Winner asked it while describing 1920s ‘parkway’ access routes from New York City to the beaches of Long Island. This work has generated controversy over Winner’s reading of history but while his scholarship can be criticised, the question is still darkly fascinating especially as we consider what the politics of ChatGPT might be.
Ralf Brand has written about the politics of Northern Ireland streets. Rumours are that footpaths in Belfast were constructed to full vehicle-weight specification, to allow armoured vehicles to travel on them. Having worked in Belfast, I saw at first hand how street design and Northern Irish politics were linked. Discussions around whether to install a roundabout/circle or a set of signals/robots at a new junction in Belfast in 1991 centred more on whether hit-and-run gunmen would be able to escape, than on the ability of the intersection to cope with peak hour traffic.
More recently and closer to home, Don Pinnock has written about the clustered, inward looking apartheid-era housing developments which included compulsory ‘buffer strips’ adjoining the roads between townships. These strips, 200-300 yards wide, provided sufficient space for tanks to turn in and were “known in planning circles as ‘machine gun belts’”. The tanks have long gone but the strips remain in our city – brutally separating the communities still living alongside them.
The politics at play on most streets are more subtle and more complex than the examples described by Winner, Brand and Pinnock but they are still immensely powerful.
More ominously, though, the politics of technologies are implicit or, even, elusive.
Not open to interrogation by high courts and of the International Electoral Commission.
Barely open to interrogation at all.