Security, Spaces, and the Built Environment: An Anthropologist's View

April 3, 2019

In her latest book, Professor Setha Low sheds light on the motives behind securitized spaces, from security cameras to the rules of gated communities.

Setha-Low-FB6A8545-(002) in library


By Beth Harpaz 
Editor of SUM

Professor Setha Low (GC/PsychologyEarth and Environmental SciencesAnthropology) is the rare anthropologist who studies the built environment and how spaces — public and private — are designed and used. But it’s not just design and physical infrastructure that interest her. Low sees her research as a way “to understand class relations, social relations, inclusion, exclusion, and the ways in which racism and other kinds of social pathologies continue because they’re inscribed in the built environment — they’re literally built in.”

 Spaces of Security: Ethnographies of Securityscapes, Surveillance, and Control

Low’s latest book, Spaces of Security: Ethnographies of Securityscapes, Surveillance, and Control, which she edited with Mark Maguire, looks at everything from surveillance cameras to gated communities. But the book isn’t just about infrastructure. It’s also about shedding light on the motives behind securitized spaces, and helping readers understand “why things are the way they are.” Low, who considers herself an activist, points out that many of the security systems and procedures implemented in New York City in recent years have “nothing to do with crime and everything to do with trying to turn Manhattan — and now Brooklyn — into a luxury city. Citizens should be aware of that and try to fight it, or they’re going to lose the city they love. When they’re putting in a new development here or there, or they’re going to put in a surveillance camera, try to fight it.”
The book includes a chapter by Distinguished Professor Katherine Verdery (GC/Anthropology), about the history of state-sponsored surveillance in Romania and elsewhere during the communist era, along with a chapter by Ph.D. candidate Zoltán Glück (GC/Anthropology), about counterterrorism efforts in Nairobi that have targeted immigrants and the poor “with little evidence indicating the successful countering of actual terrorism.”

Low wrote a chapter called “Domesticating Security” about gated communities and New York City’s co-operative apartment buildings, notorious for their persnickety rules. But she points out that “you don’t even need to have a gated community” anymore to keep one group out and allow another group in. Access to all kinds of spaces — from private residences to parks and malls — has become “increasingly segregated” in subtle but effective ways. When residents demand more policing for a park, for example, the end result may be to discourage people of color, immigrants, teenagers, and other cohorts from spending time there because they fear they’ll be targeted, profiled, or harassed. “People get used to having all this policing and surveillance and cameras without thinking what it’s doing to the use and diversity of public space,” she said.

Low, who founded the GC’s Public Space Research Group, will be speaking April 23 at UCLA as part of the Luskin Lecture Series  on “Social Justice and Public Space: Propositions and Problems.”

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.