In 2015, I co-edited The Just City Essays, 26 Visions for Urban Equity, Inclusion and Opportunity. In the volume, we cited that “the persistence of injustice in the world’s cities – dramatic inequality, unequal environmental burdens and risks, and uneven access to opportunity” demanded a sharp dialogue about solutions that might lead towards great urban justice – the Just City. We asked 24 global urbanists to describe what would a just city look like and what would it take to achieve a just city. Their provocations represented 22 different cities across five countries, and cited both common trends of injustice, as well as place-specific aspects of justice unique to their unique set of political, economic and urban form conditions.
The essays confirmed that place matters – the set of urban conditions that affect how space is arranged, how decisions about resources are made, and how inhabitants of the city occupy space and enact their rights. In my essay, “Defining the Just City Beyond Black and White”, I cite how growing up in segregated Chicago colored how I came to understand how cities work and for who. Referencing my experience as an architect, urban designer and now professor of urban planning, I also identified what I thought were three urban conditions that set the context for urban injustice in many US cities. The first was racial segregation; the second was disinvestment, crime and the architecture of fear; and the third was socioeconomic division. These conditions remain active, and in some cities, are becoming more amplified 50 years later.
I went on in the essay to propose a definition for the Just City designed to create greater opportunities for those most affected by the conditions of injustice – to put the “least-not” in a position to access the opportunities, tools, networks and capital that allow them to thrive, excel and “advance through the ranks of social and economic mobility”. I suggested that our work as designers and planers should be rooted in a values-based approach, where the intention to create the Just City prioritizes a moral obligation – akin to Dr. Martin Luther King’s notion of “the beloved community” rather than only spatial and aesthetic outcomes. The initial set of values that defined my Just City included:
Equity - The distribution of material and non-material goods in a manner that brings the greatest benefit required to any particular community.
Choice - The ability for any and all communities to make selections among a variety of options including places, programs, amenities, decisions.
Access - Convenient proximity to, presence of, and/or connectivity to basic needs, quality amenities, choices, opportunities and decisions
Connectivity - A social or spatial network tying people and places together, providing access and opportunity for all
Ownership - The ability to have a stake in a process, outcome, or material good, such as property
Diversity - Acceptance of different programs, people, and cultural norms in the built environment and decision-making processes
Participation - The requirement and acceptance of different voices and the active engagement of both individuals and communities in matters affecting social and spatial well-being
Inclusion and Belonging - The acceptance of difference, the intention to involve diverse opinions, attitudes and behaviors, and the ability of spaces to engender integration, fellowship and safety
Beauty - Everyone’s right to well made, well designed environments
Creative innovation - Nurturing ingenuity in problem solving and interventions that improve place
Reflecting on this essay two years later and in the wake of significant political shifts, acts of violence, civic protests, and legislative pivots that have polarized our nation’s citizenry, I feel the need to sharpen my list of urban conditions that challenge our quest for the Just City. While I was candid in my admission that race, specifically the dynamic between black and white Americans, biases how I interpret cities, I now believe it important to be less focused on the policy trends that have shaped injustice and instead turn to the cultural, political, and interpersonal trends that also influence unjust, race-based policy and practice - because race is still a contributing factor and barrier to the pursuit of the Just City.
On a summer weekend in August 2017, a battle about race, space and played out on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. The debate began about the representation of they city’s race history in the public realm - who’s interpretation of history should be represented and where; who’s victory or defeat takes precedent; and how to represent our shared history in a manner that is authentic and balanced, honoring both triumph and the agony.
The battle for whose identity, truth, power and voice should be respected, accepted and heard in the context of our country’s racial division is central to the quest for the Just City. In Charlottesville we witnessed the battle for two different ideas about what is just. White Nationalists felt their power and dominance being stripped by the removal of a public symbol, and African Americans and allied progressives felt their voice (and pain) being diminished by retaining such symbols in public space. So who is the Just City for and who gets to decide?
