Literature Review: Part 2 – Influential Urban Planning Literature Lacks Revolutionary Rhetoric

The Most Influential Urban Planning Literature Has Been Indirect in Assuming the Responsibility of Restoring Equity for Black Communities and Sharing the Need to Change the Process

The profession of urban planning has struggled to fully grasp the transgressions of its sins, which is reflected upon diving into the most influential writings of the industry. This may be fueled by white guilt and an inability to empathize with Black and Brown people, as the industry is predominantly white (81%) and male (60%) (Owens). It could also be that the 20 most influential planning books are written by white authors, with only two of the 20 written by women, as ranked by Planetizen, an online planning news website. Furthermore, one of the books in the top 20 is written by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., the segregationist mentioned earlier (“Top 20 Urban Planning Books (Of All Time)”). In order to truly change the dynamics of this industry, an uncomfortable, yet necessary reckoning must occur. Urban planning has danced around the issues of inequity that it has created, while celebrating the works of the past.

Seen as one of the most influential urban planning books and ranked as number one in the top 20 urban planning books, Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), is an urban renewal critique of city planning and rebuilding. It was seen as a paradigm shift in planning that brought the respect of existing city diversity as an asset and helped to inspire some of the most important movements in planning. Rooted in principles of observation, Jacobs encouraged the profession to promote diversity (Wendt). The book is clear and makes a great case for building great cities, respecting people, and even addresses the problem of slums and ghettos. However, in its 458 pages, it mentions the term “negro” five times, without a clear recognition of the compounding factors that created and maintain Black slums or ghettos. Her work seems to use the term ‘slum dweller’ as interchangeable with race and attempts to reach into the dignity of urban neighborhoods pushing the reader to understand that ‘slum dwellers’ are “capable of understanding and acting upon their own self-interests,” of which she may be intentional in indirectly speaking about Black people (Jacobs). While this book, seen as revolutionary and timeless, is a great place for planners to begin to understand how the profession can correct course, it stops short of sparking the much needed change in thought that would be required to revolutionize restorative practices.

More modern literature in the industry has taken a more aggressive approach to recognizing the importance of planning in restorative justice. Prominent urban studies theorist and author, Richard Florida, has contributed to theories surrounding gentrification and the ‘back to the city’ movement that has created it. In his bestselling 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida staked conceptual claim to a new separation of social classes and a change in the economy and urban desires driven by creative professionals. He goes further to state that successful cities will cater to this new ‘top’ class of creatives that desire to cluster in fun downtown environments that are open-minded, diverse and tolerant places that possess vibrant artistic expression and ethnically diverse populations (R. Florida). While many see these theories as ahead of their time, Florida also experienced criticism of being disconnected, failing to account for the full picture (Glaeser). Some went as far to say that the mainstream book was ‘gimmicky’ but could not disagree with the accuracy of the notion of its theories (Eakin). Critics agree that Florida is a compelling author for the urban planning industry and has the ability to reach wider audiences and bring attention to the craft in a special way. However, in 2002, Florida was far off the mark in recognizing inequity, especially for Black communities.

Recent Urban Planning Literature is Beginning to Face the Profession’s Dark Past More Directly

In 2017, Florida released his much anticipated follow up to The Rise of the Creative Class, with The New Urban Crisis. It analyzes current issues surrounding gentrification and displacement, but has also attempted to dive deeper into exploring the “far more serious problem of chronic and concentrated urban poverty.” Seemingly apologizing for the impact of his 2002 book, Florida explains the growing chasm of wealth and even relates it directly to race. While still leaning on his old theories, the author relates more current data to explain the crisis and inequities by describing how underrepresented Black people are in the creative class, representing 8.5 percent of creative-class jobs, despite making up 12 percent of the population, while whites, holding 74 percent of the job, make up 64 percent of the population. Florida makes many more Black equity supportive claims throughout the book. He wraps up the book by recommending the following changes: increase economic clustering; invest in infrastructure to promote density and growth; build more affordable rental housing; raise wages to create more middle class; invest in providing resources to people and places (schools, social services, crime reduction); lead efforts to build more prosperous cities in the world; and give more power to local government leadership (R. Florida). Critics, once again, claimed that the book was out of touch, late in pointing out obvious gaps, and wildly unrealistic in the solutions proposed, framing the work as a crusade to defend his reputational crisis (Bures; Dorling). The book ultimately represents some of the most reader accessible views of the trends in the industry. However, his writing still lacks a key ingredient for the profession to promote equity in urban Black communities: mutual respect and the development of a community-shared vision.

© 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).


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James Roy II

I am an accomplished entrepreneur, community-driven professional, public speaker, and creator. I am driven by my passion for urban planning, equity, art, and travel. With a wide range of skills, I put excellence into everything that I do and aim to make an IMPACT.

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