Architecture of Oppression: Racism and Bias in Community Planning
June 16, 2020 11:25 AM   Subscribe

There's No Such Thing as a Dangerous Neighborhood. Most serious urban violence is concentrated among less than 1 percent of a city’s population. So why are we still criminalizing whole areas? (Stephen Lurie, CityLab) On the other hand, a study in 2019 (abstract only) shows that growing up in an affluent community brings “compounding privileges” and higher educational attainment—especially for white residents. (Tanvi Misra, CityLab)

America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress. Architects and planners have an obligation to protect health, safety and welfare through the spaces we design. As the George Floyd protests reveal, we’ve failed. (Bryan Lee Jr., architect and design justice advocate, CityLab)
For nearly every injustice in the world, there is an architecture that has been planned and designed to perpetuate it. That’s a key principle of the Design Justice movement, upon which I base my practice. Design Justice seeks to dismantle the privilege and power structures that use architecture as a tool of oppression and sees it as an opportunity to envision radically just spaces centered on the liberation of disinherited communities.

That built-in oppression takes many forms. It’s in the planning decisions that target non-white communities for highway projects and “urban renewal” schemes conceived to steer economic benefits away from existing residents. It’s in a design philosophy that turned neighborhoods into mazes of “defensible space” that often criminalize blackness under the guise of safety. And it’s in the proliferation of public spaces that often fail to let certain cultural communities congregate without fear of harassment.

This moment, like so many others, rose out of the state-sanctioned murder of black people. It emerged from the killing of George Floyd, and Tony McDade, before that, Breonna Taylor, before that Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. It grew out of the specter of impending violence that follows black and brown people daily. And it grew out of the apathy of this nation toward a black community so profoundly sickened by our built environment that a global pandemic disproportionately impacts us.

Rebellion is a response to a prolonged dehumanization of a people unwilling to be participants in their own demise; it is often the soft power of the built environment that provides the preconditions for that dehumanization and the atrocities that follow.
‘Safe Streets’ Are Not Safe for Black Lives. (Destiny Thomas, anthropologist and transportation planner, CityLab)
This spring, a pandemic cleared cars from the streets. Many U.S. cities seized the moment by announcing new bike lanes and networks of “slow streets” that limit vehicle traffic. It is a transportation planner’s dream to hear that thousands of miles of streets are being reorganized to make room for more walking, biking and playing.

But to me, as a Black planner and community organizer, the lack of process and participatory decision-making behind these projects was an absolute nightmare. Pop-up bike lanes, guerrilla-urbanist playgrounds, and tactical walkways have been notorious for being politically crude for as long as I’ve been in the field: By design, their “quick-build” nature overrides the public feedback that is necessary for deep community support. Without that genuine engagement, I feared that pandemic-induced pedestrian street redesigns would deepen inequity and mistrust in communities that have been disenfranchised and underserved for generations.
Why Race Matters in Planning Public Parks. A major overhaul of a huge Houston park reveals disparities in what white, black, and Latino residents want—and need. (Brentin Mock, CityLab, 2016)
Houston is embarking upon a $220 million parks project called Bayou Greenways 2020, a 150-mile network of continuous hiking trails, biking paths, and green space that will run throughout the city. When completed in 2020, it will make good on plans made by the urban planner Arthur Comey in 1912 to connect the city’s parks with the many strips of bayous scratching open the Houston landscape. Residents approved by ballot referendum a $166 million bond in 2012 to pay for the Bayou Greenways 2020 project, and for improvements to the near-50,000 acres of park space in the city. The goal is to connect the area’s bayous and parks to neighborhoods spanning the region.

While this connectivity is the stated priority for this massive parks overhaul, not everyone in Houston is feeling it. In fact, connectivity seems to matter most only to Houston’s whiter and wealthier residents. When the city’s parks and recreation department conducted its Master Plan Parks Survey in 2014, the majority of respondents replied that they wanted their neighborhoods and parks linked to biking and walking paths. The problem with that survey is that about two-thirds of the respondents were white with household incomes over $75,000. This is clearly not a good starting point for Houston, one of the most racially diverse, (and heavily segregated) cities in the country.

