Challenging Storytelling and Narratives That Reinforce Inequity
From redlining and restrictive covenants to exclusionary zoning, the history of racism in planning is well-documented and widely discussed among practitioners today. But planners can continue to reproduce structural racism and inequitable outcomes when they reinforce and give power to harmful narratives.
In "Gainesville's Forgotten Neighborhood: An Examination of Narratives in Planning," (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 88, No. 3), authors Tyeshia Redden, Laura Dedenbach, Kristin Larsen, and Kathryn Frank argue that researchers have only scratched the surface in understanding this phenomenon.
Redden and her colleagues investigate how narratives embedded in planning documents can reinforce the marginalization of communities and seemingly sanction existing inequities. On the other hand, the authors argue that storytelling is also a powerful and underexplored tool for combating structural racism.
Their study centers on the Porters neighborhood of Gainesville, Florida, described as a "somewhat typical southern historic African American neighborhood." After decades of racial segregation and disinvestment, Porters was disparagingly labeled the "The Forgotten Neighborhood" by Gainesville residents through the 1970s and 1980s.
Yet the authors found a stark disconnect between how Porters was characterized by planners, city officials, and news media during this period and the way that it was experienced by its residents. The same neighborhood that one city study found to be "one of the poorest, problem-ridden areas," was described warmly by a resident as "such a happy place because all of our neighbors knew who we were, who we belonged to."
Applying narrative analysis grounded in critical race theory, the authors found that negative and racialized narratives about Porters were dominant across several decades of planning efforts. Documents highlighted challenges facing the neighborhood with no reference to the community's assets or residents' perspectives.
One report described conditions like housing in disrepair but made no reference to systemic causes like disinvestment or lack of capital access. Notably, this cherry-picked narrative of a neighborhood in decline was used to underscore the alleged necessity of redevelopment.
The authors' project included the opportunity for Porters residents to develop and amplify counternarratives about their neighborhood. But their research documents how decades of stigmatizing narratives had profound consequences in the built environment of Porters and in residents' lives.
These findings indicate that it is the responsibility of both individual planners and the field to continually reflect on where racist assumptions or narratives are being reproduced unquestioningly. It also provides a hopeful example of how community expertise can be channeled through storytelling to push back against marginalization.
The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted digital subscription for $36/year.
Top image: Getty images — NicolasMcComber