Sit at the tables where people are deciding where the new school will go, whether to expand the bus stop or if a new business can drop itself into a neighborhood, and the first question that comes to mind is, “Where are all the people of color?”
In 2017 it is—still—a fact that most folks who design, plan and build our cities lack the diversity found in those same places. Last week in Seattle, a panel of experts tackled this problem at the Congress for the New Urbanism, an annual gathering of progressive planners.
Why should this matter? At a time when black America faces mortal threats from institutional racism, police violence and the authoritarian power grab in Washington, D.C., don’t we have more important things to worry about than urban-planning issues? Who has time to meddle in zoning and land ordinances?
But you’ll be wishing you had understood it that moment you’re being gentrified off your block. Our lives are shaped by the places we live, to the extent that “zip codes are life determinants,” said Ron Sims, former deputy secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, at the meeting. “Tell me your zip code, and I can predict how much you earn, when you will die and whether you will get kicked out of school.”
The places we live even affect our bodies at the molecular level. Children from crime-ridden neighborhoods have higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, which is linked to learning problems, as well as a host of physical and mental illnesses. Environmental factors like toxins and stress can actually alter our genes (pdf), creating changes in our brains that last a lifetime.
That means the people who design and plan cities are “fooling around with people’s genes without their permission,” said Sims.
Those designers and planners are, on the whole, a melanin-challenged group. For example, less than 10 percent (pdf) of architects are black or Latinx, even as those groups make up more than 30 percent of the U.S. population. Only 15 percent of architects are women. “So the people who are creating our cities, and drawing those zip code lines, are predominantly white men,” said Justin Garret Moore, executive director of the New York City Public Design Commission.
To change that, Moore tells The Root, it’s crucial to build a pipeline of diverse talent. Moore recalled his own entry into the field when, at age 14, he was hired as an intern for CSO Architects in Indianapolis. While designing a gymnasium for Moore’s high school, CSO was asked to hire two summer interns from the school. Two decades later, both of those interns—black men from an underperforming inner-city public high school—have careers in the planning and design professions. “Someone really should replicate that on a much larger scale,” said Moore.
There are other barriers, as well. Once on the job, designers and planners of color face a gantlet of cultural challenges and microaggressions. As a black man in the profession, “I am basically a unicorn,” Moore explained. “When I go to meetings, people assume I’m not the person in charge.”
Sims recalled to The Root that, when he served as deputy secretary at HUD, “someone at a meeting asked me to get them a drink.” He added with a sigh, “Hey, it happens.”
To diversify the planning process, policymakers, urban planners and decision-making stakeholders should find better ways to engage diverse communities. “Town hall meetings don’t work,” said Sims, because the people who speak up don’t necessarily represent the community. Instead, designers and planners must seek out a neighborhood’s most trusted individuals and organizations. And respect the diversity within communities, said Sims: “Don’t assume that all people of color have the same priorities.”
The dynamics of community meetings are also important. “We need to ask, who is at the table?” said Moore. “Who is heading the table, and facilitating the discussion?” And, more importantly: “Who is calling the meeting in the first place?”
In short, creating cities that work for everyone will require big changes in who does urban planning, and how. To bring about those changes, designers and planners must make diversity a “meta-principle” of their work, says Emily Talen, a professor of urbanism at the University of Chicago. Every design project should be measured by whether it helps—or hurts—the goal of building diverse, inclusive places to live, Talen said.
It’s not an easy task diversifying the urban design and planning process—but it’s absolutely essential that we do. The places we live shape our lives in both trivial and profound ways; the power to shape those places is central to self-determination, growth and power. As the visionary urban planner Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”