There’s No Such Thing as a Dangerous Neighborhood. Most serious urban violence is concentrated among less than 1 percent of a city’s population. So why are we still criminalizing whole areas? (Stephen Lurie, CityLab) On the other hand, a study in 2019 (abstract only) shows that growing up in an affluent community brings “compounding privileges” and higher educational attainment—especially for white residents. (Tanvi Misra, CityLab)
America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress. Architects and planners have an obligation to protect health, safety and welfare through the spaces we design. As the George Floyd protests reveal, we’ve failed. (Bryan Lee Jr., architect and design justice advocate, CityLab)
For nearly every injustice in the world, there is an architecture that has been planned and designed to perpetuate it. That’s a key principle of the Design Justice movement, upon which I base my practice. Design Justice seeks to dismantle the privilege and power structures that use architecture as a tool of oppression and sees it as an opportunity to envision radically just spaces centered on the liberation of disinherited communities.
That built-in oppression takes many forms. It’s in the planning decisions that target non-white communities for highway projects and “urban renewal” schemes conceived to steer economic benefits away from existing residents. It’s in a design philosophy that turned neighborhoods into mazes of “defensible space” that often criminalize blackness under the guise of safety. And it’s in the proliferation of public spaces that often fail to let certain cultural communities congregate without fear of harassment.
This moment, like so many others, rose out of the state-sanctioned murder of black people. It emerged from the killing of George Floyd, and Tony McDade, before that, Breonna Taylor, before that Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. It grew out of the specter of impending violence that follows black and brown people daily. And it grew out of the apathy of this nation toward a black community so profoundly sickened by our built environment that a global pandemic disproportionately impacts us.
Rebellion is a response to a prolonged dehumanization of a people unwilling to be participants in their own demise; it is often the soft power of the built environment that provides the preconditions for that dehumanization and the atrocities that follow.
‘Safe Streets’ Are Not Safe for Black Lives. (Destiny Thomas, anthropologist and transportation planner, CityLab)
This spring, a pandemic cleared cars from the streets. Many U.S. cities seized the moment by announcing new bike lanes and networks of “slow streets” that limit vehicle traffic. It is a transportation planner’s dream to hear that thousands of miles of streets are being reorganized to make room for more walking, biking and playing.
But to me, as a Black planner and community organizer, the lack of process and participatory decision-making behind these projects was an absolute nightmare. Pop-up bike lanes, guerrilla-urbanist playgrounds, and tactical walkways have been notorious for being politically crude for as long as I’ve been in the field: By design, their “quick-build” nature overrides the public feedback that is necessary for deep community support. Without that genuine engagement, I feared that pandemic-induced pedestrian street redesigns would deepen inequity and mistrust in communities that have been disenfranchised and underserved for generations.
Why Race Matters in Planning Public Parks. A major overhaul of a huge Houston park reveals disparities in what white, black, and Latino residents want—and need. (Brentin Mock, CityLab, 2016)
Houston is embarking upon a $220 million parks project called Bayou Greenways 2020, a 150-mile network of continuous hiking trails, biking paths, and green space that will run throughout the city. When completed in 2020, it will make good on plans made by the urban planner Arthur Comey in 1912 to connect the city’s parks with the many strips of bayous scratching open the Houston landscape. Residents approved by ballot referendum a $166 million bond in 2012 to pay for the Bayou Greenways 2020 project, and for improvements to the near-50,000 acres of park space in the city. The goal is to connect the area’s bayous and parks to neighborhoods spanning the region.
While this connectivity is the stated priority for this massive parks overhaul, not everyone in Houston is feeling it. In fact, connectivity seems to matter most only to Houston’s whiter and wealthier residents. When the city’s parks and recreation department conducted its Master Plan Parks Survey in 2014, the majority of respondents replied that they wanted their neighborhoods and parks linked to biking and walking paths. The problem with that survey is that about two-thirds of the respondents were white with household incomes over $75,000. This is clearly not a good starting point for Houston, one of the most racially diverse, (and heavily segregated) cities in the country.
To correct this misrepresentation, a group of researchers from Rice University, conducted another survey, with the parks and rec department’s blessing (and funding!). This one was targeted at African-American and Latino neighborhoods to find out what they wanted from the new park upgrades. Lo and behold, the priorities differed from those of the initial survey. As the researchers write in the report about the surveys, “More Inclusive Parks Planning: Park Quality and Preferences for Park Access and Amenities.”
Houston’s Bayou Greenways is still proceeding, but is being followed with the more inclusive Beyond the Bayous project, which aims to make green space available to all Houstonians, so that everyone can enjoy equitable access to green spaces, according to the official Houston Parks Board website.