This flashpoint, together with a growing number of events, including the campaign and election of Donald J. Trump, have brought a spotlight on how divided we remain as a country. We remain divided by geography (urban, suburban, rural, red/blue states); divided by race and class; divided by gender and sexuality; divided by generational culture. If nothing else, this election taught me that there are people and cultural ideals in this country that I do not understand, and it is the lack of understanding and interaction with people of difference that impedes our quest to find common ground and tackle the issues of race.
Now some argue that people of color too often use race as an excuse given the removal of (most) legal barriers to equal opportunity. I grapple with this because I want to believe it is true – at least I did when I was a young, post civil rights professional that believed in meritocracy. As a young black woman, I did not want being a “black woman” to ever be the reason why things did not go my way. But I was young, and did not yet have a full understanding about how both formal and informal systems of power, access and privilege are structured along racial lines, some intentional and some by indifference. Racial lines continue to divide people and neighborhoods in our cities (especially whites who tend to be the most segregated from people of color), slowing our ability to make radical and equitable advancements towards greater urban justice. In this article, I’d like to highlight four racial divides we must pay closer attention to and lend more resources to address:
Social Divides: Institutional Racism, Popular Culture and the Myth of Being Post Racial
Power Divides: Diverse Leadership, Networks and Access to Economic Opportunity
Economic Divides: Gentrification, Ownership and the Loss of Culture
Capacity Divides: Public Funding, Private Capital and the Narrative of Winners and Losers
1. Social Divides: Institutional Racism, Popular Culture and the Promise of Myth of Being Post Racial
“Racial segregation in housing was not merely a project of southerners in the former slaveholding Confederacy. It was a nationwide project of the federal government in the 20th century designed and implemented by its most liberal leaders. Our system of official segregation was not the result of a single law that consigned African Americans to designated neighborhoods. Rather, scores of racially explicit laws, regulations and government practices combined to create a nationwide system of urban ghettos, surrounded by white suburbs.”
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard, Rothstein, 2017
The first challenge I would like to present is how our legacy of spatial divided spaces deepens our social divides. The conditions that created racial segregation in this country are well documented. Early 20th century federal policies (Housing Act of 1949 and 1956, Federal Highways Act 1956) laid the groundwork for separating black and white residential neighborhoods and initiating the first exodus of urban dwellers to the suburbs. Similarly, financing and real estate practices facilitated racial discrimination in residential and business lending (redlining, restrictive covenants) as a way to further divide communities by race. During the 1970’s and 1980’s the businesses where city residents worked and shopped left the city limits for the cheaper and less dense suburbs, further emptying out the city and leaving those black neighborhoods already segregated by race and economic investment rooted in poverty and blight for decades.
Joe Cortright and Dillon Mahmoudi’s 2014 “Lost in Place” report highlights that only 100 out of 1,100 urban areas saw reductions in poverty levels (and subsequent racial desegregation) between 1970-2010, a reminder that we should be more focused on why the remaining 1,000 urban areas and its residents are no richer or less segregated than they were 40 years ago. Today when looking at the racial population distribution of US cities through racial dot mapping, many cities show distinct racial division, despite some of the same cities becoming more racially diverse by the numbers. Under these conditions, there should be little surprise that the opportunities for stronger social capital and network-building across racial, economic and social lines is infrequent, and for some communities, nonexistent.
In August 2014 the online publication TakePart, published an article by Britni Danielle in revealing that we are far from post racial. She writes,
“A collective gasp of surprise went up this week after the Public Religion Research Institute released new survey data that found that 75 percent of white Americans have "entirely white social networks." Yet our popular culture, the 800-percent rise in hate groups, the woefully homogenous workplaces at companies such as Google, an ever-widening wealth gap, and neighborhoods still segregated along racial lines should make it obvious that the post-racial promised land heralded when President Obama was first elected does not exist.”