To correct this misrepresentation, a group of researchers from Rice University, conducted another survey, with the parks and rec department’s blessing (and funding!). This one was targeted at African-American and Latino neighborhoods to find out what they wanted from the new park upgrades. Lo and behold, the priorities differed from those of the initial survey. As the researchers write in the report about the surveys, “More Inclusive Parks Planning: Park Quality and Preferences for Park Access and Amenities.
Houston's Bayou Greenways is still proceeding, but is being followed with the more inclusive Beyond the Bayous project, which aims to make green space available to all Houstonians, so that everyone can enjoy equitable access to green spaces, according to the official Houston Parks Board website.
posted by filthy light thief (21 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
These results suggest that educational inequality is driven by the compounding privileges of the most advantaged residents.

Yeah, no surprise there. There are now multiple cities (ie, have significant population) where the median income is well above $100k, while the majority of US population centers are locked in between $60-$65k median income. That means the number of single parent households in them (and the number of young earners) are very low and the education attainment in these areas (if bounded by parental earning and education) is off the charts.

From the safe streets not safe for blacks one:
": By design, their “quick-build” nature overrides the public feedback that is necessary for deep community support."

In most neighborhoods, 'public feedback received' should not at all be considered to be 'general community support' (and as such should be done away with as a consideration), but I concede that in some neighborhoods that may be incorrect.

"To make these structurally racist matters worse, just as the coronavirus exacerbates cardiovascular and respiratory issues among Black people, quick-build and open streets programs fail to address the environmental factors at the root of these health disparities. Encouraging Black residents to go outside without addressing the environmental crises that lead to Covid-19 complications is a tell-tale sign that Black well-being was a secondary (at best) intention of these projects."

Like other articles, I'm really not sure what is being suggested here. It seems that if blacks suffer from respiratory and cardiovascular issues more than whites (with at least some of that being due to living closer to freeways and the food desert environments they cause then closing streets to car traffic will be of some help, even if the thought is indirect (and among most urbanists who have studied zoning, it's not indirect).

And that police choose these areas to brutalize protesters isn't exactly a function of their safety or that they were closed (like robbers go where the money is, police go where the protesters are). Protesters also went to non-streets that are closed (like piers for example in CA).

And her suggestions are the final step, not the first, towards better streets.

The final article (parks in Houston and different racial preferences) makes the same exact mistake: "Interviewers visited the parks on weekdays and weekends at varying times of
the day to conduct face-to-face surveys with park users" and the interviewed 357 people in a city of 2.3 million - 44% minority or 1.1m people! They mistook a few existing users of the park as the singular voice for 1.1million people. Maybe all those other people aren't there because they aren't well connected? Who knows, the researchers didn't even ask. They don't even seem to acknowledge that 357 surveys across 18 parks across multiple days is even insanely low or that their dataset is not complete.

Nor do they acknowledge the discrepancies between amenities like 'bathrooms' and 'safety' - that's why parks don't have bathrooms in the first place. They are difficult to police and costly to maintain. Rice University is putting out lots of low quality research about urban issues here lately for it's supposed educational clout.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:18 PM on June 16 [5 favorites]


That means the number of single parent households in them (and the number of young earners) are very low and the education attainment in these areas (if bounded by parental earning and education) is off the charts.

And by this, I mean this is going to get way worse a generation from now. The US is going to have social classes like the old times in a few decades if nothing is done.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:22 PM on June 16


nd that police choose these areas to brutalize protesters isn't exactly a function of their safety or that they were closed (like robbers go where the money is, police go where the protesters are). Protesters also went to non-streets that are closed (like piers for example in CA).

I'd also point out how different the protests were in suburbs, or places that lack what are considered 'pedestrian focused streets' (to limit protesting - it mostly works! They were in front of the largest high school, not really a place that is generally considered for closing to cars. Police didn't mind tear gassing school property.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:25 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


I don't entirely understand how to use some of the ideas here, especially for things like quick-build projects. The thing I'm most worried about with the few streets temporarily opened for people (closed for through car traffic) in Denver is that, because they're not being expanded to cover more of the city, most people aren't able to experience the benefits. Everyone should have access to safe space outside without having to get in a car to get there, and I want to know more about how structural racism prevents that and especially about how we can dismantle it in city planning.

I'm excited about the Un-Urbanist Assembly teach-in later this week, where I hope to listen and learn more.
posted by asperity at 1:49 PM on June 16 [5 favorites]


I think the idea is that these quick-build projects are inherently racist. Like, why are cities spending money on parklets when they are still piping lead-filled water into Black homes, or touting car-free streets when their Black residents many of whom have had to keep commuting to work as public transit service has been cut and cut and cut during stay-at-home, need access to a predictable road network to drive to the things they need because the alternatives are unsafe? Maybe those quick build projects just...shouldn't have happened.

Social distancing sucks for everyone, but I think the author is delicately saying that white residents can cope with not having even more parks and bike lanes and public space to dominate so that those municipal resources and public attention can be focused on bringing the environments of Black residents even remotely up to snuff. It's about deliberately prioritizing the people who have been systematically and routinely deprioritized or actively destroyed. Disaster recovery seems to often be an excuse to gentrify or plow more resources into the same neighborhoods while hanging others out to dry, again, as usual. The only way to avoid that is by starting with the people who are going to get screwed.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 2:49 PM on June 16 [13 favorites]


Like, why are cities spending money on parklets when they are still piping lead-filled water into Black homes, or touting car-free streets when their Black residents many of whom have had to keep commuting to work as public transit service has been cut and cut and cut during stay-at-home, need access to a predictable road network to drive to the things they need because the alternatives are unsafe?

Calling parklets out specifically seems wrong in this case. I mean shutting a street (like they have done during covid) costs a plastic barrier or maybe some paint. Redoing the pipes in the black part of town costs multiple hundreds of millions to billions. I don't mind asking the question, but the cost difference is enormous, and those conversations should be had pre-covid because they are the ultimate budgeting decisions for a city for a decade.

If you want to address the costs of redoing streets (that are being gentrified) and updated via public/private partnerships (instead of where mode share is already high) then I'm with you on that.

The second part implies that driving for blacks is safe, and I'm not sure that assumption bears out, in terms of traffic deaths and disparate enforcement. Maybe closing streets increases unpredictability.

Also that's the standard white NIMBY argument: why are we spending on X housing and social services when our needs are not met yet? So it cuts both ways, and I don't think it's compelling either way.
posted by The_Vegetables at 3:36 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Maybe those quick build projects just...shouldn't have happened.

That's a really good explanation, thank you! It's really hard to make positive changes in one part of a broken system without the possibility that you're making things worse somewhere else, since it's all linked together and we're constrained by the limited resources we can bring to any of it.

Though I gotta say that I'm really happy I've been able to use a couple of streets that have had cars slowed down and rerouted by cheap portable traffic barricades while I'm going to work. I can see that these streets are being used by Black kids and families and everyone and I want more.

However: the one injury I've heard of so far on Denver's slow streets happened at one that was set up specifically because it's in a location that needed much more access to safe outdoor space and wasn't near any existing parks. The built environment there is not welcoming, so it hasn't had the use it would need to get drivers to pay attention to the signs. Equity requires that we do a lot more to make this work in all neighborhoods, and the same amount of (minimal) investment won't have the same effect everywhere.
posted by asperity at 3:59 PM on June 16


I think the idea is that these quick-build projects are inherently racist. Like, why are cities spending money on parklets when they are still piping lead-filled water into Black homes, or touting car-free streets when their Black residents many of whom have had to keep commuting to work as public transit service has been cut and cut and cut during stay-at-home, need access to a predictable road network to drive to the things they need because the alternatives are unsafe? Maybe those quick build projects just...shouldn't have happened.

The idea that opening space during a public health emergency should have waited for the replacement of underground utilities is as nonsensical an idea as saying that anyone who is still at risk from COVID because they are obese should have just lost the weight the first few weeks of the pandemic. If we can't make small short term improvements because we haven't yet made all of the big long term improvements we've been unable to for years, then we can't make any improvements. Like the pull quote: If you want to ban cars, start by banning racism. To solve this century-old environmental and public health crisis, first solve this millenia-old social justice crisis.

A fair bit of what Thomas says is actually really interesting and relevant, but using COVID response as the jumping off point serves her points poorly in my opinion.

The striking thing to me is that the quick-build pilot tactical urbanism approach does -- as she calls a "nightmare" -- reduce engagement with the public. But this approach didn't arise out of a vacuum; it arose in response to full engagement processes where the most affluent, white and privileged segment of society dominate and delay and prevent these sorts of projects. Historically, in the fuller engagement process she seems to be championing, painting a fucking line on the street for bikes takes years and building a $50M freeway interchange to serve a rich suburb takes a week to get approval.

Even in areas with a economically and racially diverse population, the engagement process has historically been dominated by the elites. Literally in the other room, my wife is listening to our city council debate on a major transit investment. The proposal is designed to make it as easy as possible to extend it to a working-class, majority visible minority suburb, and that part's being blocked by a four person lobby group including an oil billionaire and a former senator. (The part that serves areas that are 80% white and $150K income per year isn't being blocked.)

