Murals. Bikes. Patios. Racism and Bias in White Urbanism and Placemaking, by Sarah Gelbard

August 3, 2020

[Reading List]

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Black urbanists, activists, community leaders, and scholars who have been doing and continue to do this work. I have learned so much from the experiences and perspectives they have shared. I am grateful for their generosity and courage. Please see the following resource list on Anti-Black racism in planning & urbanism, read and share widely.

During the early months of Covid-19 lockdowns worldwide, the need for access to outdoor public space for safe, physically-distanced exercise and mental wellbeing had many urbanists excited by the silver-lining opportunity to further promote open street solutions. Many of the designs and policies offered made references to Tactical Urbanism, Vision Zero, Cities for People, and European examples of urban design innovations that support bicycle culture and street life that have inspired a growing urbanism and placemaking trend for the past decade. Liveable, walkable, and sustainable urban living and lifestyle National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), for instance, was one of many organizations quick to publish aggregate guides and resources for street redesign practices. Streets for Pandemic Response and Recovery (2020) notes: “In a time when we’re required to maintain physical distance to protect public health, streets need to do more than ever. Streets must be configured so that people are able to move safely around the city.”1

Examples of open streets, parklets, and outdoor dining from around the world began to flood social media. As more local urbanists pushed local planning authorities to implement similar responses in their cities, critiques of these practices were being published by Black urbanists, community organizers, activists, and scholars. What does it mean to “move safely around the city” and for whom? Their critiques revealed privilege and bias of mainstream urbanist responses that centered white comfort, leisure, and consumption while ignoring how structural racism has made the same streets spaces of violence and danger for Black folk. These promotions of revitalized urban street lifestyle failed to acknowledge the risk posed to low-wage workers required to reopen businesses or that the closed street further restricted mobility of essential workers, many of whom are racialized minorities who rely upon public transit or private automobiles to access their place of work. Allowing businesses to flow out onto the sidewalks failed to acknowledge the tradition of street vendors in many cities or the fierce opposition and restrictions their businesses have faced.

With the mounting evidence of the disproportionate and tragic impact of Covid-19 on racialized communities in Canada and the US, it seemed urban interventions and priorities were in serious need of redirection. Ariel Ward addresses many of these issues in our first reading, A Tale of Two Truths: Transportation and Nuance in the Time of COVID-19. Ward discusses how mainstream urbanists dismiss these issues: “When transportation professionals, particularly Black women, sought to call nuance into the conversation and policies around open streets and equity, responses ranged from the standard ‘not yet, not right now[…]’”Following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the urgency of the call of Black Lives Matter demands a response and action right now.

In response to the Call to Courage: An Open Letter to Canadian Urbanists by Jay Pitter, both the readings and discussion in this session are intended to help us to collectively take three of the tangible steps that she outlines towards addressing anti-Black racism and urban inequalities:

  • Research the history and untold place-based stories related to all urban design and development projects;
  • Reflect on how your implicit biases – unconscious thoughts and stereotypes – may influence how you view an individual, group or entire neighbourhood;
  • Acknowledge that urban design is not neutral; it either perpetuates or reduces social inequities.

Researching Untold Place-Based Stories

This week’s readings tell the place-based stories of Black and Indigenous urban communities in Canada and the US. The authors offer perspectives and experiences of urban development that unsettle the mainstream narratives that planners and cities rely upon to present themselves and their policies as progressive. They expose how through the racializations of urban space, contemporary urbanism participates in the displacement of and violence against non-white bodies. Progressive urban policies are not presented as a break from racist and settler colonial legacies of urban renewal, segregation, violence, and land theft, but instead continued reproductions of structural injustices.