The article exposes that the vast majority of Americans have racially segregated networks, suggesting that outside of the workplace or college classroom, adults are unlikely to have social friendships and networks that include people of other races or nationalities. The study found that 91 percent white Americans have white social networks, while 83 percent of black Americans had black social networks. Eight percent of blacks had white networks and both races had five percent other race social networks.
I believe that our access to the Internet and its platforms for acquiring knowledge and forming relationships across geographic and social boundaries is tricking us into thinking we are post-racial, and therefore living in a more integrated and inclusive society. The Internet has expanded our access to information about people and places we may never meet or visit in person. The way we share information, establish virtual relationships, appropriate and mimic popular cultures, and digitally communicate in real time, has eliminated physical boundaries as a barrier to engagement. Research is beginning to show that these interracial experiences may not be translating into meaningful relationships that are mutually supportive and empathetic, where the goal is not assimilation, but an authentic valuing of difference.
How we get to know one another is crucial to overcoming racial divides and biases. The TakePart article also quotes David J. Leonard, an Associate Professor of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race at Washington State University as saying,
“Implicit biases and stereotypes shape friendships, and if we look at media, if we look at popular culture, if we look at education, we see a persistence in the circulation of stereotypes that recycle prejudices. Those assumptions about difference shape friendships and invariably impact how white people interact with African Americans. Socializing in homogenous networks and communities affects white people’s ability to be empathetic to the struggles their contemporaries of another color face. It also increases the likelihood that white Americans will view their minority counterparts through a stereotypical lens.
To begin bridging the gap that may lead to more cross-cultural friendships down the line, Leonard argues the route is simple: People have to talk to each other, and white folks have to own their privilege. “Whites rarely have the opportunity to talk about race, to be held accountable for privilege, and to have important conversations,” he says. Lacking the language to talk about race and to engage cross-racially will impact white people’s ability and willingness to develop these friendships.”
To build on Leonard’s point, I maintain that face-to-face engagement in the spaces of our communities, not just online, is still essential for building relationships that further understanding, appreciation, respect and empathy for those different from ourselves.
2. Power Divides: Diverse Leadership, Networks and Access to Economic Opportunity
One of my first meetings in Detroit in 2011, as we began to construct what became known as Detroit Future City, was with a group of Executive Directors representing the city’s community development corporations (CDCs). There were at least 20 people in the room representing some of Detroit’s most vulnerable, and predominately African American neighborhoods. As I sat listening to each director describe the challenges of neighborhood stabilization and improvement in their community, I could not help but notice that all but two representatives at the table were White. In a city with 82% African American population, I wondered why there were not more African American leaders at the table? How did these directors come to assume leadership positions in neighborhoods that did not represent their own racial backgrounds?
The second challenge I would like to discuss concerns the racial divides within leadership structures and the impact on economic inclusion for people of color. The example above illustrates a condition I find in many cities, where the composition of civic leadership does not reflect the diversity of the community it represents. The lack of diversity within the power structures that shape our cities and neighborhoods exists across all sectors – government, business, philanthropy, and institutions.
To be clear, there are many well-intentioned and effective folks in leadership positions that are not people of color. However, the absence of people of color at the table, contributing their knowledge and lived experience, leaves room to overlook both culturally specific issues and solutions. I typically find very few people of color seated at the city’s “established” civic leadership table, where decisions about investment, resource allocation and partnerships are made. We should question whether or not this absence is due to 1) a lack of competency, 2) too few people of color in the professions that shape urban policy and development, or 3) the limited composition of our networks to identify, legitimizes and then elevates people of color to join the leadership tables.
