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Urbanism Was Never Good for Cities

Thursday, August 20, 2020   /   by The Villages Home Search

Urbanism Was Never Good for Cities

In a metropolitan area bisected by highways, the Atlanta BeltLine certainly looks like a good way to undo decades of damage wrought by cars. Over the past decade, the former railway right-of-way has been repurposed as a walking and biking trail encircling nearly the entire city, threaded with new rail lines, new parks, and new housing developments.

But along the way, the project that was intended to connect communities started upending them — particularly the Black neighborhoods on the project’s western flank. During the year after the ribbon was cut on the Westside Trail extension, the last section to be completed, Tea Troutman, a planner and community organizer who lived in Atlanta’s West End, had the rent on their two-bedroom apartment nearly doubled, effectively evicting them.

“It’s not to say conceptually the BeltLine is bad design. It’s not — it’s world-shifting,” says Troutman, who is Black and uses they/them pronouns. But there was no question to Troutman’s mind that it was designed for wealthier, whiter residents to move in. “Neighborhoods adjacent to railroads were always Black communities because no one wants to live somewhere that toxic.”

The BeltLine is one of the most well-known (and copied) urbanism efforts under way in the country — one of the many housing, transportation, and public-space developments that are touted to make living in American cities easier, safer, and more sustainable. But it’s also one of the starkest examples of the reality that has played out across the U.S. over the past few decades, as the creators of those projects have almost universally failed to consider one thing: the effect they will have on the Black people who already live in those cities.

American city planning has systemically disenfranchised Black urban residents, even creating an entire lexicon of coded language to marginalize them. From racist covenants that barred Black households from owning property in the early part of the 20th century, to freeways that divided Black neighborhoods in the 1950s and ’60s, to “urban renewal” projects that leveled Black communities in the 1970s and ’80s — all of these “improvements” were imposed by mostly white planners on Black residents with minimal input from those most affected.

But even contemporary urbanism developments like the BeltLine — the brainchild of a white urban designer, Ryan Gravel, who eventually resigned from the project because of equity concerns — can cause the same type of harm, argues Troutman. “There’s a dangerous thing that happens when we lump everything into urbanism — especially ‘good’ urbanism — without dealing with the nuances of racism or anti-Blackness or white supremacy,” they say. “I’m pro-transit expansion, but I can’t not think about how that transit-oriented development will displace people in my community, or about how it’s going to bring more police.”

In the widespread awakening around race in cities following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis law-enforcement officials, urbanists are being called out more directly for transforming cities in a way that has escalated the racial profiling, policing, and state-sanctioned killing of Black residents. As cities have become more unequal, urbanism has become increasingly viewed as a tool deployed to exacerbate those inequities. And Black practitioners who work in planning, housing, and transportation are facing their own reckoning across a white-centered field.

Anyone can identify as an urbanist. It’s a unique term that encompasses more than professional accreditation (like urban planner or urban designer) and spans multiple aspects of city-making, including housing and transportation. The term dates back to the 1800s, but its popularity in culture closely tracks with what white urbanists dub the “back to the city” movement, where mostly white affluent people left the suburbs for urban neighborhoods in the 1990s and 2000s. That return was buoyed by a new typology of development by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), an organization founded in 1993 that called for the “restoration of existing urban centers” through walkable, transit-oriented development.

As a Black urban planner currently based in Miami, Lynn Ross saw that development dynamic play out firsthand over the last two decades while working on countless housing, transportation, and public-space projects all over the country. When white urbanists tried to make decisions for cities and communities where white people were not the majority, concerns were often raised about making the project more inclusive, more equitable, or more affordable — which she says were subsequently shut down.

“A group of folks, who tend to be mostly people of color, says, ‘Wait a minute.’ Suddenly, we’re the agitators,” she says. “Who are we city-making for? These ‘experts’? Or is it the other human beings who call that place home?”

Even as urban America has seen this influx of development, transit improvements, and wealth, the situation on the ground has become markedly worse for Black residents. The socioeconomic gaps between Black and white Americans are widening in cities, from the rate of homeownership to life expectancy. Black residents are leaving many cities for more affordable suburbs, and the number of Black homeless residents has dramatically increased in many urban cores.

Plus, the organizations associated with the planning, policy, and design of cities, like CNU, the APA, and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) have remained overwhelmingly white, creating platforms and publications to elevate mostly white voices, says Justin Garrett Moore, a New York–based urban designer and APA commissioner. “I proudly identify as an urbanist, but I can see why many don’t want to be associated with the label and field that has excluded and marginalized people of color for generations,” he says. “The urbanists that we hear about, and who are regarded as important thinkers and leaders, are often white and often male. They often have Columbus-like mentalities when it comes to place and progress.”

