Uncovering JAPA

Dissecting 30 Years of Black Urbanist Thought in Urban Planning

While Black planners have long called on the planning profession to address inequity and problems faced by Black communities, planning literature has poorly and insufficiently addressed their concerns. In "When Diversity Lost the Beat: Reviving the Hidden Rhythms of Black Urbanism in U.S. Planning Literature from 1990-2020," (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 89, No. 4), Matthew Jordan-Miller Kenyatta assesses whether prestigious planning journals have sufficiently covered issues relevant to the Black community and Black urbanism during the previous three decades.

Limited Focus on Black Urbanism Themes

In his analysis, Kenyatta uses quantitative bibliometric analysis and discursive coding to review approximately 20,000 articles published between 1990 and 2020 in 21 reputable and highly cited planning journals. His process is comprehensive, though it focuses on more established planning journals and omits newer journals as well as those in related fields or specialized subfields.

After scrutiny of article titles, abstracts, keywords, and content, Kenyatta shows in Table 3 how only a small fraction — little more than 1 percent — of total planning research and writing in the United States purposefully examines subjects related to Blackness. He finds a more common but limited emphasis on diversity (4.8 percent), but few articles discuss the specific lived experiences, perspectives, and histories of Black communities.

Among the small number of articles that discuss Black urbanism, Kenyatta identifies 36 themes spanning topics such as housing segregation, political empowerment, and the arts. These themes are further broken down into 105 beats or sub-topics that have evolved throughout the study's 30-year time frame.

Table 3: The percentage of post-1990 articles discussing Black issues in key planning journals.

Table 3: The percentage of post-1990 articles discussing Black issues in key planning journals.

Neglected Black Urbanism Needs Spotlight

For instance, research on housing integration in the 1990s gave way to more critical and nuanced examinations of gentrification, suburbanization and exurbanization, and the return of Black middle-class families to lower-income neighborhoods.

Kenyatta's analysis reveals two key ideas:

  1. Black urbanism is still understudied and insufficiently discussed within planning scholarship and practice. Journals and planning researchers have not adequately considered or engaged with the Black urbanist narrative.
  2. The small body of existing literature forms a small but complex and intriguing canon of Black urbanist thought that confronts mainstream practice and theory.

To ground racial equity in the urban planning profession, Kenyatta recommends that planning practitioners and academics should directly name or dissect planning needs within Black communities rather than employ vague and unspecific notions of diversity or race-neutral language.

All planners must also appreciate, recognize, and draw from the current collection of Black urbanist works to reshape dominant traditional approaches. By uplifting the depth of Black urbanist thought, planners can engage in more context-based, community-focused efforts.

While more themes related to Black urbanism emerged during the latter half of the 30-year study period, there is still a clear need for planning journals, practitioners, and researchers to grapple with anti-Black attitudes and enrich the ongoing conversation around Black spatial imaginaries.

If diversity is truly a core value within planning, the profession will need to attempt more concrete engagement with Blackness. To this end, planners need to pay attention to, amplify, and center historic and contemporary Black voices. In the service of an anti-racist, sustainable, and reparative future, Black urbanism and research should be highlighted rather than diluted as a secondary consideration. Read more about "Rewriting the Urban Cannon" from Planning magazine.

Top image: iStock/Getty Images Plus - Galina Pilina

About the author
Adin Becker is a master of urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

October 20, 2023

By Adin Becker