Uncovering JAPA

Black Counternarratives in Planning History

U.S. planning history is inherently linked to Black experiences. Yet, mainstream narratives have been largely written from the dominant white perspective, ignoring, and inaccurately portraying Black communities as passive objects. Centering Black experiences in planning history uplifts the struggle, power, and agency against dominant racist planning policies and practices. Moreover, it lays the foundation for rearranging power dynamics in planning with, for, and by Black communities and any communities at the margins.

Black Experiences Reshape Planning History

In "Planning History From the Lions' Perspective: Reclaiming Black Agency in Planning History," Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 89, No. 4), Tonni Oberly and Jason Reece center Black experiences to provide a counternarrative of dominant planning histories.

This review reframes planning history across five periods: the Progressive Era, the Great Migration, public housing after 1937 including World War II housing and postwar urban renewal, the Civil Rights Era, and the 1970s and beyond.

Through an extensive literature review, the authors highlight historical policies, legal decisions, practice, Black agency, and resistance across these periods. While moments of progress such as urban renewal have been celebrated by White planners, they have come at the expense of Black communities.

History, space, and race have been used to isolate, exclude, and devalue Black people. The authors posit 'prison nation' as the current and historical place-based concern most deeply affecting Black communities. Prison nation includes mass incarceration, policing, and punishment as forms of violence and control. Despite these obstacles, Black people have taken an active role in resisting these racist structures by shaping their communities.

Planning Must Confront Racial History

Oberly and Reece highlight several implications for the planning field. Broadly speaking, planners of all backgrounds should give more attention to how those in the field write about Black communities. The planning curriculum should include an acknowledgment of racism across planning history, site planning, theory, and other topics. For example, the contributions of Black women, in particular, such as their role in establishing settlement houses during the Progressive Era, have been neglected. Beyond curricula, sharing this history may encourage students of color to pursue planning professions and better serve racialized communities.

In terms of future research, the authors suggest similar reviews of Black geographies across the African diasporas to generate transnational themes of oppression and resistance. Furthermore, research on actions and strategies for repairing harm would be useful for planners to move beyond acknowledgment and toward action.

For planners, building an assets-based approach to today's problems requires not only an accurate portrayal of history but also an acceptance of the harms caused and a willingness to build a better, more just world.

Top image: Mural on North Greenwood Avenue in the Greenwood district which saw the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Flickr: (CC BY-SA 2.0) David Brossard

About the author
Jess Shakesprere is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

August 3, 2023

By Jessica Shakesprere