Amina Yasin, a planner and co-chair of the Canadian Institute of Planners Social Equity Committee working in Vancouver, goes even further than that, saying that urbanism is, in many ways, a vestige of colonialism in North America that continues to exploit Black, indigenous, and other racialized urban residents. Last month, in the Vancouver publication The Tyee, Yasin, who doesn’t identify as an urbanist, wrote a scathing criticism of how the field perpetuates spatial racism: “Every planner and urbanist should consider how our history of city building has brought us to the point where Black community members are more likely to be harassed and killed in public spaces by public officials with impunity.”

Yasin says that the imperialist mentality also means white urbanists often appropriate terms, phrases, and actions from the Black culture that predates their arrival in those cities. Language that originated in Black empowerment movements — like “reclaiming streets” and “Whose streets? Our streets” — is often co-opted around what’s known as “tactical urbanism,” where urbanists make small, temporary changes to streets and sidewalks, sometimes without official permission. Yet simultaneously these projects exclude Black practitioners who are unable to engage in these types of interventions, says Yasin. “Black people could never do tactical urbanism — they could never!” she says. “I, as a planner, cannot loiter. I can’t exist in public space in the same way that a white planner can.”

The pervading whiteness of urbanism is why Chicago-based urbanist Pete Saunders has argued that Black urbanism should be a distinct practice separate from the rest of the field. He points to influential Black urbanist leaders who have shaped the discipline, from Black Urbanist writer and consultant Kristen Jeffers — who has popularized the term “friend of the city” — to Robert Sengstacke Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender, who used his newspaper to urge Black residents living in the Jim Crow–era South to move to northern U.S. cities like Chicago, sparking the Great Migration.

Working on housing projects in Chicago for 30 years, Saunders sees the starkest urbanist divide between Black communities and people who identify as yimbys, a fast-growing nationwide coalition advocating for new housing development. “You have one group saying, ‘I can’t afford to live in the neighborhood I want to live in,’” he says. “Another is saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ We have the same place being looked at through two different sets of eyes. And we need to unite them.”

Some white-centered urbanist groups are trying to bridge that gap. Last month, the Bay Area think tank SPUR challenged its members to end racism in urbanism with a call-to-action for white urbanists. San Francisco–based YIMBY Action launched a “Making Urbanism Antiracist” series, during which a recent conversation with Warren Logan, mobility director for the city of Oakland, California, ended with this question from a member of the audience: “It seems pretty clear to me that the yimby movement is centered around the white experience … Do you think that a movement like this can ever be a cross-racial coalition?”

Ross — who was the first Black employee of the APA and started the Urbanist Leaders of Color initiative in 2017 — isn’t hopeful that white-centered urbanist groups can grow to encompass Black needs. She stresses the importance of coming together outside of those institutions, which is why she helped launch BlackSpace, an urbanist collective, in 2018.

“I don’t want to come to your table,” says Ross. “The way your table is built is offensive, actually. I think you should come over here into this open space and build something new together, and continuously pass this mic around, and hear all the voices — and together we’re going to make something that is better than whatever that was. Break that table. Burn that sucker down. Then, do we even build a new table? Maybe we build a boat, because we’re all about to float away due to climate change.”

Some Black practitioners are working to dismantle the legacy of urbanism in the hopes of forging something new to rise in its place. That was the framing of the Un-Urbanist Assembly, a 23-hour “teach-in” last month hosted and organized by anthropologist and planner Destiny Thomas of the Thrivance Group.

“This is an active protest,” said Thomas during the opening session. “‘Un-urbanist’ is not just what I identify as but what I actively want to disrupt.”

During the 23 hours, more than 8,000 people joined the conversation from all over the world to discuss topics ranging from freedom of mobility to public works to neighborhood displacement. Nothing was recorded; attendees had to be present at the site of protest (although one prerecorded segment can be viewed online). In “unlearning” sessions that stretched through the night and into the next day, dozens of practitioners demonstrated how virtually every element of cities, both structural and infrastructural, have institutionalized the explicit intent of generations of white planners, architects, and engineers, as they have sought to contain, to control, and to oppress marginalized urban communities.

During one of those early morning presentations, around 2 a.m. for the West Coast attendees, transportation planner Ambar Johnson flashed a graphic familiar to many urbanists in attendance onto the screen. Hours before, it might have been viewed as a clever solution to undo an existing, problematic top-down plan. But now, it could be seen for what it is: an equally problematic top-down plan generated by the same institutional forces that can’t be fixed without overhauling the entire system. It was a map of the BeltLine.

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