Most of my urban planning work is based in the contested cities of the Northeast and South, and Legacy Cities in the Midwest. My first task is to assemble a diverse client group, inclusive across race, gender, age, discipline and economic status. I aim to combine the established leadership, typically white with the exception of elected officials, with grassroots leaders, typically people of color and includes prominent (and older) religious leaders, community development directors and social service advocates. There is always a moment in this process when I am in a room with white leaders attempting to assemble a list of “suitable” African American and Hispanic leaders. In recent conversations, the conversation also includes attempts to include the new class of grassroots activists who are post-recession millenials that are technology based and less formal. Both members of racial and generational groups must meet certain standards of legitimacy and agency to be considered eligible for a seat at the leadership table. The irony is the nature of my urban planning work with these clients groups is to tackle the urban issues that always disproportionately affect people of color.
Maintaining segregated grasstops and grassroots structures furthers a power hierarchy rather than a platform for power sharing. The group that “convenes” is the group that gets to set the table, using their standards and intentions for inclusion, equity and ownership. Members selected for the group can only come from the reach of the convener’s existing networks. It might also stand to reason that these same networks also impact how people of color ultimately benefit of the outcomes of the planning process. Nancy DiTomaso, the Vice Dean for Faculty and Research and a Professor of Management and Global Business at Rutgers Business School, and author of “The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism believes that we are a society that prioritizes helping its own, despite our multi-cultural experiences. In her New York Times article, she writes, “Whites help other whites, especially when unemployment is high”. She goes on to write,
“Help is not given to just anyone, nor is it available from everyone. Inequality reproduces itself because help is typically reserved for people who are “like me”: the people who live in my neighborhood, those who attend my church or school or those with whom I have worked in the past. It is only natural that when there are jobs to be had, people who know about them will tell the people who are close to them, those with whom they identify, and those who at some point can reciprocate the favor.”
The intention of realizing measureable economic inclusion for people of color begins with acknowledging that diversity and inclusion begins with creating diverse and inclusive leadership tables. To do so, the reach of our networks and the metrics of legitimacy must be expanded to include acceptance of diverse points of view, levels of expertise and access to those who are closer to the ground of the communities we seek to improve.
3. Economic Divides: Gentrification, Ownership and the Loss of Culture
“…my favorite image [of gentrifying Harlem] is a block of Lenox Avenue, between 125th-126th, that includes a bustling check cashing storefront, an African hair braiding shop and a French bistro, sandwiched between celebrity chef, Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster restaurant and Magic Johnson's first Starbucks franchise…this represents a perfect blend of affordability, multiculturalism, mainstream commerce and local entrepreneurial participation. But, it also depicts the vulnerabilities implicit in gentrification – what will it take to ensure that the commercial tenants serving lower income populations can withstand the rent increases brought on by the tastes and spending power of the emerging class.”
Confessions of a Gentrifier: Choices, Conflicts and Contradictions, Toni L. Griffin, Huffington Post Article, January 26, 2015
The third challenge I would like to discuss is about the economic divides that leave long time residents vulnerable to the negative effects of gentrification. Gentrification is often cited as the great disruptor of urban neighborhoods, bringing new investment and physical improvements that raise property values, rents that result in changing racial and income demographics. Gentrification is also known to dislocate any resident or business that is not capable of keeping up with the new “Joneses”. I believe there are three factors that make these residents and businesses vulnerable to the changes gentrification.
The first vulnerability is a lack of ownership and access to capital and capital networks. Most often, the appropriation of undervalued real estate in communities of color by new white residents signals to the market that an area is safe to invest in. This is essentially what many believe is the essential definition of gentrification – richer white bodies replacing poorer black bodies and as a result, elevating the value of a neighborhood as if it were newly discovered territory. To the longstanding African American and Hispanic residents, this trend signals that the influx of the wealthier white body is a more valuable consumer, and therefore more deserving of quality amenities, services and “designed” spaces. A deep inferiority complex has set in for many living in chronically underinvested neighborhoods, making it easy to understand their resentment when change occurs and does not accommodate their needs, interests or aesthetics. I was once in a community meeting in Washington, DC about a HOPE VI redevelopment project where a public housing resident shouted “those houses ain’t for us” upon viewing a rendering of new urbanism style townhomes designed to replace the existing, more institutional high rise buildings.
