Implementing Cultural Competency in Urban Planning

Submitted by: Sophie Gabel-Scheinbaum, Diana Jimenez, La Tanya Roux, Anna Van

Social Equity

Introduction by D. Jimenez

In 2013 I entered the University of Southern California as an undergraduate student. I felt my identity as a first-gen, Latina from a working-class immigrant family was increasingly heightened on USC’s
predominately white, elite campus and even more so as an International Relations major. I felt
disconnected to the global world my professors and peers discussed in abstract while my family and
friends dealt with tangible local challenges. As a sophomore I overheard a friend discuss her urban
planning course and I immediately registered and a year later I officially switched majors. Despite the code of ethics​ of Professional Urban Planners to “uphold equity,” we learned time and time again that professional urban planners have played an active role in the destruction of our communities of color. Almost every course began with a similar icebreaker “Why did you choose to become an urban
planner?” I dreaded the question because my answer, like many of my BIPOC peers may attest to, is
rooted in the frustration that our own neighborhoods experienced the devastation of “professional
planning” which viewed our families and neighborhoods as expendable in the name of “Urban
Renewal,” and later “New Urbanism.” Though urban planning allegedly considers the history of all
communities, academia and the “real world” center white experiences, neighborhoods, and theories to showcase peak planning ideals and implement policy that favors these communities.

The Need for Cultural Competency

In our academic and professional journey as urban planners we’ve been fortunate to work with a myriad of planning professionals, and unfortunately witness strategies that reinforce white supremist planning concepts while also bearing witness to strategies that challenge, dismantle and shift power in the field. As non-Black and white planners reckon with racial injustice and anti-Blackness in particular, we must also examine how these practices are not only historic but live in our present day. Our field lacks cultural competency because of respectability politics, the reality of retribution, and perhaps fear of inadequacy in addressing these issues by white and non-Black planners of color. In our current and previous roles as public sector planners we held near daily huddles about these challenges. Throughout our careers we’ve learned from Black supervisors and supervisors of color, practiced and developed culturally competent strategies with colleagues—many of us utilizing our lived experience to connect with residents who have been expendable to the field. We do not write all of this to discount the progress so many colleagues make within the field but to state the reality that professional urban planning has and continues to be complicit in racial injustice and anti-Blackness.

We are heartened to see all of the public calls to address injustices, and though it is important to
denounce injustice, it’s imperative to go beyond lip service and implement anti-racist and culturally
competent strategies to practice as well. Here are four practical strategies to grow #culturalcompetence in the Urban Planning Field. Feel free to share among peers and/or add your own. It has ​been ​time to acknowledge the gaps in Urban Planning and recognize the expertise that residents of color and planners of color hold to enhance this practice.

Strategies in Practice

1. Value Resident Expertise:​ Professional planners bring formal education, accolades and years of
experience to their role; it’s imperative to not assume that residents, particularly residents of
color and working-class communities, do not bring value and expertise to the table. Listen to
their expertise without patronizing or responding with paternalistic sentiments. Residents may
push back on draft policies, the work to heed their expertise may be difficult but push yourself
and team to include their guidance through all aspects of planning. Valueing expertise should be
constant and intentional, not a “one-and-done” approach.

2. Check Implicit Bias:​ Implicit Bias is something that lives within so many of us because we are
socialized to believe certain harmful biases against communities. If you find yourself nervous to
hold a public meeting or interact with a resident with a different background than your own ask
yourself where that bias comes from and lean into learning about that community further by
listening to residents and valuing their input (practice Strategy #1)*. This also applies to
moderating discussions with stakeholders who hold biases; be brave to question and discount
racist, xenophobic, classist, or other harmful comments.

3. Hold Space for Emotional Interactions, Acknowledge Pain:​ Residents who attend public
meetings, visit public counters, and provide feedback can bring fervor in their emotions because
their neighborhoods are changing, often rapidly, perhaps they’ve experienced or faced
traumatic interactions with public servants, consultants, real estate developers, etc. Black,
Indigenous, and POC residents face systemic barriers to public participation, and have been kept
from decision-making power in their neighborhoods, catch yourself from ​policing ​emotions or
outbursts because they are frankly warranted at times.

4. Create Trauma-Informed Policies and Spaces:​ Trauma-Informed Care is a social and medical
service strategy that accounts for an individual’s holistic life experience including societal and
cultural trauma they may have experienced in order to provide resources and engagement that
acknowledges and works to prevent re-traumatizing the individual. As Strategy #3 states, BIPOC
residents and residents with marginalized identities face barriers in the built environment,
policies that embed TIC include: have translators ready at public events, translate materials to
reduce barriers to participation, create low-barrier entitlement or administrative procedure
documents, acknowledge power dynamics and challenge them.

*As professional planners we have the capacity to do our own research, do not exhaust community
members to explain their hardships or break down how you can be more culturally competent. Put
those research skills to use, Google is a great start--there is a multitude of resources, literature, and
interactive discussions available online.

Additional Resources and Readings

It’s important to note that cultural competence is an active practice that goes beyond a single event or
interaction. It requires commitment and willingness to learn. Below are some resources from fellow
planners to help you get started on cultivating cultural competence in the planning field. We thank these urbanists, historians, and advocates for their expertise and bravery in practicing intentionality to shift our field toward justice: