The renewed urgency about racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has reminded us, both as people and as urban planners, of how deeply racism is embedded in American life.
I have certainly been reminded of the experiences Black American face every day that I, as a white male, typically do not have to worry about: Driving While Black. Fear that even the most interaction with a police officer could result in tragedy. The undeniable fact that an African-American job candidate will simply not attract as much interest from employers as an identically qualified white candidate. The list of daily threats and indignities is endless.
These are experiences that are all too easy for a white person to overlook. But the events of the last two weeks have reminded all of us that these experiences must be top of mind for every American, no matter their race or ethnicity. Simply put, they are experiences no American should ever have to contend with, and all of us, from this point forward, must dedicate ourselves to ensuring that they simply never occur.
But one thing we urban planners have been reminded of recently is something that we cannot overlook: How structural racism plays itself across the landscape of our cities and how that affects the opportunities that African-Americans, in particular, have in our society.
As urban planners, we set out every day to improve the built environment for the people who live in our cities and communities. And every day, we must contend with how structural racism has shaped – and still shapes – what that built environment looks like and how different groups relate to it. The evidence is all around us, in historically segregated neighborhoods, lack of housing opportunity for African-Americans, freeways that have torn communities asunder, neglected or nonexistent infrastructure in black neighborhoods, displacement resulting from gentrification, a growing homeless problem that has emerged in part from a lack of housing opportunity (and which affects the African-American community disproportionately), and much more. This list, too, is endless.
Anybody in the planning community unaware of the historic, structural, and legal reasons that these inequities exist would do well to read The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, which is perhaps the most important book about urban planning written in recent years. In an understated, matter-of-fact way, Rothstein recounts all the ways in which America’s legal system and perpetuated inequities between whites and African-Americans. Indeed, Rothstein found no shortage of examples in California. The beginning of the book depicts how black Ford assembly-line workers living in (an unincorporated part of) Richmond were forced to commute an hour each way to Milpitas when the Richmond Ford plant was relocated there because the South Bay housing market was closed to them. The book is a powerful indictment of how our communities have been shaped over the past century.
Covering planning in California means, by definition, that we at CP&DR write about this legacy of segregation—often without being mindful of it. California has 480 cities, most of them small, and these municipal governments – along with their consultants and lawyers – represent CP&DR’s primary audience. But the truth is that the way the boundaries are drawn around these 480 cities also shapes the geography of racial injustice.
We at CP&DR spend an enormous amount of time writing about relatively small, mostly white suburbs – because that’s where most of the land-use fights occur, where precedents get set, and where lawsuits come from. But we typically don’t place these fights in the context of racial opportunity – or lack thereof – and we spend little time writing about how the built environment is being shaped in historically Black cities and communities (or, for that matter, in predominantly Latino communities either). Yes, increasingly, many planning policies in California are designed with equity in mind. Sustainable Communities Strategies account for environmental justice; Regional Housing Needs Allocations provide for low-income residents. But the recent protests highlight the fact that we should have been doing more all along.
The vast majority of California’s planners – indeed, the vast majority of CP&DR’s subscribers – are planners who work for local governments or for consulting firms that contract with local governments. And no matter how strong a sense of social justice urban planners have when they emerge from school – and often it’s very strong – over time they get worn down by the relentlessly political environment in which planners typically operate.
Some retreat to bureaucratic nit-picking, hiding behind slavish adherence to a development code that is almost always in some way a barrier to inclusivity. Most simply serve the political desires of their elected officials. In small suburban communities this often means using the planning and development process to exclude pretty much everybody who is racially or economically different from the mostly older white homeowners who show up at public meetings. Try as they might to maintain their sense of social justice, in the end most planners have jobs they want to keep. And the ability of our institutions such as the American Planning Association to effectuate change is limited by the reality of who most planners work for.
Over the past generation, I have witnessed a growing unease on the part of many younger planners with the career choices they have been presented with. They are less interested in calculating floor-area ratio than they are in attacking the question of why so many people in our society don’t have enough FAR – or, in some cases, none at all. Increasingly, I see these planners taking a different path – working for advocacy groups or community nonprofits or politicians – or increasingly, running for office themselves. While it’s discouraging that working for public agencies often dampens planners’ idealism, I’m encouraged that their passion takes them into the realm of unalloyed advocacy. Our profession desperately needs this counterweight.
The opportunities in these sectors are still limited, but we can only hope that more planners in the future devote themselves to using their professional skill to advocating for – and bringing about – real change in reversing the long-standing trends of racial discrimination evident in our built environment. And we at CP&DR must commit ourselves to ensuring that our coverage of land-use issues in California reflects the fullness of this longstanding racism and highlights the work that planners are doing to reverse the trend. We must – and we will – do better.