Social Justice Ironies in Cities: Seeing the Bigger Picture

by Simon Tan

Urban Systems Lab
Dec 18, 2020 · 10 min read

Can attempting to correct for equity in urban planning go too far?

Of all the crucial conversations we are having as a society in 2020, perhaps none is more salient than the ongoing one about social justice in our cities. A recent stream of events that have brought inequities to light: the pandemic, the economic fallout, the police brutality, the battles between factions of protesters on our streets. Truly, this year has centered social justice in the global zeitgeist in a manner not seen for decades.

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Perhaps you’ve seen these relatable illustrations of social justice recently

As someone transitioning from a career in tech to a career in urban planning, I’ve been experiencing quite a bit of whiplash as I witness how these different fields react to the state of affairs. The libertarian bent of the technology industry tends to limit how much its actors are capable or willing to act on these kinds of social issues, but my time there did at least instill a sense of unbridled optimism and desire to improve the world with a bias towards action.

Meanwhile urban planners have been going through an exceptionally turbulent awakening as their past policies have been identified as part of the systemic racism that pervades societies (especially in the United States), and accordingly the profession is facing a reckoning rarely seen in the history of planning. Dorothy Walker, the founding president of the American Planning Association, implores planners to “heed the call of the protesters and move our profession into the 21st century.”

Certainly, there are many terrible missteps to make amends for: limiting home-ownership via redlining, segregating neighborhoods with highway building, and demolishing communities in the name of “blight” removal just to name a few. To their credit, the planning community generally takes responsibility for the past mistakes of the profession and has been actively working to correct them in both teaching and practice. (Side note: this is all far more than what the tech industry does when it faces scrutiny.)

While it’s fantastic to see equity being prioritized as a value in modern planning practice, a relevant yet less discussed phenomenon is that correcting for one type of inequity can sometimes inadvertently lead to another. Recently, I’ve been surprised to see an increasing number of situations where I believe the push for social justice has ironically led to significantly unjust outcomes for communities.

Let me detail three realms where I see this happening.

Blocking of all new development

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A housing development in San Francisco shut down over gentrification concerns. The deaths of SB 50 and SB 1120 in California that offered paths out of the decades-long housing crisis. The debacle over the rezoning of Industry City in Brooklyn. The upcoming fight over Sunnyside Yards in Queens.

All of these are stories of well-intentioned planning initiatives halted due to the concerns of local residents, who often cite that additional development in their neighborhoods would ultimately lead to their displacement. The fear is that upzoning or otherwise encouraging new development would drive up real estate prices and rents near them, eventually pricing them out and leading them to lose their homes.

First, I want to acknowledge that these fears are completely legitimate. Historically in hot real estate markets, it has been shown that new developments do tend to lead to increased prices nearby. The potential for rents to skyrocket is a terrifying prospect for those already most disadvantaged — clearly a social justice fail. It’s totally fair for them to want to stand against this potential threat to their ability to keep their home.

However, it’s important to make a distinction between gentrification and displacement. Gentrification is technically defined as higher income households moving into a neighborhood — but such an influx does not have to result in displacement of the people that were already there. Admittedly, gentrification often leads to displacement of lower-income groups, but this is something that can and should be mitigated with strong protections against evictions, inclusionary zoning (affordable housing allocation in new developments), and targeted use of rent caps. Preservation of existing affordable housing stock is also one of the key pillars of a holistic sustainable housing strategy.

I’m concerned that the most fervent anti-gentrification activists get tunnel vision sometimes and see all new potential development as pure evil. The truth is far more nuanced than any party tends to admit. While I love the idea of PHIMBY (Public Housing In My Backyard) and think that Singapore’s model of 90% public housing is the paragon of policy to strive for, I am a realist in the United States and believe that making some progress towards more affordable housing is better than doing absolutely nothing. In addition, all developers are not inherently evil — they are businesses that need to justify costs for projects like any other.

There is actually significant social justice irony here. The existing residents in a community who blindly block all new development will ultimately hurt themselves as pressure from competition increases for their limited housing stock. In addition, they are inadvertently hurting other disadvantaged groups by way of exclusion to opportunity. Sure, the residents fighting gentrification in the Mission District in San Francisco are blocking wealthy tech workers from moving in — but they’re also preventing the next generation of low-income students from accessing schools for upward mobility or migrant people of color from getting their first job opportunity in the city.

In my view, this is tantamount to how NIMBYs in suburbs block development because it would “harm the character” of their neighborhood. While the obstructionist actors in each case are very different, the groups who are ultimately hurt in the long-term are the same. I believe both of these types of obstruction are fundamentally exclusionary and would unfortunately lead to an erosion of social justice long-term.

Blocking of Open Streets

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In the middle of a once-a-century pandemic where the need for physical distancing is paramount, the average width of a sidewalk is woefully inadequate to allow pedestrians to pass each other without risk. Expanding usable street space for both pedestrians and small businesses to operate safely is currently recommended as global best practice.

However, I have seen a few notable pieces that suggest we halt the rollout of this new infrastructure in the name of social justice. The underlying concerns are completely fair ones. People of color are disproportionately harassed by police on open streets. Cars can be used as a shield for safe transport through dangerous neighborhoods. What ever happened to due process with public input?

While the fears are real, I also see some relatively straightforward ways to assuage them. Police should not be assigned to patrol the open streets. Not all roads should be blocked and there should be routes maintained for essential traffic. The nature of “quick build” projects is inherently experimental — the point is to move urgently to address an issue and then iterate on the solution in partnership with the community over time.

