The goal of this literature review is to discuss the immensely adverse impacts that urban planning has embedded in Black communities across the United States, while examining the history and current context of the problem, and researching community-led responses.
It’s no secret to the profession that urban planning has had a direct hand in some of the most egregious acts of dividing people to promote inequality. Many books and university programs document the history of segregation, zoning, and government policy and its impacts on poverty and communities of color. Planning scholars and students are now taught to plan equitably, think deeper about creating environments that encourage diversity, and to serve a generally nobler cause.
What hasn’t been explored is how the profession can serve as a restorative practice to the people that it wronged the most. Throughout this review, literature will be analyzed to extract the reasons that practices of the future could and should reach deeper into the intentionality of restoration of the injustices of the past. Through accepting the responsibility of its crimes, understanding the compounding impacts that exist for African Americans today, and providing greater platforms for community-led responses to today’s complexities, the industry of urban planning can be a valuable lever to the reparations that Black communities are owed historically and currently in the United States.
A History of Urban Planning’s Most Directly Racist Practices
Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the most prolific authors of today. The Black-American journalist and writer has used his talents to explore the complexities of race relations, police brutality, and political oppression primarily regarding African Americans and their relationship to a white supremacist society (“Ta-Nehisi Coates”). In a June 2014 article called The Case for Reparations written for The Atlantic, Coates, through a series of stories extracted from interviews, documents the history of the plight of African Americans passed down for generations. Through government-backed tax schemes, intimidation, violence, and murder, Black farmers and land owners lost their most valuable possessions and tools for building generational wealth: real estate (Coates). To be more specific on the severity of this issue, more than 1,000 people were interviewed by the Associated Press, along with the examination of tens of thousands of public records, to discover 107 land thefts in 13 states, losing a combined total of more than 24,000 acres of land and city properties. Virtually all of the property, when revisited in 2001, was owned by whites or white-led corporations and was valued at tens of millions of dollars (Lewan and Barclay). This is an account of how Black people were suppressed and kept perpetually poor by not being allowed to own property lawfully. As time progressed, these blatant structural crimes became more subtle and nuanced.
In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to insure private mortgages and to positively impact interest rates for consumers, while decreasing the amount needed for down payments. It was at this time that American urban planning practices began the legal, yet unconstitutional, activities of developing a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. These maps measured the demand from the worth that an appraiser put on a property, which included a scale that increased value for the lack of “a single foreigner or Negro”. Neighborhoods with Black people received the lowest (red) rating. The social class of the Black people in the area didn’t matter, Blacks as a whole were considered as a contamination to property value. In addition to these activities, African Americans were systematically barred from securing mortgages, the greatest opportunity for wealth accumulation (Coates). This practice of redlining is well known in the urban planning profession as one of the most egregious collective actions of government, the mortgage industry, and the real estate industry.
One of the most current and exhaustive accounts of the legacy of racism in urban planning lies in The Color of Law (Rothstein), which accounts for the construction of unconstitutional systemic racism and the ways that it was supported by the government through urban planning, allowing racist real estate practices, violence, and economic racial civil warfare. Rothestein and Coates compliment each other well, as Rothstein takes dives deeper into the history of redlining and segregation, citing the beginning of the most organized efforts in the 1910s. Segregation committees were formed by the president of the American City Planning Institute, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., who went on to direct the Town Planning Division of the federal government’s housing agency that managed and built over 100,000 units of segregated housing. This pioneer of racist planning practices even stated at the 1918 National Conference on City Planning that good zoning policy had to contain racial divisions and prevent the “mingling of people who are not yet ready to mingle, and don’t want to mingle” to succeed (Rothstein). This is after the 1917 Supreme Court decision “Buchanan v. Warley”, that considered racial segregation to be unconstitutional (Capps). Influential zoning pioneers went on in the 1920s to construct the basis on preventing “the coming of colored people into a district,” which helped rapidly spread the practice and the creation of single-family districts as the nuanced concealment (Rothstein).
- Capps, Kriston. “How to Finally Break ‘the Backbone of Segregation.’” CityLab, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2017/11/breaking-the-backbone-of-segregation/544913/. Accessed 21 Nov. 2019.
- Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, no. June 2014, June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.
- Lewan, Todd, and Dolores Barclay. “‘When They Steal Your Land, They Steal Your Future.’” Los Angeles Times, 2 Dec. 2001, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2001-dec-02-mn-10514-story.html.
- “Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Wikipedia, 14 Nov. 2019. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ta-Nehisi_Coates&oldid=926131868.
- Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Liveright, 2017.
© 2020 James Roy II. All rights reserved.
The following is part of a working draft to a thesis being written towards a Master in Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Colorado Denver. No part of the following work may be reproduced or used in any manner without written permission of the copyright owner (James Roy II).