Addressing Racial Inequality in Planning

Since it began, regional and urban planning has perpetuated racial inequality. RPA’s Healthy Regions Planning Exchange is grappling with the challenge of inequality and trying to identify how planning work can address these past and present inequities. For the latest discussion in our six-part Planning Exchange webinar series, we invited Dr. Mindy Fullilove, professor of urban policy and health at The New School, and Molly Rose Kaufman, Provost and Program Director for the University of Orange, to present their work on this subject.

The webinar explored how contemporary urban planning issues are rooted in the 400-year history of inequality on this continent. Dr. Fullilove and Ms. Kaufman built on prior Planning Exchange conversations about development without displacement by describing the phenomena which produce inequitable urban environments, like historical disinvestment in communities of color and so-called urban renewal. Moreover, Dr. Fullilove and Ms. Kaufman shared several key ideas, mainly the concept of collective recovery, that can help planners better imagine what healthy and equitable communities look like. 

They began by sharing their 400 Years of Inequality project, which commemorates the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved African people at Jamestown, Virginia. This, they asserted, is the defining event for the elaboration of systems of inequality throughout this country’s history. They use the term “Ecology of Inequality” to describe these systems – the intersecting and reinforcing layers by which inequality influences our daily lives. 

Source: 400 Years of Inequality project

By taking the time to reflect on these 400 years of inequality, we can better understand and address current manifestations of inequality, especially as they relate to urban environments.

But how do we learn, plan and build communities in spaces deeply affected by inequality? Dr. Fullilove emphasized that, “strong communities are the foundation of health,” but that urban planning-related policies historically uprooted communities. Many gains made by black people in particular, she said, were undermined by urban renewal policies because, “key racial policies have been disguised as spatial progress.” For example, Dr. Fullilove pointed to the Hill District in Pittsburgh (pictured above from the Pittsburgh Gazette), which had a dynamic black community prior to key planning efforts like urban renewal. Many blocks in the Hill District in Pittsburgh were demolished to make way for a sports arena, creating a feeling of root shock, which occurs when rich community networks are weakened or severed.

Source: 400 Years of Inequality project

In order to create healthier communities, Dr. Fullilove and Ms. Kaufman pointed to the need for collective recovery to address shared traumas from root shock. They broke down collective recovery into a four-part process: Remember, Respect, Learn, and Connect. Through the 400 Years of Inequality project, Dr. Fullilove and Ms. Kaufman encourage people to host place-based observances on the themes highlighted above as a way to initiate a local, shared process of recovery. 

All of this raises a crucial question for people in the planning profession: how do we better inform ourselves so we can envision improved urban environments in a way that lifts up and strengthens communities harmed by the ecology of inequality? 

The Healthy Regions Planning Exchange will build on these strategies for centering inequality and race in planning work, starting with the next webinar in which Tamika Butler of Toole Design will discuss how to better incorporate discussions of race and equity into transportation planning.

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