A History of Planning and Racism

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of systemic racism lately – about how I can help and how systemic racism has and still does play a part in the work I do. Systemic racism doesn’t solely exist in our police departments. Systemic racism refers to the many systems in place that oppress people of color and expose them to poorer health conditions, riskier decisions, and fewer opportunities. It’s all the policies and unspoken rules in place that have put people of color at a disadvantage.

I’m an urban planner. And I think it’s time we start talking about how urban planning at the state and local level has segregated and oppressed people of color for over a century. After all, it’s planners and elected officials who are to blame for the lack of community investment in black and brown neighborhoods – the catalyst for the social stressors that plague these neighborhoods today. I’m fortunate to have attended a graduate program that made equity a major pillar of urban planning research. I owe my knowledge on the subject to the patience and honesty of the many Black and Hispanic professors/colleagues I worked with throughout the years. If they’re reading this, I want them to know how grateful I am.

My fellow urban planners probably (hopefully) already know this messy history. But I realize that there may be a lot of people who don’t, so here we go…

You’ve probably heard of stop-and-frisk but have you heard of sundown towns? Through discriminatory local laws and outright intimidation, municipalities – and at times entire counties – required “colored people” to leave town by sundown. This was often enforced by the local police, who cited the law and “suspicious activity” as cause for harassment of black visitors. Many of these sundown towns were formed following the desegregation of schools in 1954, thus continuing a legal form of segregation.

You’ve probably heard of qualified immunity but have you heard of restrictive covenants? Restrictive covenants were included in contracts that required new homebuyers to not sell the house to any person of color.

You’ve probably heard of mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenses but have you heard of redlining? The Federal Housing Authority required lenders to not provide loan assistance to “inharmonious racial groups,” aka black neighborhoods, in exchange for FHA insurance. These neighborhoods would be circled on maps with a red marker, thus the term “redlining.” This simultaneously enforced legal segregation, especially in northern cities, and forced disinvestment in black neighborhoods. Fair lending laws passed in the 1970s sought to eradicate this practice but discriminatory lending practices continue into today. Leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, some financial institutions practiced predatory lending in communities of color. Due to decades of disinvestment, minority communities were only eligible for subprime mortgages with rates and fees that disproportionately outweighed the risk. Some lenders targeted these communities to build their subprime loan portfolios. An NAACP lawsuit found that middle to high-income black property owners were twice as likely to end up with sub-prime mortgages as low-income whites.

You’ve probably heard of use of force policies but have you heard of exclusionary zoning? Zoning was created to ensure harmony between land uses, in order to serve the public interest. For example, we don’t want a factory to be built next to a school or a residential neighborhood. Zoning helps regulate the proper placement of that land use. Unfortunately, zoning laws have been used to exclude certain peoples from neighborhoods as well. Many suburban, wealthy, white neighborhoods have opposed any effort to rezone certain corridors for multi-family residential buildings. Multi-family units increase density, increase housing supply and affordability, and often allow lower-income minorities to be able to integrate in well-invested communities. Existing single-family homeowners often oppose this type of development because it “disturbs the character” of the neighborhood. By discouraging the zoning of multi-unit lots, neighbors are, consciously or subconsciously, rejecting integration and becoming more exclusive by raising area housing costs. This is the basis of the privileged NIMBY movement, which is as strong as ever today.

You’ve probably heard of SB 1070 but have you heard of transportation discrimination? In Baltimore, less-affluent communities of color have commutes that are, on average, twice as long as the commutes for affluent white neighborhoods. Studies have shown that commuting time is the strongest factor in escaping poverty. In the 1950s and 60s, our government invested heavily in the interstate system and began divesting from public transportation. The result was that anyone with enough wealth to afford a vehicle could escape the city to the suburbs and still be able to get to work in a reasonable time. Conversely, those who could only afford to stay in place saw their bus lines disappear and commute times grow. Of course, only white people had the opportunity to afford a vehicle at the time. This resulted in the “white flight” we all hear about. And don’t get me started on how cities and states razed entire communities of color to build these white highways. This disinvestment in public transportation has ensured that communities of color remain isolated from job centers and therefore secure job opportunities.

This is all background knowledge. The most important thing is what you can do with this knowledge. So here are three things you can begin doing TODAY to help remedy the impacts of these racist planning policies:

1.) Affordable housing is a right and our local governments have not done nearly enough to ensure housing for all – especially considering how much damage we’ve done over the past half-century. If you don’t have secure housing, how can you hold a job? How can you pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you HAVE NO FUCKING BOOTSTRAPS?? Support fair and affordable housing for all by supporting local policies that increase housing supply, subsidize affordable units and require developers to build at least 20% on-site affordable units at no more than 50% of the area median income.

2.) NIMBY-ism is an extension of exclusionary zoning tactics that have been employed by white officials and residents to enforce legal segregation. If you have opposed multi-unit apartment buildings in your neighborhood or public transportation funding because of the “unsavory types” they bring, you’re part of the problem. Support inclusionary zoning. Attend local development hearings. Urban planners usually only hear opposition from NIMBY-ists at these meetings. We need to hear more voices advocating for housing diversity and public transportation investment.

3.) The policies that shape our cities affect all of us, for better or for worse, EVERY. DAMN. DAY. Engage with your local politicians. This is where change can be felt the quickest. Local politicians live in your neighborhood. They shop at the same places you shop. They see the same problems you see. The feedback loop is miniscule. So EDUCATE yourself, ENGAGE at local meetings, and VOTE.

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