While I admire the thoughtfulness of the mobility justice movement, which recognizes that there are far more serious risks to marginalized communities than what open streets can solve, I also believe the demands are somewhat excessive. Planners do have a lot of power to shape communities, but they’re not in a position to solve absolutely every social justice issue in every single policy they prescribe.

Should we simply not build or improve anything about our built environment until we completely solve systemic racism in our society? Should we forget about Vision Zero goals until we completely dismantle our police departments? That seems like an unreasonable delay to essential improvements to cities.

There is another social justice irony here. Historically disadvantaged households are suffering deaths from COVID-19 at far higher rates than the rest of society and a one key reason is because they tend to live in more crowded conditions where the disease spreads easily. They also tend to be in the neighborhoods that lack local parks and other open areas that allow physically distanced walks. By far, these are the communities most in need of new space to spread out.

Blocking of new rapid transit

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Community pushback against public transit improvements near them is surprisingly common. New light rail or bus rapid transit (BRT) often seems to draw protests from both NIMBYs as well as advocates for low-income communities. Are NIMBYs aware that transit does not inevitably lead to high-rise buildings? Are the latter aware that transit investments are usually designed to connect more people to more opportunities, thus supporting upward mobility and correcting for historical neglect? The BQX may have been initially driven by external economic development interests, but there are clear equity benefits for existing residents along the route as well.

Again, the underlying concerns are valid. If the shiny new transit ends up attracting high-income households to the neighborhood, the risk of gentrification and displacement is all too real. Of course, there are ways to mitigate the risk of displacement as I described above. But before we get there — is it even true that light rail or BRT leads to gentrification in the first place?

I had to research this recently, so I can report: Evidence that new light rail or BRT leads to gentrification is inconclusive at best. Some cities experienced gentrification in neighborhoods with new transit, and others didn’t. (In fact, some cities like San Diego and Salt Lake City even experienced countergentrification, where the median income of the neighborhood went down.) The common lesson in the papers linked above was that local policies make the difference. Adequate tenant protections and the political will to produce and protect affordable housing stock is the key to preventing the negative social justice outcomes people fear the most.

If tenant advocacy groups knew this, I believe their efforts could be better directed to the city legislative bodies where they matter most — as opposed to taking shots at the transit agencies attempting to make valuable improvements to their service.

The social justice irony of fighting against transit is an obvious one. Those without the means to own a car are already disadvantaged. In fact, they’re often called “transit-dependent” or “captive” riders. More reliable, frequent, and modern transit service benefits these people the most, and rejecting it means their commutes just get tougher.

Making Progress

If there is one takeaway from all this, I believe it is captured in this timeless quote:

“Perfect is the enemy of the good” — Voltaire

We should all be pursuing greater justice in our societies and striving to constantly do better in our professions. At the same time, we should realize that things can be both imperfect and yet gradually improving. Social justice advocates should keep fighting the good fight, but also recognize that absolutism blocks us from making real progress in our world — progress which often comes in incremental and not revolutionary form. Small-scale changes can build into long-lasting impacts.

I have been thinking about inequality in our society for a long time, yet I admit I am still just starting my journey to fully understand social justice. I do know that it is one of the pillars to creating truly sustainable cities — something that should concern every single person in this ever-urbanizing world. One key thing I’ve learned is that doing better means listening first. So I’m soliciting feedback on this essay, but I also want to make a pledge to all the people I hope to serve should I ever become a planner.

As an aspiring planner, I hereby pledge to:

  1. Always take sufficient time to genuinely listen to the community, whether through representatives or by soliciting feedback on the street directly.
  2. Incorporate what I hear into my work, as well as any communication I have with my internal organization, while making sure to amplify the voices of marginalized residents.
  3. Dive deeper below surface level comments to really get at people’s underlying needs.
  4. Always return to the community to check the outcomes of any project I hold responsibility for delivering.
  5. Allow time to iterate on solutions with the community, and provide ongoing opportunities for feedback.
  6. Build relationships with the community advocacy groups working to advance social justice, to foster a more proactive communication loop.

I hope this approach strikes the right balance between listening to community concerns about unintended consequences and taking expedient actions to make progress on solutions — but I am open to feedback, as always.

Special thanks to my classmates from the UC Berkeley [IN]CITY program for reviewing drafts of this piece and providing such valuable feedback to help refine these ideas. It’s truly a privilege to learn alongside them!

Simon Tan is an aspiring urbanist, on a journey to start his second career as an urban planner. His previous career was a 10+ year run as a product manager in the software industry, but he retired from tech in 2020 and is now taking graduate courses in planning.

He is involved with nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area including SPUR, SF Transit Riders, and Seamless Bay Area.

Contact: simon@briskmobility.com, @simtanx

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A forum for research, design, writing, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities

Urban Systems Lab

Written by

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities. http://urbansystemslab.com/

Resilience

Resilience is a quarterly publication co-produced by the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, providing a unique forum to share strategies in design, data visualization, and interdisciplinary scholarship on urban ecology, environmental justice, and sustainable cities.

Urban Systems Lab

Written by

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities. http://urbansystemslab.com/

Resilience

Resilience is a quarterly publication co-produced by the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, providing a unique forum to share strategies in design, data visualization, and interdisciplinary scholarship on urban ecology, environmental justice, and sustainable cities.

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