than they might otherwise be, using some familiar US cases. I also offer up some ideas for how the particular objects-practices could be rendered more decently.

The Subway

I start with an infrastructure from my New York home turf: the subway. With my former student, Noah McClain, I have elsewhere outlined some of the ways subway artifacts subvert human satisfactions. 5 Take the turnstiles. They have evolved over the century to more tightly control users’ movements and to discipline a more precise set of bodily gestures. The primary impetus was a desire to “protect the fare” (a logic of “fare” we might say, versus a logic of care). So the authorities narrowed the passage point through the turnstile with successive reconfigurations, narrower both laterally and in height. One version, the HEET (High Entry Exit Turnstile) consists of floor-to-ceiling bars on axle (See accompanying image).

The more recent versions of turnstile not only more intensely guard the fare (with mixed financial results, but this is another story), they distribute some unanticipated costs. Old people, less agile, have special problems squeezing in just the right way to manage getting through. Those on crutches, delivering food trays, carrying packages, or with children in tow face access challenges that others escape. Despite the shortcomings (and there are many more), with every entry and turn of the turnstile, the program is reinforced, re-inscribed, ratified and naturalized. Because the turnstiles were found to cause back-ups among people trying to exit, authorities had to increase the number of emergency exits which, when utilized generate a screeching alarm (connected to nothing). People use them as routine exits, creating an obnoxious never-ending din in the busy stations that add misery, especially for subway workers and minders of news kiosks who have to put up with it non-stop. The design failure ads an indoor dimension to urban experience already pervaded with ambulance sirens, truck belching and jackhammers (how much R & D goes into making them any quieter?).

There are good reasons, sometimes, why people need to get into (or out of) the subways without paying. For example, a child may manage to get to the other side of the turnstile with a caregiver unable to give chase. An older child may lack the necessary resource at a needed moment to keep up with a parent. Someone may be trying to respond to a medical emergency and be unable to give or receive care in a timely way (voluntaristic aid to other people is routine in New York public environments). An emergency responder – police, fire, EMT, may fail to have the MetroCard at hand and hence be similarly unable to respond promptly. And if there is a need to move large numbers of people out of the subway (fire, crime, bomb), the new system restrains evacuation – the real savior when catastrophe strikes. To deal with the fact that fare beating has not been solved, violators face harsher sentences including arrests, helping snag more young black and Hispanic men into the criminal prosecution system.

What’s the solution? In financial terms, this basic apparatus of the city’s circulation system needs billions of investment. Peeling paint hangs from ceilings. Escalators are routinely inoperative. Generations of grime remain embedded in flooring, on stops, and on walls. Signage is inadequate. Air is stale and stifling. Reform is not rocket science; its very mundane nature inhibits serious discussion and the mounting of political will. But it is indecent – again, compared to the living standards of even poor New Yorkers who, in my experience, put great effort into maintaining their own apartments and homes to a decent standard.

In terms of the turnstile, in particular, the hardware/user interaction could obviously be accomplished in a more benign way, as made evident in practices long in place in other countries (Oyster card anyone?). Most radically, turnstile reform would follow if the whole system could be free. Some ski towns have free fare for their populations, the affluent visitors and locals alike. The Metropolitan Museum is technically free but visitors are induced to “voluntarily” pay admission fees, which most readily do. In some cities, there is much less emphasis on catching the free rider than providing for ease of the great majority. Some urban governance is done through “honors systems,” although relying on random spot-checking. This is a compromise between complete trust and continuous artifact policing. New York may be a bad venue for such a system because authorities might not want to risk confrontations that might turn ugly or even violent. Once again, the micro connects to the macro; the “character” of New York (or at least the perceived character) affects the system set-up.

The Airport

Airports are arsenals of impediment, with security against “terror” now being the primary driving force. True, as at the subways, protecting the fare is a major goal, handled through the routine of the check-in, a relatively benign operation compared to other aspects of security. Otherwise – and apart from several other less important elements like duty-free shopping -- the basic apparatus is one of command and control. One is separated from prized possessions (cell phone, wallet, jewelry). The TSA agents, perhaps especially in New York, yell. The apparatus, human or material, was not designed to be helpful. Indeed it was not – compared to a new model toothbrush or the queues at Disneyland -- designed at all. The trays where laptops are placed emerged from the restaurant supply industry and the receptacles for coins and other metallic elements derive from dog food bowls. The equipment is thus radically sub-optimal and is complemented by TSA workers trained to discover contraband and interrupt suspicious-appearing passengers. They do not help an old person struggling to hoist a suitcase on to the inspection belt. In the logic of Mol, such severe separation of security from care is indecent.

The security apparatus is carried out with self-contradictory routines. Here is one key example: as passengers queue up to go through security, the stanchions and partitions dense-up more people than will ever be on a plane. Although the lines have grown shorter over the years, some airports, by virtue of their original design, make for especially long security queues – of people who have never been checked. Denver, for example, has a vast hall of the snaking unchecked – relatively fast moving but continuously full. Security itself has created the target. This massive breach goes unaddressed, even unacknowledged. But plane departures allow authorities to set up easy choke points and that is likely why they exist. Despite its obvious target-worthiness, for example, Times Square does not lend itself to choke points. Any driver could mow down crowds at the touch of a gas pedal. The way to understand what happens at the airport is that the gates exist because it is possible, in crude material and spatial terms, to have them. The price is high in terms of individual deprivations as well as a vast financial cost. Such perverse set-ups are, it seems to me, of a piece with the wars fought overseas, no less ill-conceived, to make security happen.

