Viewing our urban fabric without a critical eye, it would be easy to conclude that there is something inevitable or neutral about how things ended up. It’s easy to assume that where a park, a freeway, a grocery store, a housing project, or a police station are situated within our city has resulted from a system of entrepreneurial spirit and natural community building. However, while these forces do have a way of shaping our cities, other, more nefarious forces are also at play. As creators of the built environment, architecture and adjacent disciplines have a responsibility to understand these forces of spatial segregation and discrimination in order to engage more meaningfully with the communities they serve.

Urban Determinants seeks to critically examine the relationship between governance, policy, and space using historical analysis and architectural representations in order to visualize how issues of housing, criminal justice, health, and economy overlap, resulting in systems of oppression that privilege some over others.


Racially-restrictive deeds were a common practice in the real estate industry during the 20th century in the U.S. These covenants were inserted into property deeds to deny BIPOC and immigrants from owning or occupying land. Covenants divided and sorted BIPOC into fewer parts of the city, creating many all-white areas. The first racial covenant in Minneapolis read, “premises shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged, or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian, or African blood or descent.”


In 1953, the state of MN prohibited the use of covenants, but for many cities across the country, covenants were still common until the 1968 Fair Housing Act was passed making them illegal. Given that owning a home or property is one of the biggest ways to accrue wealth in the U.S., covenants robbed many people of this opportunity and this contributes to the present-day wealth disparities between white people and BIPOC.


Redlining maps, originally created by the New Deal Era Home Owners Loan Corporation, were later adopted by the FHA. The maps categorized areas in U.S. cities to determine their creditworthiness, designating red areas as “hazardous,” yellow as “definitely declining,” blue as “still desirable,” and green as “best". The categories were primarily determined by the racial, ethnic, and class composition of each area, where BIPOC and immigrant neighborhoods were designated yellow and red. 


These practices systemically subsidized an increase of white residents’ wealth through the form of homeownership, while denying opportunities to immigrants, people of color, and particularly Black communities. These practices contributed to increased segregation, concentrated areas of poverty and urban disinvestment, and the wealth gap between white and Black residents (a 1:10 ratio in 2016). Today, there is still discrimination in the real estate industry and many Black potential home buyers are denied mortgage loans at a higher rate than white citizens and given subprime loans with high interest rates and high risks; a form of "modern-day redlining." 


FHA Underwriting Manual not only maintained the systemic racism contained in the redlining maps, but also bolstered and expanded it. The manual encouraged the use of racial covenants, associated BIPOC with diminished returns and low property values, used militarized language to describe the movement of BIPOC (such as “encroachment” or “infiltration”), and consistently encouraged the segregation of urban areas. 


It also encouraged the use of natural or artificial barriers like highways, topography, bodies of water, or railroad lines to further group and divide people into homogeneous groups, stating, “the protection from adverse influences afforded by these means includes prevention of the infiltration of business and industrial uses, lower class occupancy, and inharmonious racial groups.”


The U.S. Interstate System, funded through the Federal Highway Act of 1956, was also responsible for dividing up Black communities. Under the guise of urban renewal, slum clearance, and the “redemption” of impoverished, underfunded urban areas, the Department of Transportation targeted Black neighborhoods that had little political power to prevent the large, destructive infrastructure projects.


This resulted in the disruption of once unified neighborhoods, economic loss, a decrease in property values surrounding the highways, and the destruction of social assets.


This combination of forces, or urban determinants, and many others which we did not cover, create barriers and disadvantages that are felt acutely by BIPOC and particularly by Black residents.


Racial covenants, redlining maps, FHA underwriting documents, and the situating of infrastructure like the interstate systems segregated people by race and class, making future discrimination easier and more effective.

The relative heights of the neighborhoods on this map reflect 2017 average income per neighborhood, showing that the impacts of these policies are active today and have preserved intergenerational wealth for some and created intergenerational poverty for many.


People’s environments have many downstream impacts and contribute to outcomes like representation in the criminal justice system. Despite the fact that Black residents make up only about 19% of the Minneapolis total population, they are disproportionately represented as targets of police use of force, representing 62% of these incidents. 


This local statistic echoes the over-policing of Black communities at a national scale and the hyperincarceration of Black Americans since the 1980’s. Similarly, many of the officer involved shootings in Minneapolis are located in lower income Black communities.


The overall health of communities, defined by the Healthy Communities Transformation Initiative, illustrates a lower overall health ranking in many Minneapolis BIPOC communities compared to higher rankings in many wealthier, white neighborhoods.


We can see parallels to this data in specific health indicators like diabetes, blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, and many others, showing that people’s zip codes can tell us a lot about their overall health.


This project looks at spatial human-scale stories to represent and exemplify policies that had broader impacts in Minneapolis, MN and across the U.S,

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Select a Minneapolis neighborhood to navigate to the corresponding human scale story


Urban Determinants is a group Master's Final Project for the Master of Architecture Program at the University of Minnesota designed by

Ashleigh Grizzell, Erin Kindell, MacKenzie Kusler and Adam Rosenthal and advised by Vahan Misakyan.