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What Does Trayvon's Shooting Mean for Architects and Urbanists?

With the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, the worlds of architecture and urbanism cannot afford to hear no evil/see no evil this time.
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When 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury was shot in 2004 in his own neighborhood, on the rooftop of a Brooklyn apartment building, the architecture community did not seem to notice. The police officer who shot the unarmed teenager said it was an accident, and a Brooklyn jury decided not to indict the officer for manslaughter. The public discussed and debated this tragedy in terms of police brutality, racism and gun violence. Then, even more tragically, nothing changed.

With the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, the worlds of architecture and urbanism cannot afford to hear no evil/see no evil this time. You may think you've heard enough about Trayvon Martin, but this tragedy is not a "hot topic." It is a lever in American history, like the death of Emmett Till -- a pivotal moment when irreconcilable narratives of this country collide.

Some of the architecture blogsites have started to address this, notably in terms of looking at sociological research outlining the downsides of gated communities. In the hope of encouraging further research and discussion, I have put together a few topics that aspire towards a spatial understanding of the implications of the Trayvon Martin killing. Whether as a professional master-planner or home-owner building a backyard fence or a city-dweller taking lunch in a public square, we all participate in defining space.

Against Going and Riding Armed

Edward Coke, the 17th century Attorney General and legal theorist who crafted much of what became U.S. law, promoted the simple and common sense idea that weapons and public city life don't mix well. The well-known phrase "A man's home is his castle" comes from Edward Coke's Institutes of the Laws of England. Less well-known is the title of the legal chapter in which this phrase appears: "Against Going and Riding Armed." The idea is simple: weapons scare people, especially political figures and interrupt the public from playing outside. The notion of home as castle was referenced just to explain why a private home would be an exception to this prohibition of arms.

A Car Is Not a Castle.

A vehicle is not a home. The United States has had an over-emphasis on car-focused urban planning for decades. Unfortunately, this bias toward the car affects our legal code, as well. Half the states in the country have adopted "Castle Doctrine" laws, which extend the self-defense rights of one's home to vehicles, neighbors' homes, workplaces and other spaces. There is a vital importance of understanding the word home and taking it seriously. Home cannot simply be equated to private property.

Stand Your Ground Laws Are Groundless.

These laws are groundless, literally, in the sense that they do not relate to ground. Neither do they relate to standing. The 'stand your ground' laws go even further than the castle doctrines in extending the exception of the protection of home into the public terrain and all trajectories of movement. The law defines no terms by which 'my ground' might be distinguished from 'your ground.' The 'stand your ground law' has failed to enable a clear path to justice in Florida, not only because the context is racially charged, but because the spatial logic of the law is fundamentally flawed. As Chris Hayes said on MSNBC, across the country, the result of these laws "sounds like chaos."

Where Is the Value?

Three bedroom homes at Retreat View Circle where Trayvon Martin was killed are available for $112,000 and less. This cluster of houses is across from a complex of big box retail and smaller chain stores arranged around large parking lots. Why did this gated complex think it needed an armed neighborhood watch team? Did the gate and the neighborhood watch serve as real estate amenities in a sea of blandness?

Architects and planners don't promote gates, but they are everywhere.

These physical gates become images of an upper class life that become consumer desires and real estate amenities. Yet, they are also physical with real effects that intersect with legal codes and everyday activities. Gates around residential areas have become the norm in countries with extreme income inequalities and military regimes. However, even the traditionalist New Urbanists, such as the Urban Land Institute, do not promote gated communities. Why don't we speak up?

We talk about coffee and shopping, and we don't talk about guns and politics.
George Zimmerman has given us a view into a terrain of law and everyday place in America that has much more to do with most people's lives than the placement of bicycle racks. Do we want to live and work in a world in which a 'right to be' in a place equals a right to kill? Part of sharing space is feeling threatened.In any open encounter with a stranger there is the possibility of conflict and suspicion. This is what it means to interact with strangers in open, shared and public places.

How bad is it?

Stand your ground laws, the castle doctrine and the rise of gated developments are a toxic combination. The death of Trayvon Martin should be a wake up call to all of us in the fields of designing and building. Somehow what we thought was just banal has been exposed as lawless. What we thought was merely cheap and boring has been revealed to be a recipe for inhumanity.

But I know we can do better. If we take this on the way we have taken on climate change, stormwater run-off, or any other host of problems that once seemed outside our field, I know we can contribute to making this better. Architects and urban designers in the United States and worldwide: hoodies up!

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