There are usual distinctions along lines of race, class, and gender. Those who fly “general aviation” (in private planes) face no security intervention whatsoever, nor do their pilots. For people in the higher classes who do fly commercial, there are faster lines and “club” lounges without announcements to watch out for suspicious packages. They do not have to keep their luggage at hand. Quite outside of market-based credentials, those in military uniform board early and have other privileges as well. At the other end of the discrimination spectrum, racial profiling is obvious, not only against the Arab-looking but also the traditional targets, African-Americans and dark-skinned Hispanics.

Erving Goffman famously described “total institutions” as places of omnipresent surveillance. 6 But as we move through public life we encounter institutions that vary in their degree of totalness – not really the oxymoron it may at first appear. It is perhaps not a stretch to consider going through security as a fascistic moment, when even utterances are inspected and where people are induced to bottle-up recalcitrant feelings. As security further comes into civilian realms, its regime comes with it – to museums, schools, and sporting events. Security is the absence of market, of civility, and of design. Farewell affordances.

Public Toilets

I end with the loo. Public restrooms present a unique dilemma. People use them to perform the most private of acts but in a public space. Privacy is intensely desired against being seen in the act, seeing others do it, smelling and being smelled, hearing and being heard. On the other hand, there are anxieties, like anxiety about people administering drugs within the stalls, having sex with one another (some homophobia doubtless in play here) or vandalizing the premises. One solution, taken in both the US and UK, has been to just eliminate restrooms altogether. At one point, virtually every New York subway station had free men’s and women’s rooms, now almost none do. When they are shut down, nobody ends up able to easily move through urban space secure in their ability to take care of a crucial bodily need. Again, the old need reliable places to go more than the young, women more than men (menstruation, child care, make-up) and drug injectors (including diabetics). People who do dirty jobs have more frequent need to wash.

The specifics are also telltale. In the US, there is a standard stall design that I think is unique in the world. US stalls have large open spaces above and below and open “seams” that set up a look-don’t look intrigue. The U.S. politics of toilets settles on a configuration that privileges social control at the expense of care. Fear that some will be doing stigmatized acts trumps anxieties and humiliation. Some hold it in, some go home early, some eat or drink less. Taboo inhibits taking it up in civil discourse. Politicians cannot run on a plank of toilet access and bring up the fact of patterned deprivations. Silence is a backdrop for irresponsibility.


This then brings me back to the original motivation for this agenda: to make visible certain taken-for-granted features of the urban environment by drawing close attention to its instrumentation. The nature of the public goods is tied to the texture of local cultures, civic priorities, and class arrays. Years ago (I don’t know if it is still this way), public telephones in Japan stood on little sidewalk platforms. They resembled ordinary home phones, utterly vulnerable to public destruction. My understanding from Scandinavian friends is that local people monitor public artifacts and ward off individuals who might do them damage. The U.S. is rich enough that nobody is much bothered if someone takes more than their share of napkins on restaurant counters, including sugar, salt, or pepper packets. Ditto toilet paper. The great majority of people, even the poor, routinely buy these goods on their own, thus making it possible for everyone to be afforded the convenience of easy and almost inexhaustible access in public places. And if there are free riders, nobody much cares. So be it.

Jane Jacobs gave us a start on all this, as she did on so much else. For her, the recipe was windows overlooking sidewalks (working ones, not broken ones), short blocks, and architecture that respected history and its diverse material and social vernaculars. She did draw connections between these meso-levels of urbanity and some of the larger forces that contributed to urban “death.” So she indicted authorities’ (planners, architects, and politicians) zeal for modernist uniformity that overrode concern for how people actually lived at ground level. But she was only one person living one life. She did not go as far in a more micro direction of analyzing the spoons of the city as an STS scholar or contemporary ethnomethodologist might go. Nor did she move further “out” toward macro schemes for overall urban patterning (like her near-contemporary Lewis Mumford did) or as political economists continue to do. But equipped with the intellectual history and advances in STS and related studies, we can really get going on seeing how this whole urban thing hangs together. As per Jacobs’ vision, a more decent set of places could result.

  1. Alex Preda, The Turn to Things - Arguments for a Sociological Theory of ThingsSociological Quarterly vol. 40, No. 2, Spring 1999.
  2. Bruno Latour, “Where are the Missing Masses?” in Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law, eds., Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 225–258.
  3. Miguel Covarrubias, Island of Bali. Periplus Publishers, 2008 (1937).
  4. Annmarie Mol, The Logic of Care: Health and the Problem of Patient Choice. London: Routledge, 2008.
  5. Harvey Molotch, Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Subways, Airports, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger. Princeton University Press, 2012.
  6. Erving Goffman, Asylums. New York: Anchor Books, 1961.
About the Author
Harvey Molotch is Professor of Sociology and Metropolitan Studies at New York University.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.