February is Black History month. It provides an important reflection point on the many invaluable accomplishments of African Americans to the story of America. It also offers a reminder to acknowledge racial inequality in our society and recommit throughout the year to the hard work of creating a more just nation. For those of us born white, we cannot deny that we carry the weight of this responsibility.
Like many urban planners, I entered this profession because of a love of cities and a desire to make them places where everyone can thrive — regardless of race, income, gender, age or ability. The pull that brings me back to community is its inherent recognition of our collective, mutual intertwined destiny. We need one another. The city is a constantly changing tapestry that bears this truth out daily. But as planners, we must recognize that despite our best intentions — persistent, deep racial inequality hamstrings our ability to create the places, the economic opportunity, and the vision of inclusive community that we seek.
Changing society’s laws, institutions and culture to be more racially just takes time and feels overwhelming. It’s easy to be cynical. Yet, the truth is that change must first begin with ourselves. In this, and my next blog post, I share my own journey of racial self-responsibility as someone working in a profession – planning – that has its own difficult racial history.
My views reflect the personal journey taken over the last decade through work with a number of racial equity organizations and the SPARCC initiative to explicitly identify and discuss race in America. I forever owe a debt to the incredible Dwayne Marsh and to the team at Policy Link for first opening my eyes and shaping my thinking. While much of this has been deeply personal, the story I share here reflects my professional path which is intertwined with the personal. This is probably shared by many other white, well-intentioned urban planners.
Several years ago, I attended a session with Race Forward. Their mission: “build awareness, solutions, and leadership for racial justice by generating transformative ideas, information, and experiences. We define racial justice as the systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all and we work to advance racial justice through media, research, and leadership development.”
In going through their exercises my first reaction was dismissal: I am not a racist. As a woman and first-generation college student who grew up in rural Minnesota without great wealth, I considered myself not only immune but someone who shared in the fight for equality. This is true. Yet there is another truth that has taken me longer to understand. Despite the many, many ways our society and institutions are biased in favor of men and especially those with wealth, white privilege is real. It exists not just in overt ways that can be characterized, but in many insidious ways that are baked into our culture, our institutions, our social structures and even our self-identity. Start a conversation about race with a colleague who is not white, and they will acknowledge this within seconds. Yet this realization took me years and reflects precisely the fact that despite obstacles I have had to overcome, my race has never been one of them.
Here I reflect on some ways cultural racism is embedded within transportation planning and how my cultural bias reinforced this subconsciously. My next post examines how structural and institutional racism further perpetuate many of the precise challenges that urban planners enter the profession to solve.
My focus is on transit-oriented development (TOD) – a topic that has been central to my career. Those of us who came to this work were very cognizant of the scars created by Urban Renewal decades before. As such, I think taking a deeper look at how racism is baked into the American urban experience hopefully helps us not repeat the mistakes of the past or overlook their complexity. Achieving equitable TOD takes more than “quick fixes” like acquisition funds or inclusionary zoning overlays. It requires us to look more deeply into our individual and collective racial barriers that undercut the ability of people – regardless of skin tone – to not only thrive, but even participate in the livable communities we aim to create.
Prior to my work with Race Forward, I felt pretty good about my TOD story. I mean, I worked with the organization that practically invented TOD. Early on, we flagged that communities of color were at risk of gentrification. We even pushed to reframe the topic as “Equitable Transit Oriented Development” (eTOD) and “Transit Oriented Communities.” Despite good intentions and a passionate belief in TOD as a cure to urban economic disparities, I cannot ignore TOD’s unintentional role (and my own) in reinforcing and amplifying racial power dynamics and continued unequal access to economic opportunity by people of color.
During my time with the Center for Transit Oriented Development, our team worked to make the case that a growing market existed for living in transit-rich communities. It is in this framework of trying to spark the market to bring people to transit, that the early approaches and concepts of TOD were formed. CTOD created typologies to underscore that different types of neighborhoods and transit service supported different levels of development and zoning. We wrote a lot about the potential economic development impact of TOD, and that of streetcars in particular. Not surprisingly, we found that once the idea caught on and development began, much of it was designed for affluent households. TOD was rarely built for those already in the community or who relied upon transit.
The processes were never designed to optimize racial equity, but rather to create a market for those not currently living in these communities. Income and race were large factors ignored, undervalued, or devalued. Little attention, if any, was given to historic spatial injustice, redlining and the lack of community leadership in early TOD planning and projects. We are working to correct these oversights in our work today on equitable TOD.
Another and more commonly cited reason for high-priced TOD is that it is responding to financing constraints. Land near rail transit often comes with a price premium whether it is the higher cost of the land, or the costs associated with infill development including building taller steel structures, underground parking, site preparation or local regulations. As a result, the market tilts towards higher-income TOD projects -- typically marketed to white Baby Boomers or Millennials.
Several cultural biases are reflected in this approach. TOD market analysis done by local developers, real estate firms, and public economic development staff include an implicit racial bias in how land is categorized. Scant attention is given valuing cultural or community assets. The focus is on economic return. Identifying and categorizing underutilized parcels is part of this process. Often market analysis predicts a higher probability of market return because of a ponderance of large underutilized sites. Community members may also see these as blighted parcels that need revitalization but place a higher value on their being repurposed as parks, daycare centers, or other community-serving needs. There is a big difference in solutions that focus on people-centered development versus developer-focused profits. It is possible to find both and requires an engagement and development approach geared beyond the private sector.