To me, the most useful idea that can come to the front is how to get meaningful engagement, particularly from marginalized communities. Because while the quick-build approach isn't getting it, neither is the full engagement model. I'd have loved to hear more of her take on that.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 5:21 PM on June 16 [18 favorites]


As a planner, previously a land use planner, and now a transportation planner, these critiques struck home. We count ourselves lucky when we have a non-contentious public meeting with more than a handful of people, and we generally don't discuss the the racial make-up of the room, because the participants are generally elderly and white.

So now I'm going to raise the discussion of how we consider a public planning process to be truly inclusive. We can pay for surveys from companies who guarantee that their respondees are a representative sampling of the public, but that's an expense generally saved for very specific projects or efforts. What will we do otherwise?

Too often, public hearings are held in the middle of the day, which automatically excludes a huge swath of the public. Add to that, the notices are published, but who knows to look for them? Who understands that they can discuss proposed projects? Generally well-educated white NIMBYs, who are generally retired, as so many meetings take place during traditional business hours. Even when meetings are held after 6 PM, who is likely to attend? Maybe not only retirees, but probably not people with young kids, especially if money is tight. Who would pay for a babysitter to attend a public hearing, in the hopes that your limited time to comment makes an impact on the project?

With the general lack of public involvement, we planners and engineers fall back on the notion that we're the experts, pretending that we're not biased and racist. In my current job, my colleagues are fairly diverse, but also generally well-to-do, so our biases may be less based on race, and more on class.

This is where advocacy planning can help level the playing field, but advocate and ally planners are a rare bunch, for a number of reasons, including funding. Who funds advocacy planners? How do we public employees do more to advocate for and engage with people and groups who historically aren't involved? How do we make decisions when those voices aren't in the room? It doesn't matter if it's a pop-up park or a new major interchange, the project impacts the public at large, and we need to do better to be inclusive, and be allies, if not advocates.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:22 PM on June 16 [12 favorites]


To me, the most useful idea that can come to the front is how to get meaningful engagement, particularly from marginalized communities. Because while the quick-build approach isn't getting it, neither is the full engagement model. I'd have loved to hear more of her take on that.

And that is why I am so psyched about the teach-in!
posted by asperity at 9:52 PM on June 16


Sociology prof Patrick Sharkey twitter thread: "In the United States we rarely try to solve big social challenges in cities. Instead, we build barricades in space."
posted by Jpfed at 10:37 PM on June 16 [3 favorites]


The Destiny Thomas piece is spot on. All these pop-up/guerilla/'radical' interventions can be thin-end-of-the-wedge tactics for further gentrification, the displacement/destruction of existing communities of color, and the ongoing appropriation and colonization of their spaces by groups with greater resources.
posted by carter at 3:57 AM on June 17 [3 favorites]




I have so much to say about this but not enough time to do so with the nuance it deserves, but I will say that planning is due for a real reckoning. There are a lot of amazing people doing embedded planning and advocacy planning and focusing on equity first, but there are still a lot of others who think saying "oh yeah redlining was bad, sorry about that" is enough and unfortunately a few who won't even go that far*. I think that some of the profession is finally starting to realize that every single thing we do needs to be evaluated via equity first and foremost, but there's a lack of education and political will to do that.

Ultimately planners remind me of journalists in a way - there's this old-school mentality of being "objective" in writing plans and recommendations for their planning commission or city council to vote on, but objectivity is a myth! But they still cling to outdated education and practices that don't explicitly redress inequality and aren't focused on correcting racial injustice. As if planning should be "color blind." There is sometimes an element of technocratic elitism, plus a very real fear that they will lose their jobs if they actually advocate for a specific outcome because they are supposed to be objective.

The community engagement piece is a huge chunk of the problem, too. Public meetings are, IMO, fundamentally broken. In addition to all the very real access limitations filthy light thief mentions in his comment above, there's the partisanship and people screaming at each other without ever coming to a resolution. It's "should we approve this specific development that's already designed" and the NIMBYs scream NO and the affordable housing advocates (rightfully) complain about not enough affordable units or the developer buying out those requirements, and someone says "what about the traffic" or "not enough parking" and I just don't see how that is functional. Right now planners are learning how to conduct public meetings online because of COVID which can solve some of the access issues but creates others due to the digital divide.

I've been following Dr. Thomas on twitter for a while and she has caused me to rethink a lot of my first instincts about what planners should be focusing on. I don't always agree with her but mostly I just listen and give my brain time to absorb and understand. There are not easy answers here and it's going to take some real tearing down of institutions and (for lack of a better word) tradition about how planning should be done.