Residential gentrification can reduce the affordable housing stock, pushing working class and low income populations out the neighborhood, and in some cases, further away for from the center city and the core of employment. In gentrifying neighborhoods, housing stock is altered either by rehabilitation of abandoned homes or conversions to residential; conversions from rental and condominiums; and/or rental landlords increasing rents to align with increased property values and market trends. Longstanding poorer residents are often not in a financial position to participate in the upside of this neighborhood change. According to the article, Understanding Homeownership Disparities Among Racial and Ethnic Groups, by Dr. Kim Skobba, Associate Professor at University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Services, the disparity in home ownership between whites and non-whites is known as the “home ownership gap”. Her article goes on to cite that the nationwide home ownership rate is 72%, but for people of color, the average home ownership rate is only 46.2%, resulting in a national 25% home ownership gap. The article goes on to cite the reasons for the gap often include lack of family wealth and assets; discriminatory lending practices; credit histories and attitudes about financial institutions; household composition; income; and ability to maintain ownership over time.
A second vulnerability longstanding residents and businesses face is the rising cost of the new goods and services that move into the neighborhood and escalating commercial rents. Again, the lack of property ownership, as well as the lower percentage of businesses owned by people of color creates another obstacle when trying to maintain racial and economic diversity in a gentrifying neighborhood. In a 2009 article in Entrepreneur.com magazine, guest writer Jennifer Wang references , Race and Entrepreneurial Success, published last year by University of California, Santa Cruz economics professor Rob Fairlie and research associate Alicia Robb, and cites,
“They analyzed confidential data from the U.S. Census Bureau to paint a comprehensive picture of minority business ownership, and the results, at least for black entrepreneurship, are bleak. Overall, the number of black business owners is far lower than the national average, and their businesses also "tend to have lower sales, fewer employees and smaller payrolls, lower profits, and higher closure rates."
The culprit, says Fairlie, is a low level of personal wealth, which translates into limited access to startup capital, and ultimately puts a stopper on the accumulation and transfer of riches to the next generation. Nearly half of all black families possess combined assets of less than $6,200--roughly one-eleventh the median for white families, he points out.”
However there is good news - between 2002-2007, African American businesses grew by 60%, three times the national average, and grew again by approximately 4.9% in 2015 according to the US Census. Continued growth presents an important opportunity for offsetting some of the negative impacts of gentrification.
The third vulnerability I would like to surface is the loss of cultural identity. We often do not talk about the sociocultural reasons dislocation occurs as a result of gentrification. In the book, Gentrifier, by John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch and Marc Lamont Hill, they recount a conversation with a local Harlem street vendor who cites, “we lived through all the ‘de-‘ events, working to keep the neighborhood intact, and here you come in during the ‘re-‘ events acting like the community just began around you”. (‘De-‘ refers to the conditions that set the stage for gentrification and its negative impacts, while ‘Re-‘ refers to the positive affects of gentrification.) Other accounts in this book, as well as in Japonica Brown Saracino book, The Gentrification Debates describe how some African American residents in Harlem felt pushed out not because they can not longer afford to live there, but instead because they feel the cultural, social and physical form of the neighborhood is eroding – the very thing that made the neighborhood attractive and valuable to them.
These vulnerabilities illustrate some of the biggest challenges that require remedies to break down race-based practices as well as approaches that elevate and preserve the value and ownership of a neighborhood’s culture, traditions and aesthetics.
4. Capacity Divides: Public Funding, Private Capital and the Narrative of Winners and Losers
In 2010, Dateline NBC did a television special on Detroit. The interviewer asked then Mayor Dave Bing about the city’s continued population loss and fiscal challenges. When asked about shrinking the city, he said (as quoted in an April 19, 2019 MLive news article) ”the city absolutely could go broke, and Detroit has to be strategic about what neighborhoods it will save and which it will let go”. Throughout the year, the Mayor was criticized for using terms like “winners and losers” and “downsizing”, inciting fear in local residents, many who still had fresh memories of urban renewal and the disruption of long standing African American neighborhoods. On December 9th of that same year, a “Downsizing Detroit” headline appeared in the Detroit Free Press, again quoting the Mayor and his intention to shrink communities into 7-9 neighborhoods. There simply was not enough public resource to adequately maintain city services and manage blight equitably across 139 square miles.
