Race And Urban Planning Research Paper

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In general, the term ‘race and urban planning’ refers to those aspects of urban planning which affect or are affected by the racial variety of the human condition, as this is expressed in multiracial societies. ‘Urban planning,’ also known as urban and regional planning, or as town and country planning, depending on the country of practice, helps to develop and enhance various aspects of life in human settlements. These include the location and arrangement of housing, community services, and commercial facilities, or the broader management of land use. The word ‘race’ typically refers to one of a few broad categories of humanity, such as Caucasian, Asian, or African. Although urban planning should ideally be raceneutral, in fact the racial characteristics of various populations have often affected their receipt of services, their spatial location or lack of spatial mobility, and their interaction with or participation in planning decisions. The lessons learned about how multiracial contexts affect urban planning can often be applied to contexts diversified by some other dimension, such as ethnicity, tribe, religion, or nationality.

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1. Background Of The Issue

The linkage between urban planning and race arose in several modern multiracial societies because of the obvious ways in which decision makers were using urban planning as a tool for racial oppression. The context in these early cases was one of at least one dominant and one subordinate racial group. For example, in the USA during the early part of the twentieth century, some of the first tools which professional urban planners used to regulate land use helped enforce the segregation of African American households from white households (Silver 1997). In societies characterized by colonialism, professional designers of new cities controlled by European powers made sure that the spatial arrangement of urban settlements sent at least two clear signals. The first, symbolized by grand approaches to isolated government buildings, was that the European colonial government was to be respected and feared. The second was that those sections of the city which housed Europeans were favored with higher standards of municipal services and housing than other sections set aside for ‘natives’ (Hall 1996).

As multiracial urban societies evolved during the twentieth century, many governments abandoned the purposeful isolation of supposedly subordinate racial groups through such means. Other manifestations of the problem arose, however. In the USA during the 1930s through the 1960s, some localities used programs allied with urban planning and redevelopment to isolate racial minorities, either through constructing racially segregated public housing or through selectively moving people out of and bulldozing minority neighborhoods by using federal ‘urban renewal’ funds. These activities brought mixed reactions: in only a few cases during the World War II era did civil rights organizations protest the blatantly segregationist public housing decisions, for example, which were some of the first manifestations of racism in modern public policy. Outrage over the abuses of the federal ‘urban renewal’ program, on the other hand, brought spirited protests. The public outcry over ‘urban renewal,’ which became nicknamed ‘Negro removal,’ led to significant reforms in federal policy and in local urban planning activities after the 1960s. Yet racial segregation was so entrenched in US society that it proved difficult to eliminate its many manifestations simply by changing federal and local policy making. Similarly, as colonialism withered and died, former colonies arose to govern and plan their own cities and to eliminate the most pervasive abuses of colonial urban planning. Yet in urban places they found themselves dealing with significant social divisions nonetheless, because of caste, class, ethnicity, and any number of other dimensions. Once set in place, city structure proved hard to change.

Although in most cases the purposeful use of urban planning tools to enforce racial subordination, isolation, and segregation has waned as time has passed, the problem is by no means irrelevant to the present. As we will see in the sections below, subtle exclusion still characterizes seemingly innocuous urban planning decisions in modern countries. One society that has continued, until very recently, to use overt techniques of racial oppression through urban planning is South Africa. Other examples of cities with continuing conflict over related issues include Jerusalem, Israel, and Belfast, Northern Ireland. Yet the nature of the issues has changed markedly as broader societal conditions have changed. In Johannesburg, South Africa, for example, the end of apartheid has brought the end of legally enforced spatial segregation by race, but not the end of racial segregation and uneven development. In such a case, it may be harder to address present conditions and problems with meaningful solutions than it was to operate under the pernicious but forthright apartheid.