There have been a lot of great educational events and webinars lately, like the teach-in mentioned above which sounds SO COOL and has been on my list. There was also this recent panel discussion from the Canadian Urban Institute featuring both Canadian and US planners: How do we respond to anti-Black racism in urbanist practices and conversations?

*Portland just released a History of Racist Planning in Portland report that I'm hoping to dive into this week.

Apologies that this comment is scattered and unorganized. I really wish I had more time to develop my thoughts. Thanks for this great post, filthy light thief!

posted by misskaz at 6:55 AM on June 17 [7 favorites]


To me, the most useful idea that can come to the front is how to get meaningful engagement, particularly from marginalized communities

Pay them, for one. Intentional recruitment is a must, and at that point, the are your consultants, why are you not paying them to cover their time and expenses?
posted by eustatic at 7:51 AM on June 17 [1 favorite]


There are a lot of amazing people doing embedded planning and advocacy planning and focusing on equity first, but there are still a lot of others who think saying "oh yeah redlining was bad, sorry about that" is enough and unfortunately a few who won't even go that far*.

A big problem is that urban planning schools are predominantly white and elitist. They produce white and elitist planners, who compete for well-paid technocratic jobs planning for black communities and communities of color. But these planners do not have any of the lived experience of the centuries of historical oppression, disenfranchisement, empoverishment, discrimination, colonisation, exploitation, and general daily struggle, that these latter communities face.

That's why these white planners think that things can be improved with some planters and bike lanes, and generally patronizing 'improvements' (look at the language in the link I posted above) of areas which already have strong communities. This is why local communities object. Then the planners scratch their heads and wonder why their interventions are being rejected; but it's because the planners literally have no idea of what existing residents actually want.
posted by carter at 8:03 AM on June 17 [4 favorites]


If you missed this panel discussion about how to respond to anti-Blackness in urbanist practices between Jay Pitter, Orlando Bailey, Tamika Butler, Anthonia Ogundele, and Will Prosper last week, I highly recommend you go watch it. Pitter also published A Call to Courage: An Open Letter to Canadian Urbanists which gives some really good action ideas for all urbanists to take to address anti-Blackness in the field.

This Twitter thread by Sahra Sulaiman about the need to account for policing when talking about urbanism was written the day of George Floyd's murder. She has written about this issue for a long time and I really hope people are now thinking about how policing is actually hindering stated goals in planning.
posted by kendrak at 8:30 AM on June 17 [3 favorites]


Can't believe I forgot to link to this great Twitter thread with data, studies, resources, examples in planning that describe and address the issues related to active transportation advocacy (especially biking) and communities of color.
posted by misskaz at 8:32 AM on June 17 [3 favorites]


A big problem is that urban planning schools are predominantly white and elitist. So true! This article from the twitter thread I just linked talks a bit about that from the accreditation angle. That was from 2015; the most recent (2017) standards do require the curriculum includes

"Equity, Diversity and Social Justice: key issues in equity, diversity, and social
justice that emphasize planners’ role in expanding choice and opportunity for
all persons, plan for the needs of the disadvantaged, reduce inequities
through critical examination of past and current systems and disparities, and
promote racial and economic integration."


as well as I think stronger language about student diversity than what the article is talking about. But there's still a long way to go.

I got my planning degree in 2002 and I don't recall equity and social justice being talked about much at all, aside from some environmental justice angles (I focused on environmental planning).

the planners scratch their heads and wonder why their interventions are being rejected; but it's because the planners literally have no idea of what existing residents actually want
[insert a dozen 100% emojis here]
posted by misskaz at 8:53 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]


I work with a transportation engineering and planning program and it seems like most of the recent movement to talk about equity and justice have come from students wanting to learn and work in that area.

My summer project is a resource guide for equity and justice in transportation. It's clear that planning needs to do so much more in this area, but also that engineering doesn't think it's in their purview.
posted by kendrak at 9:00 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]


Interesting. (I haven't made it through all the articles yet.)

In the last few months I've been bicycling along small streets between the reasonably racially diverse, but very affluent neighborhoods where I live and work instead of taking buses along the big cross-city roads. I'm learning a lot about the layout of the mostly-Black, mostly-poor neighborhoods that separate the places I usually spend time. The number of dead-ends, useless fences, and shitty infrastructure isn't surprising, but it's really noticeable. There are clear lines where just getting to where you want to go becomes hard. Psychogeography may have a whimsical history, but it's also a real thing.
posted by eotvos at 10:00 AM on June 18 [4 favorites]


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