We are seeing today in many TOD markets, the impacts of gentrification and displacement on lower-income, transit-dependent households and small business owners. My TOD story in many ways reflects the many implicit and explicit ways that cultural, structural racism and institutional racism frequently play out in urban planning and community development.
As a GenXer I had the good fortune in my early 20’s to live in some fantastic, affordable urban Minneapolis neighborhoods. Crime was a serious problem in these racially-mixed neighborhoods but their edge also showed itself in vivid local art, fascinating neighbors who enjoyed meeting up to tell stories and share their family’s ethnic foods, actual dive bars with an eclectic mix of performers, and diners where coffee was served by the pot not the venti cup. Almost all of us under 50 were renters representing a mix of races with singles alongside young parents raising kids. We all agreed that transit service sucked. Talk to anyone over 50 though (who were mostly white homeowners) and the conversation quickly turned to what the neighborhood used to be like. These stories almost always started or ended with a reference to the good old days of streetcars. I came to believe that bringing people back to these former transit neighborhoods would improve life for everyone. Call it a trickle-down theory of urbanism, if you will.
I subscribed to the dominant belief among transit advocates that building support for transit required attracting “choice” riders, i.e. middle- and upper-income white households who owned cars. My views as a young planner were supported by the field of planners, economists, engineers, architects, policy wonks and willing public-sector practitioners – most of whom were white. This was especially true of the New Urbanist movement that shone like a beacon for those wanting to shake up cities.
I am embarrassed to say I took our whiteness for granted. It wasn’t until many years later that I felt the discomfort of the lack of diversity in my field and wondered why there were so few people of color, and why we felt it was acceptable to be the ones leading the charge for changes directly affecting communities of color. Even today the development, planning and design professions are less racially-diverse than other fields. Groups like the American Association of Planning are intentionally working to change this dynamic but much work remains to be done.
Transit’s history with race is a complex one. Some of the first Jim Crow laws segregating whites and blacks happened on transit. Rosa Parks made her famous stand for civil rights on a bus. The onslaught of the automobile created a new modal segregation. Transit ridership today is higher among people of color than whites, and auto ownership rates lower. Latino and Asian-American workers are twice as likely as white workers to not have a vehicle at home. For African Americans the rate is three times greater. And yet almost half of those working in the transit industry are people of color, with African Americans comprising over a third of the workforce.
The focus on choice riders isn’t just about getting more people to ride transit vehicles so that it’s more efficient to run. At its core, the choice rider is an intentional political strategy for getting more white people to vote for funding transit. Cultural racism is reflected in the largely unspoken view that “If white people use it then it must be worth funding. If it’s just for people of color then it is not.” The evidence seems to support this biased view. Over the last 20 years, a growing list of regions and cities approved bonding and ballot measures to fund transit. The political disenfranchisement and cultural stigma against lower-income riders, especially riders of color, is so culturally entrenched that the assumed path forward to save transit requires a whiter and more affluent voter who probably doesn’t ride the bus. Our cultural racism plays into political strategies that result too often in more rail funding. Meanwhile, in some cases, these same cities struggle to fund bus service. Here transit agencies are forced to make difficult capital and service choices. The white train rider (who probably owns a car) is privileged over the black bus rider (who may not own a car).
Leaning In for More Inclusive Communities
Thanks to recent work by Transit Center and Diane Jones Allen, among others, the choice rider paradigm is being questioned along with lifting up some of the cultural racism behind it. Everyone on transit has made a choice, it’s just that some people are not given a very good or fair choice. Our work as planners must be to find ways that we can improve upon this, which must involve diversifying our field and looking more deeply at our own beliefs and the ways that racial bias is embedded within some of our most deeply held assumptions.
Here are useful resources for planners to become better allies for inclusion:
- Cultural racism is powerful because of its omnipresence and illusiveness. The ability to name and identify ways that white supremacy culture is embedded in culture is necessary. This worksheet from “Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, ChangeWork ” provides a great summary and antidotes for creating a culture of inclusion that benefits people of color and white people.
- Policy Link provides a bevy of data, reports, and resources. Their “All In Cities” initiative provides a set of toolkits for planners to use that centers on key questions: Who pays? Who benefits? Who bears the environmental impacts? And, who decides?
- Demos is a public policy organization working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy. Their 2017 report public transit and economic opportunity for people of color is a great resource on current transit trends.
- My friend and shero Lynn Ross, Founder and Principal of Spirit for Change, is leading efforts to make the design and planning professions more racially inclusive. Over the last year she helped craft a new Policy Guide for the American Planning Association to address the issue of planning in equity.
As a planner, I believe strongly in the power of people coming together to solve the challenges we collectively face and to recognize that these challenges are not faced equally. It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming I know what is best for a community because of my technical expertise and planning experience. Yet this attitude limits my ability to be a good ally with and for communities of color. Paul Kivel provides a succinct set of tactics for being strong white allies. My next post will carry some of these ideas into looking more deeply at structural and institutional racism that further undermines our ability to fully realize equitable TOD.
I’ll conclude by acknowledging the most valued and valuable set of resources on this journey: my many colleagues of color who have inspired me, taught me, and pushed me to question, to step back, to listen, to share, and to not stop. Thank you.