Architectural Exclusion: Discrimination and Segregation Through Physical Design of the Built Environment

91 Pages Posted: 18 Apr 2015

See all articles by Sarah Schindler

Sarah Schindler

University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Date Written: April 16, 2015


The built environment is characterized by man-made physical features that make it difficult for certain individuals — often poor people and people of color — to access certain places. Bridges were designed to be so low that buses could not pass under them in order to prevent people of color from accessing a public beach. Walls, fences, and highways separate historically white neighborhoods from historically black ones. Wealthy communities have declined to be served by public transit so as to make it difficult for individuals from poorer areas to access their neighborhoods.

Although the law has addressed the exclusionary impacts of racially restrictive covenants and zoning ordinances, most legal scholars, courts, and legislatures have given little attention to the use of these less obvious exclusionary urban design tactics. Street grid layouts, one-way streets, the absence of sidewalks and crosswalks, and other design elements can shape the demographics of a city and isolate a neighborhood from those surrounding it. In this way, the exclusionary built environment — the architecture of a place — functions as a form of regulation; it constrains the behavior of those who interact with it, often without their even realizing it. This Article suggests that there are two primary reasons that we fail to consider discriminatory exclusion through architecture in the same way that we consider functionally similar exclusion through law. First, potential challengers, courts, and lawmakers often fail to recognize architecture as a form of regulation at all, viewing it instead as functional, innocuous, and pre-political. Second, even if decision makers and those who are excluded recognize architecture’s regulatory power, existing jurisprudence is insufficient to address its harms.

Keywords: land use, architecture, law and geography, race, space, place, socioeconomic, poor, local government, built environment, infrastructure, design, exclusion

JEL Classification: H54, H70, H82, I31, J18, J71, K11, K32, K42, L91, L98, R1, R14, R40, R52, R58

Suggested Citation

Schindler, Sarah, Architectural Exclusion: Discrimination and Segregation Through Physical Design of the Built Environment (April 16, 2015). 124 Yale Law Journal 1934 (2015), Available at SSRN:

Sarah Schindler (Contact Author)

University of Denver Sturm College of Law ( email )

2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States

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