2. Areas Of Scholarly Inquiry

Contemporary scholars of urban planning have focused on several general areas of connection between race and urban planning. Some scholarly works are connected with other more traditional social science endeavors in that they emphasize the empirical analysis of such phenomena as racial segregation. Other scholars, sometimes using qualitative or holistic methodologies such as history or case studies, document the existence of problems of racial estrangement or oppression in the context of private or public decisions concerning planning and development. Particularly valuable are those discussions which deal with the distribution of power and decision making, when urban planning is being practiced in a context of racial or other inequality.

In addition, several authors focus on specific dimensions of the problems. Certain findings which relate to land use, zoning, housing, and neighborhoods, as well as those related to services such as transportation, or to general urban conditions such as the environment, are now briefly summarized.

2.1 General Connections Between Race And Urban Planning

Several general works about urban history or urban planning history have addressed the use of planning for racial purposes through case studies or ‘stories’ about injustice or oppression. Such works have found that poor race relations have strongly influenced local development and planning policy as well as federal policies. A typical story in this tradition, for example, might trace the deleterious effects of racial conflict upon local efforts to improve one city, perhaps covering all or part of a period extending from the early twentieth century until the 1990s. Topics covered for a US scholar might include decisions about public housing and urban renewal, effects of civil rebellion or racial disorder upon inner-city redevelopment, housing discrimination, or failed attempts to stabilize neighborhoods in the context of racial change. In more recent years, issues covered might include how racial conflict bars attempts to bridge the gap between cities and suburbs in metropolitan areas, or weakens coalitions which might otherwise unify in order to revitalize neighborhoods or central business districts (Thomas 1997, Catlin 1993).

Other books in this general category document the continued existence of racial segregation, or suggest policy actions designed to lessen the effects of such segregation. More connected with the disciplinary areas of the social sciences than with urban planning, these works have nonetheless continued to have a major influence on thinking about the problems of racial separation and isolation. In some cases, recent works documenting conditions of racial and income segregation and of metropolitan fragmentation have helped heighten the dialogue about how to undertake fundamental society reforms, many of which could profoundly affect the work of urban planners. Examples include possibilities of merging racially segregated municipalities or heightening their cooperation, sharing tax bases, dispersing low-income housing, or in other ways halting or minimizing the effects of society’s tendency to disperse and separate in racially exclusionary ways (Rusk 1995, Orfield 1998).

Within this same category of ‘general’ scholarship concerning urban planning and race also belong those writings connecting issues of race and empowerment, particularly as this concerns participation in making decisions that affect the communities in which racial minorities live. In addition to the extensive literature on urban renewal which deals with this issue, a few additional works have addressed directly the problem of how racial minority communities have tried to wrestle control of their destinies from the hands of city officials. In some cases in the USA, it turns out, such minority communities have had outstanding success in doing so; one case study documents this evolution in Birmingham, Alabama, for example (Connerly and Wilson 1997). In other cases, it was federal programs from the 1960s and 1970s such as the Office of Economic Opportunity or Model Cities that led to increases in power and influence, since these programs required extensive citizen participation by low-income populations in the areas they served.

Sometimes planners in strongly segregated societies have made valiant attempts to overcome historic misuse of planning activities for purposes of subjugation, but have discovered that the issues are not so easily resolved. As apartheid has ended in South Africa, for example, attempts have been made to develop a more egalitarian approach to municipal decision making concerning planning. As a few observers have begun to document, however, the lingering effects of unequal power and unequal resources continue. The ‘deracialization’ of urban space in Cape Town led to laudable efforts to promote racial mixture in previously segregated neighborhoods. In addition, local planners sponsored public forums which tried to develop an inclusionary model for guiding decisions which would affect the future layout of residential and commercial areas. Yet the ‘forum’ approach to egalitarian decision making wrongfully assumed that all stakeholders would be included, would participate, and would have equal voice. In a society beset by profound disadvantages for people of color, such assumptions have sometimes proved premature (Watson 1998).