In the introduction of “Black in place: the spatial aesthetics of race in a post-Chocolate City,” Brandi Summers frames how aesthetic emplacement of blackness in Washington DC H Street neighbourhood is “marketed to sell a progressive, ‘cool,’ and authentic experience of being in and moving through the city,”3 while effectively excluding and displacing black business and black residents from its reimagined urban landscape. Summers offers perspective on how the city is continuously shaped both by the Black presence and by anti-Black racism: “it is equally important to acknowledge that geographies of gentrification, displacement, and market-oriented urbanism are just s racially inflected as the racialized geographies of segregated communities, and divested urban cores of the Jim Crow through post-Civil Rights eras.”4

In “‘Welcome to Winnipeg’ Making settler colonial urban space in ‘Canada’s most racist city,’” Heather Dorries offers a critical reading of a Maclean’s article denouncing racism faced by Indigenous people living in Winnipeg’s North End neighbourhood. Dorries argues that the article and responses to it only further reinforce negative perceptions about the neighbourhood and the Indigenous people living there, ultimately reproducing settler colonial urban space, in particular, the narrative of the death of Tina Fontaine: “Having established the degeneracy of Indigenous space and life in the city, the Maclean’s article narrated Tina’s life in ways that ask the reader to accept the dangers she faced as simply a consequence of her presence in the city, without questioning the ways that structural racism produces vulnerability.”5 She concludes: “the making of settler colonial urban space is bound up with settler colonialism’s desire for life and its never-ending requirement for space, which is in turn predicated on Indigenous death.”6

Group Exercise for Reflecting on Bias in Urbanism

Implicit biases can be found in design solutions and urban improvements, in part because they depend on how the problem is defined, who defines and “solves” the problem, and for whom. Using “50 reasons why everyone should want more walkable streets” as a case study, breakout discussion groups reflect on the implicit biases found even in socially and environmentally progressive urbanist practices. Groups are organized into three subthemes: (1) Culture, Identity, and Belonging; (2) Mobility, Health, and Wellbeing, (3) Environment, Sustainability, and Land Use.

Five reasons related to their theme are identified and discussed for how they reproduced white bias by (a) Centering White Comfort, Aesthetics, and Benefits; (b) Failing to Recognize or Address Structural Barriers, i.e. sexism, racism, ableism, settler colonialism, etc.; (c) Failing to Recognize the Non-White Experience, Meaning, Use, or Value of Space and People.

Reflections Shared by Discussion Groups

Many of the reasons for walkable streets place value on the “vibrancy” and “attractiveness” of the street without reflecting on the socio-cultural determinants of those values and whether they are shared by diverse users or benefit diverse users equally. The image of what makes a desirable, walkable street is often modelled on euro-centric design and aesthetics. The image of who is occupying these streets is also usually white, middle-class, able-bodied folk. Additionally, these and other promoted values were found to be propped up by economic, commercial interests that commodify the street and the people using it by measuring the ability to generate revenue and profits, and the return on investing in the urban design and development of the street. Social and economic determinants also impact where urban improvements for walkability are likely to happen, with more affluent white neighbourhoods (or those that have the potential to be gentrified) where a lot of investment in creating walkable streets goes. Even when reasons addressed diversity and equity, it is unclear who has been consulted, whose needs are served, whose experiences are valued, or whether they simply participate in “diversity optics.” Overall, the focus on the aesthetics and the desired use of space too easily assumes the universal benefit of a well-designed, walkable street. There is a failure to address the deeper systemic and structural factors determining who occupies space, when, how, and why.

Reminder to Make Space for Care and Flourishing

In concluding our session, it is important to remind ourselves that critical and anti-racist urbanism is possible. It is not by avoiding but rather through this difficult work where we will find space for joy and flourishing.

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National Association of City Transportation Officials. “Rethinking Streets in a Time of Physical Distance,” August 12, 2020. https://nacto.org/publication/streets-for-pandemic-response-recovery/introduction/rethinking-streets-in-a-time-of-physical-distance.

2Ariel Ward, “A Tale of Two Truths: Transportation and Nuance in the Time of COVID-19,” Medium. May 14, 2020. https://medium.com/at-the-intersections/a-tale-of-two-truths-transportation-and-nuance-in-the-time-of-covid-19-9bc99ff8c005

Brandi T. Summers, “Introduction,” In Black in place: the spatial aesthetics of race in a post-Chocolate City, 1-12. University of North Carolina Press, 2019, 4.

Ibid, 15.

Heather Dories, “‘Welcome to Winnipeg’ Making settler-colonial urban space in ‘Canada’s most racist city,’” In Settler City Limits: Indigenous resurgence and colonial violence in the urban prairie west, ed. Dorries, Henry, Hugill, et.al. U Manitoba Press, 2019., 36.

Ibid, 41.

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