The staff at Regional Plan Association watched the unfolding drama and shock of Charlottesville last week with the same astonishment and revulsion felt by the vast majority of the nation. We saw hatred unbound and violence in our streets. We wept for Heather Heyer. And we watched President Trump offer contradictory and unconvincing statements before settling on a deeply disturbing interpretation that apportioned blame equally and failed to recognize that racism, bigotry, oppression and violence must be condemned in all forms, always.
This should not need to be said, but apparently it does: hate and intimidation have no proper place in our society.
At RPA, we perceive these events not just as citizens and human beings, but as trained planners who think about the built, natural and social environments. Our profession in particular was, for far too long, a powerful instrument of prejudice. From slum clearance to segregated housing, land use policies and decisions were used for decades – and continue today in far too many communities – to separate people of different color, ethnicity and economic class. Restrictive covenants sorted people by race and religion. Municipal zoning codes separated rich from poor. Political boundaries were enacted to protect wealth and evade responsibility. School district borders were drawn to exclude certain children. Transportation plans cut highways through some communities and bestowed great wealth on others. Parks, libraries and civic monuments were provided for the comfortable and denied to the needy. The list goes on and on.
And RPA is part of this checkered history. We’ve done many wonderful things for communities in the New York metropolitan region over the past 95 years, but we share our own portion of the blame for the isolation and poverty in many of our communities. In some cases we didn’t do enough, and in others, we did too much.
Today, planners across the nation are working to reverse more than a century of racist policies, accumulated over time and encoded not just in laws and regulations, but in brick and steel, constructed by borders seen and invisible. We’re trying to right those wrongs. We want to bring opportunity to every community and promote a healthy environment in every neighborhood. We want to bring affordable homes to wealthy communites and job opportunities to poor ones. We want to increase mobility and access for all our residents, and especially protect the socially vulnerable who are threatened by rising seas and declining wages.
Fundamentally, we envision a future where all our communities are inclusive, diverse and welcoming. Because diverse communities are more tolerant ones. When people interact on a daily basis with people who do not look or worship like them, they discover that they are more alike in their humanity than they are different.
We need to provide better access for isolated neighborhoods, healthier environments for families, more affordable homes, and jobs that pay enough for a dignified standard of living. That’s our response to Charlottesville – to advocate and plan for communities where no one would be threatened by or feel the hatred we saw on display last week.
While we shouldn’t need a reminder of why this is so important, recent events have done just that: reminded us how far we still have to go.