Where the history of racial segregation and oppression is less debilitating than in South Africa, planners in multiracial and multicultural contexts are beginning to make creative strides. Urban planners in several Canadian cities, for example, are being forced to examine the cultural and political biases inherent in a wide range of their activities. They are becoming more attentive to the need to invite participation in decision making by a wide range of racial, ethnic, and national groups, and to listen to these communities when they protest that various regulations hamper their free cultural expression. As a simple example, Chinese communities expect that their ‘shopping centers’ will meet different functions and have a different scale than would the mainstream population, which has set regulations according to European standards. As another example, many regulations concerning religious facilities assume that the building to be sited will be a church. An immigrant-rich context in which Middle Eastern Muslims are increasing in numbers has required creative flexibility concerning the need for progressive congregational growth. Small Muslim communities often start with meetings in houses which cannot therefore be strictly limited to residential use. These groups may then move to rented stores or other buildings, and then construct mosques with unique architectural features not allowed by regulations designed only for Christian churches (Qadeer 1997).

2.2 Land Use And Zoning

Relevant research in this area documents the fact that land use and zoning decision making in cities, towns, and suburban areas routinely excludes people on the basis of socioeconomic status or race. While in decades past exclusion specifically focused on race, more modern and subtle versions keep people out through informal means, or through socioeconomic exclusion. An example would be zoning ordinances which exclude low-income or multifamily housing from well-to-do suburbs. The general term for such discriminatory action is exclusionary zoning. In metropolitan areas in which low-income racial minorities are isolated and segregated, such action may have much the same effect as would zoning exclusions based on racial characteristics, which are now, in most places, illegal.

A related phenomenon is expulsive zoning. This refers to the practice of using minority neighborhoods as dumping grounds for Locally Unwanted Land Use (known in planning circles by the acronym LULU, or as a NIMBY, which stands for ‘Not In My Back Yard’). Examples of such uses are landfills, transfer stations, and inappropriately large concentrations of group homes for people with chemical dependencies. Localities often accomplish unfair concentrations of LULUs by granting inappropriate variances, conditional use permits, or spot zonings in residentially zoned low-income minority neighborhoods. These actions effectively ‘expel’ residential use and residents from an area and lower the property values of the remaining residences (Rabin 1989).

In many cities, residential minority neighborhoods (often stable living environments for most of their history) are also externally controlled by the fact that, years ago, they were zoned for commercial or industrial use. When in order to maintain stability they attempt to seek a less intense, residential classification, which is known as downzoning, such neighborhoods may be rebuffed because of their history, minority status, or lack of power within the political arena. Zoning also controls aspects of the accessibility and availability of childcare, elder care, and other services needed to maintain neighborhood livability.

In the USA, one drawback to effective action is that the federal Supreme Court, in a long series of cases, has made it clear that socioeconomic exclusion through zoning will not be substantively challenged from the courts. Yet seemingly innocuous opposition to subsidized or low-or moderate-income housing in towns or suburban communities may indeed have enormous racial implications. The failure to grant standing (the ability to be heard as a substantive party in court cases) to several low-income plaintiffs who wished to press for approval of affordable housing in suburban communities has effectively shut off an important route to access to suburban housing for inner-city minorities. Extensive surveys of zoning ordinances show that many local communities discriminate, through seemingly innocuous means, against ‘nontraditional’ families, such as single female-headed families or extended families which choose to live together to reduce expenses. Such means may include strict zoning definitions of family, barring nonrelated family groupings or extended families from residential areas zoned for single-family housing, or placing limitations on home-based occupations, meaning that low-income residents cannot legally support themselves or supplement their incomes by opening up home businesses (Ritzdorf 1997).

2.3 Housing, Neighborhoods, Mortgage Lending

Yet another area of concern focuses on the effects of continued racial segregation in residential markets, and of discrimination among lending institutions, both of which can have a marked effect on the nature, stability, and viability of urban neighborhoods. To some extent it has been necessary to document the problem, since it has not always been accepted that discrimination among lenders existed, or that segregation in housing was anything but good business practice. The problem of segregation itself is largely the purview of sociologists and geographers, and three particularly influential urban scholars in the contemporary USA are Douglas Massey, Nancy Denton, and William Julius Wilson. They have clearly documented the fact that racial segregation has continued to be a problem in the last half of the twentieth century, and has had profound effects in reducing opportunity, shaping city growth, and crippling several generations of black youth (Wilson 1996, Massey and Denton 1993). Several good works have also documented continuing problems over equitable treatment for racial minorities in obtaining money for buying, rehabilitating, or insuring their homes and their other property (Squires 1997, Yinger 1995).

