Skip to content

Environment as Politics

Go back


United States of America



Commissioned by:
Drawing Codes Exhibition, curated by Andrew Kudless and Adam Marcus

Published in: Places Journal

Project Team:
Neeraj Bhatia, Cesar Lopez, Liz Lessig

For architects, the 2016 election highlighted the role that space, particularly the spatial organization of built form, may have on one’s politics. This is surprising as the two things that this election will be remembered for are the inaccurate identity politics that were foregrounded by pollsters as well as the ability of social media to consolidate as well as isolate those with similar politics. Neither one of these are directly spatial, yet when examining a detailed map of the election results—at the scale of the County—one is struck by the similarity between population density and political affiliation, wherein those in populated centers tended to vote Democrat and those in rural areas leaned towards the Republicans. If it is true that population density has a critical as well as consistent impact on one’s politics, it would mean that the environments we inhabit shape our politics more than the effects of non-spatial forms of communication and information that the internet provides, or even the identity profiles of the subject. The closest seismographer to our politics might be the spaces we inhabit, making politics a question of architecture and urbanism.

To unpack this hypothesis, we extracted a series of ‘core samples’ from around the country that corresponded to different political alignments — ranging from ninety percent Trump voting counties to ninety percent Clinton voting counties. In each case, we isolated an emblematic one-acre plot that was consistent with the county’s overall population density. Leaving identity politics of the subject behind, we asked if our spatial organization is the code — a consistent determinant of political affiliation.

Already in 1909 Patrick Geddes’ famous valley section posited that the geographic environment acts on people and their dwellings, and in turn, people shape their environment through labor. Geddes’ section illustrates the hierarchical relationship of the city to the larger region that supports it. Team X’s Doorn Manifesto built upon Geddes section by linking social scales of association to their geographic context. Overlaid on Geddes section, they illustrated a region of associated dwellings from the city to town, village and farm. Both Geddes and Team X’s sections reveal the expansion of the city into a region that, while not depicted, would rely heavily on infrastructure as a connective tissue. Their geographic scenarios foreshadow the expansive nature of globalization, and it is in this vast territory where the hinterland is connected and separated from multiple urban centers that we surpass the scales of association. Today our code is density.

Our findings do in fact show a correlation between political affiliation and density. Echoing studies from the 2012 election analysis, the tipping point between Democrat and Republican affiliation is a hypothetical county where neighbors live 608 feet apart. In largely democratic states such as California, the lower density counties in the Central Valley still swayed Republican, while in Red States such as Texas urban areas of the Texas triangle voted Democrat. Building upon our findings, we propose a Valley of Density—where the space between you and your neighbor plays a critical role in determining your politics. If the spatial environment is the subject of the architect, this reminds us that architecture is always political.