Black Urbanists Are Leading the Fight for More Inclusive Cities
Black city planning experts on inclusion in urban planning and why everyone needs to pay attention to transportation.
There’s a common assumption about urban planning that the systems governing our cities start from a place of neutrality. That even when it’s flawed, urban design tries to objectively solve problems and strengthen communities. The question is, for whom?
“Nothing comes from a space of neutrality,” says Tamika Butler, a transportation expert whose consulting firm specializes in transportation and urban planning, as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion. “The U.S. was built on racist foundations. Everything we do with our land — where we put our highways, what communities we divide — is about policing movement and mobility.”
Who designed our cities?
“We’ve got to examine who made the cities in the first place. 9 times out of 10, it’s not Black, Indigenous and other people of color. We’ve had cities made for us,” says Kristen Jeffers, an urban planning expert and founder of The Black Urbanist, a multimedia platform that centers her experience as a Black queer feminist.
For Jeffers, her work as an urbanist began by recognizing the need for more voices in the field. “Currently, I am piloting a Black pro-feminist urbanist school. I’m working on creating a canon of works by Black women and queer people in urban planning, land use planning, and architecture-related fields.”
Butler’s career in urban planning started when she discovered it for the first time and realized that’s what she’s always wanted to do. When she started her career as a civil rights lawyer, urban planning wasn’t on her radar — especially not as a way to enact social change. Eventually, she transitioned to policy work and urban planning. She’s held numerous positions at organizations working on a variety of projects, from building parks and gardens in park-poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles to serving as the Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.
Now she wants more people to consider what no one told her growing up. “The first thing I would say, especially to young people, is if you want to fight for racial justice, you should be a planner,” says Butler.
Understanding history to plan for the future
If you’re an urban planner or want to be an advocate for your city, you have to look back at history. “No matter where you live, there are policies that were enacted for reasons that were blatantly racist,” says Jeffers.
Highways, Butler points out, are one of the biggest culprits in racism and segregation. As cars became more popular in the 1950s, highway construction took off. In most U.S. cities, they were designed to cut through thriving Black neighborhoods, displacing thousands of people. Butler explains, “The highway system is a master class in white supremacy, segregation, and the way that white folks in power convinced so many people they were doing something for the common good.”
The impact of these policies isn’t in the past. Today, communities are reckoning with the racism embedded in the built environment, and looking for ways to rebuild equitably. One example is I-81, an elevated highway in Syracuse, New York that displaced a Black neighborhood when it was built in the 1960s. It’s slated to be torn down or rebuilt in 2022, and the city is studying how to address past injustices in the new plan.
As important as it is to understand the history of our cities and the racist policies that shaped them, it’s just as important, Jeffers says, to “be excited about how reforming them for the future can add more people and bring up the prosperity of everyone in the area you live in.”
She points to Tysons Corner, the largest shopping center in the D.C. area, as an example. “It’s being retrofitted into a place where people can get to transportation more easily, and the assumption that if people aren’t driving there, they’re taking trains or buses.” Becoming a major metro stop has opened up access to the shops and businesses to more people.
Making transportation accessible
When businesses, healthcare centers, and other amenities are only accessible by car, that reflects a huge bias. And that has big implications for people’s health, access to economic opportunity, and quality of life.
Butler points to the example of people missing their vaccine appointments. “If you’re in L.A. and Dodger’s Stadium is saying, ‘We have a bunch of vaccines and we can’t give any of them out,’ you wonder: ‘Do you know how hard it is to get to Dodger’s Stadium? Do you realize you have to drive?’”
Public transportation systems also have major blindspots. “You have a lot of major commuter systems that assume that people commute to one major job center, and that’s no longer the case,” says Jeffers. Some buses in Washington, D.C. stop running at 7 or 8 p.m. Anyone who works an overnight shift is overlooked, essentially.
And that’s if public transportation reaches your workplace. In most metropolitan areas, barely a quarter of jobs are accessible by public transportation, creating a need for a vehicle or a ride share.
Then there’s the issue of commuting in traffic, which isn’t just an annoyance but an economic burden. “The county below me has one of the highest cost commutes in the country because of gas costs,” says Jeffers. This is mostly Black households and households of color that increasingly live further away from where they work. “People are literally sitting in traffic to go further distances,” she says.
Designing tech that works for everyone
Technology plays a growing role in transportation, and just like urban planning, it often reflects the bias of the people making it.
Take tools designed for road safety in cities like Los Angeles, where traffic-related fatalities are high. Technological solutions designed to help, like traffic light cameras, often perpetuate inequalities through faulty facial recognition algorithms and longstanding racial biases in identifying and arresting citizens.
“We have to balance the promise and the potential of a technology with the realities that the people who have been oppressed in this country continue to face,” says Butler.
One area where tech can make its mark is in helping cities use data to adapt to more diverse mobility needs. A program like Waze for Cities supplements more than 1,800 public agencies around the world with data that informs projects ranging from congestion pricing to real-time traffic control.
“I hope cities will take that data and look at ways to enhance transit, access, and affordability for these places that may not be as pedestrian-friendly or bike-friendly,” Jeffers says.
Taking up the fight for equitable cities
Many transportation issues start at a local level, so when you hear about a new project in your community, pay attention.
“Take a moment to think about who it might not be great for,” says Butler. “Who is going to be policed differently on the train? What businesses might not be able to afford to be there? With the internet, we’re no longer in a society where folks can say ‘I just didn’t know.’ It’s about a desire to want to know, and these issues will impact us, and our children, and our children’s children.”
Jeffers suggests reaching out to your local government officials to advocate for more transportation options that make it easier to get around by biking, walking or taking public transit.
“Don’t be afraid to mix up your transportation modes,” says Jeffers. “Don’t be afraid to ask your jurisdictions to add more.”
By educating yourself on the issues, or attending virtual city council meetings, you can join the fight for more equitable cities. “Sometimes people are so intimidated by the enormity of it they do nothing,” says Butler. “My biggest piece of advice is to just start.”