These issues are particularly important to planners because, with racially skewed housing markets, it becomes very difficult for planners or other local decision makers to trust private housing markets to supplement public investments. Yet no country has sufficient public investment money to reshape urban areas without significant support by the private sector. Neither can planners undertake lasting reforms via neighborhood revitalization if the population is in constant turmoil because of racial change. This is particularly a problem in the USA, which is characterized by extensive decentralization of middle-class populations to racially homogeneous suburbs. When neighborhoods in multiracial societies become identified exclusively with the subordinate class, it becomes very difficult to market them as viable places to live for a wide variety of people. Only in a few cases have US scholars been able to discover means of stabilizing such communities, such as using fair housing initiatives—that is, initiatives designed to promote residential decisions based on the principles of free access for racial minorities—and purposeful efforts to convince home buyers of one race to move to residential neighborhoods populated by another race. Cleveland, Ohio, is one US metropolitan area that has attempted to promote a proactive agenda of this nature. Observers have found, however, that the private housing market will resist policies designed to remedy racial imbalances unless these are supported by home buyers, renters, politicians, realtors, financial institutions, and insurers. Only in a few metropolitan areas have prointegrative efforts by several local organizations and governments resulted in neighborhoods characterized by long-term racial diversity, however (Keating 1994).

The other side of coin is that in some national communities, diversity of neighborhoods is a sign of healthy diversity of cultural choice, rather than of a history of exclusionary discrimination. Again, the example of Canadian cities offers some insight into the implications of such variety for the activities which urban planners undertake (Qadeer 1997). In such cases, the challenges are to remove the last vestiges of policies based on the unconscious assumption that dominant cultural values rule the world, and to begin to allow for a multitude of life-styles and cultural expressions.

A related concept concerns community development, which refers to the purposeful improvement of residential communities using, in part, the participatory involvement of community residents. Given the previous discussions on segregation and on empowerment, it is fitting to note that in some cases isolated minority communities have been able to use tools of urban development and of urban planning to improve their own conditions. Several observers have offered inspiring case studies of successful attempts by African American communities to overcome the handicaps of race and class in order to create viable living spaces (Leavitt and Saegert 1989, McDougall 1993).

2.4 Transportation And Environment

Several other aspects of urban life can also relate to issues of race. Two are briefly mentioned here: transportation and the environment. Examples related to transportation, would be the negative effects of highway construction policies upon the viability of minority neighborhoods, or the problem of lack of accessibility to means of transportation by racial minorities (Bullard and Johnson 1997). This problem is also evident in several historical case studies of African American community life, since federal highway legislation functioned much as redevelopment legislation did in the physical clearance of African American neighborhoods.

A major race-related issue of concern to planners is the disproportionately negative impact that environ- mental pollutants have upon racial minorities. Reference was made earlier to expulsionary zoning (see Sect. 2.2), indicating some of the problems that can arise. Examples of such problem areas include the siting of regular and hazardous waste landfills in minority neighborhoods, the prevalence of lead poisoning in minority housing, and the consumption by indigenous hunters and fishers of fish and wildlife contaminated by harmful substances. Social scientists have helped to document the extent of the problem, and have joined with civil rights and other groups to examine the racial implications of such cases (Bullard 1994). One of the claims among activists in the USA is that environmental pollution disproportionately affects people of color, and negatively impacts their health and well-being. Another key concern is that the mainstream environmental movement has largely ignored these racial issues. Recent environmental justice initiatives, however, have forced the environmental movement to become more inclusive. Environmental racism is an important phenomenon for urban planners because of their role in helping to determine land uses, including the location of landfills and heavy industry, and the reclamation of environmentally contaminated land for urban redevelopment projects.