My fourth and final urban challenge regards the shrinking of public resources to support the public good across all communities. Unless you reside in a city with a thriving economy and growing population, the sources of revenue to support city services and public amenities are limited and overextended. In 2013, Detroit was the poster child for a collapsed municipal fiscal system resulting from decades of population and job loss, a growing portfolio of vacant land, radical decreases in collected revenues and fees, and deferred maintenance. At that time, no US city wanted to be compared to Detroit, despite the fact that there were close to fifty US “legacy cities” suffering from the same physical and demographic conditions.
Before, during and since our comprehensive planning efforts to address Detroit’s decline and plot its future transformation, the philanthropic and business sectors have stepped in to envision and support the city’s recovery. Investments include a new public transit light rail line, reclamation of the Detroit riverfront, a community revitalization fellow program that places young talent into existing organizations, a citywide strategic planning process, and the infamous “grand bargain”, the $816 million philanthropic donation to prohibit the sale of city-owned artwork to help pay off debt, pension payments and satisfy creditors. Detroit represents an example of a kind of muscular private and philanthropic investment for the public good in a time of crisis. But more cities are becoming reliant on this kind of capital to help support everyday functions as well as taking roles in leading and executing transformative planning and revitalization at the city scale. The need for this kind of capital and public-private partnerships has become a requirement for how civic leaders seek to stabilize, improve and transform their cities.
In New York City for example, the Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) partnered with community organizations to create new public plazas in neighborhoods lacking open space across the city. The program was started in 2008 with the flagship “Greenlight for Midtown” projects along Broadway, the most notable space being Times Square. In 2009, the program expanded citywide and community groups could apply to the NYC DOT for funding by demonstrating local support and the ability to maintain and operate the space. The plaza program received funding from PlaNYC 2030, NYC’s long-range plan released in 2007 to cover initial implementation and furnishings by the NYC DOT. Community organizations are then responsible for ongoing maintenance and operational costs.
In 2015, I co-authored the report, Public Life and Urban Justice in NYC Plazas, the culmination of an 18 month collaboration between Gehl Studio, the J. Max Bond Center and Transportation Alternatives to develop, investigate, measure and evaluate how New York City’s Public Plaza Program and seven of its recently implemented plazas contribute to quality public life and greater social justice. We developed a value-based indicator framework using my ten Just city values and 74 distinct metrics designed to not only understand traditional economic measures of success, but the ways in which the design, design process and ongoing management of these spaces facilitates greater urban justice. One of the most compelling and hardest indicators to measure was the presence of equity among the plazas. The study showed that there was equitable distribution of initial capital resources, increased neighborhood access to open space, and that users of the plaza seemed to equitably mirror the population of the local neighborhood. However, there was less than equitable funding for ongoing maintenance, management and programming, which was directly related to the overall wealth of the plaza neighborhood. Specifically, the Manhattan plazas in the Meatpacking and Flatiron districts had the benefit of nonprofit management entities well capitalized by adjacent high end businesses and wealthier property owners, while some of the Brooklyn and Queens plaza managers struggled to access the resources necessary to keep the plazas well maintained, let alone activate them with programming.
The public sector and community-based organizations have become more reliant on the private and philanthropic sectors leadership and financial support to maintain and elevate the public good. As described in the previous section, communities of color have a more difficult time accessing capital and partnerships within their existing networks and in neighborhoods where the incoming gentry does not participate in community-building efforts. Building capacity within organizations serving communities of color, as well as within a community’s informal structures of social capital is necessary to both harness more resources within and outside the community’s existing networks.