Who is the city for? This is the most urgent question in modern urban life. It’s also one that we ask with increasing frequency in the face of rising rents, inflation, gentrification, racist police brutality, increased surveillance, and more. Deceptively simple, one might answer: “The city is for people, regardless of gender, age, race, class, and ability. It is for all of us.” But if you look at Chicago, you will see that this is not the case.
Instead, it seems as if the city exists for cops. In 2020, the City of Chicago spent nearly $1.8 billion—37 percent of its annual operating budget—on police. That’s $5 million per day spent on policing. More is spent on police than on community services, infrastructure, elections, and pensions.
Meanwhile, the public school system in Chicago is continually gutted, rents are rising, displacement has revved back into action postpandemic, the transit system is barely usable, and Chicago still isn’t a safe place to bike, walk, or, for many communities, live. Crime, contrary to police propaganda, still happens, and statistics show that increased hiring hasn’t done anything to slow that down. After all, cops spend only 4 percent of their time responding to violent crimes like rape, murder, and assault, and those cases they do investigate rarely end up being solved.
Amid these conditions, a change was announced earlier this month to the construction of the Joint Public Safety Training Campus already underway in Austin, a majority-Black neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. The facility is meant to be used by the City’s police, firefighters, and Office of Emergency Management and Communications. What was originally supposed to be “only” a $95 million project grew in cost to $128 million after it was revealed that the academy will be adding a “tactical scenario village” composed of fake houses, streets, and commercial buildings, according to Block Club Chicago. The approval for this addition took place in September 2021 “without community input or opposition.”
Yes, you read that right: Chicago is spending $33 million to build fake housing and commercial buildings in an overpoliced community that could really use their actual, real-life equivalents. No Cop Academy organizer Destiny Ball laid it out plainly to Block Club Chicago: “To find out that they’re building a scenario village when there are thousands of people, homeless, with nowhere to go … it’s sickening.”
Architecture sometimes lays bare the contradictions in urban life, but rarely does it do so this explicitly, if not mockingly. A first phase of the training campus is nearly done, and the “tactical village” will begin construction this summer. The campus, which rises on the site of a former rail yard, will replace seven facilities currently in use. The second phase will be built by a joint venture of Berglund and Brown & Momen. The City’s website lists the design architect as DLR Group. The company recently published a blog post in which Andrew Cupples defended its work on juvenile justice systems, claiming that DLR remains “undeterred in the belief that design excellence contributes to better outcomes for youth who enter the justice system.”
“Justice system,” to this critic, reads as a remarkable euphemism for a place to detain children. Incredibly, the City lists the project as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West platform which seeks to direct about $1.4 billion in funding to previously underdeveloped neighborhoods.
The City neglects its citizens—especially its Black and Brown ones—before policing them with militarized tactics. This is, after all, the police force that was found to be using “black site” tactics—essentially kidnapping and torturing civilians at Homan Square, a property it owned on the West Side—until an exposé in The Guardian in 2015 spelled its demise. This is the police force whose officers shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo to death in 2021 and paralyzed another unidentified 13-year-old boy just a few weeks ago. These are the law enforcement officers who have made arrests in only 6 percent of rape cases. Per Alex Vitale’s book The End of Policing, this is the police department that arrested 8,000 Black schoolchildren, more than half of whom were under 15, in 2013–14 alone.
Chicago suppresses funding for housing, schools, environmental remediation, public health, and transit, but it generously funds cops. This is not only ineffective, given the statistics and reality of police brutality, but immoral.
Any architect who participates in realizing the carceral program of police surveillance and terror is complicit. Architects often characterize their work as impartial, but the reality is that the form of the built environment is regularly weaponized by those in power. Architects are moral actors who have the agency—individually, but especially collectively—to see a project like this and decline to participate.
At times, activism comes in the form of saying yes to certain advances, but in this case it more powerfully comes in saying no. This denial of service can come in the form of whistleblowing to journalists, organizing political resistance among your peers, or finding a new job. After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, when Michael Ford (the hip-hop architect) learned that his then employer SmithGroup was to work on civic buildings with holding facilities, he left. In the fall of 2020, AIA New York attempted to discourage members from working on spaces of incarceration. The work of Colloqate explicitly demands the end of architects working on behalf of police and provides alternative solutions for reallocating police funds toward endeavors rooted in community building and racial justice.
Architecture exists at the all-important nexus where political ambition is given form. Resistance to terrible carceral projects from architectural firms matters—if no one draws the plans, the efforts stall. Sure, someone else can do it, but the broad systemic woes of capitalism don’t excuse us—mere individuals—from living ethical lives. It is unethical to work on a project that will be used to oppress and terrify Chicagoans, just as it is a project of criticism to be explicit about architecture’s role in surveillance, police expansion, and, by extension, urban policies that govern by force, not by support. So, to the leaders of architecture offices who are currently overseeing construction documents for a fake strip club in western Chicago, I see you. The architecture world sees you. You can and should do better than this.
Kate Wagner is an architecture critic and a journalist.