3. Responses To Racial Inequality And Injustice

Urban planners and urban planning scholars have reacted in several ways to the continued problems related to the connections between racial injustice and urban planning. Scott Bollens has offered a typology of responses that is useful as a framework for discussion (Bollens 1988).

The first possible response by an urban planner is to side with the status quo in the name of objectivity, even in the face of blatant inequities. The urban planner or urban planning policy is supposedly ‘neutral,’ but in fact reinforces the dominant race’s position. Such a ‘neutral’ planner may refuse to acknowledge or address issues of segregation, estrangement, or polarization. This approach is sometimes associated with so-called ‘technical’ planners, who prefer to focus on the technical, non-social aspects of their work without dealing with social problems. The shield, under such circumstances, is that urban planning is a professional exercise not involved with politics or with issues of social justice. This particular attitude is not uncommon among professionals, and may indeed be relatively harmless. It is not so harmless when exemplified by planners in racially conflicted situations, particularly when those planners are members of the dominant race or ethnic group, or support that dominant group to the exclusion of their own. The claim that the planner is ‘color-blind,’ in such cases, may be only a poor excuse for collaboration with systematic injustice.

A second set of responses might be called ‘partisan.’ Under such a situation, racial inequality and injustice are obvious, but the planner rejects the concerns of the powerless group and sides with the powerful one. The city’s government leaders view neighborhoods and policies through a lens colored by race, and the interests of the dominant group—to exclude, isolate, and perhaps even oppress the subordinate group —become the norm for professional urban planners. As the political leaders set the policies, the urban planners carry them out, even in the face of blatant favoritism or discrimination. Bollens offers several examples from South Africa, but also notes the same syndrome in Jerusalem, where the systematic and purposeful isolation of Arab neighborhoods has gained the force of righteousness, even though it is, in many cases, patently unjust. As Bollens notes, somehow many local urban planners have been able to function without any noticeable discomfort about the obvious partisanship of their actions.

A third category attempts to reduce inequalities between groups, sometimes through remedial action for the oppressed group. Many US urban planners consider the equity planning movement to be one of their most important responses to the racial crisis in America’s cities. According to its advocates, equity planning offers a reasoned and practical response to the crisis of local policy caused by racial segregation and poverty in America’s cities. That is, urban planners (and by implication other urban professionals) are not bound by the confines of their municipal jobs to an endless cycle of repression or inattention toward the disadvantaged. Instead, urban planners can and do arise above the limitations of government bureaucracy, and pursue redevelopment and other local policies to channel direct benefits to people hindered by race or socioeconomic status. Several key authors explicitly address the important role of race in helping to create the unjust conditions to which equity planners must respond (Krumholz and Forester 1990).

Finally, Bollens refers to ‘a resolver strategy,’ which he indicates extends beyond equity planning. A resolver approach attempts to address the root causes of power imbalances, competition among racial and ethnic groups, and disempowerment. It then aims to confront the status quo and profoundly transform the system. Although this approach is in some ways simply a more impassioned form of equity planning, it also has broader implications in countries such as South Africa. There, for example, ‘resolvers’ have come forward who have begun to carry out development planning that differs markedly from traditional urban planning activities, which favored white areas and white concepts even after apartheid. Development planning, in contrast, more fully integrates spatial planning with social and economic planning than did traditional urban planning; it restructures policy directions by cutting across traditional departments and governments; and, perhaps most importantly, it includes ‘a participatory process aimed at empowering the poor and marginalized.’ It also happens to involve more members of the victim class as professional planners than was previously the case.

That the urban planning profession maintains an ongoing dialogue about this and other approaches to resolving racial injustice is a healthy sign. Although many societies remain severely fragmented and alienated by race, the situation is open to proactive efforts to improve existing conditions. As larger societies become more comfortable with multiracialism and with multiculturalism, urban planning as a field can and will adjust.


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