Planning February 2020
Rewriting the Urban Planning Canon
By Daphne Lundi
This past fall, I attended the Black in Design Conference, a biennial event organized by the Harvard University Graduate School of Design African American Student Union. It was a privilege to learn about the work of designers and urbanists like Toni Griffin, Deanna Van Buren, and Denise Shante Brown — not just in terms of thought-provoking urbanism, but as a showcase of planning practice through a uniquely Black lens.
In the past five years, similar conferences such as Spaces and Places and Hindsight have worked to center marginalized voices and knowledge. But beyond these specifically curated events, the work of Black urbanists is often inexplicably and inexcusably absent from the planning canon.
Black history in this country is deeply interwoven with urban planning praxis. For centuries, redlining, suburbanization, transportation policies, and racialized zoning have disproportionately inflicted a painful history of segregation and harm on Black communities. In response to exclusion from government-led planning practice, there is simultaneously a long history of resilience and creativity in Black communities through community development and organization.
As planners, we help shape the built environment — and not just through our plans. Without a full understanding of the history of a place and our profession, we run the risk of reproducing systems and methods that further deepen inequality. A planning education that focuses solely on a few predominantly white heroic figures is incomplete and unethical. It doesn't tell the whole story; it prevents us from sharing fuller and richer stories. We must learn to think beyond our traditional planning narratives.
Education and practice both prioritize the voices of experts who've done the work of planning through traditional channels. But because of the country's history of racism and inequality, many Black planners have done their work in the margins — not in government or private firms, but through DIY, community-level initiatives. These types of planning methods are no less worthy of study. They offer relevant lessons, innovative insights, and low-cost problem-solving strategies (which are always valuable, given the often precarious nature of funding in urban planning).
"A planning education that focuses solely on a few predominantly white heroic figures is incomplete and unethical. It doesn't tell the whole story; it prevents us from sharing fuller and richer stories."
— Daphne Lundi
Activists like Dorothy Mae Richardson, who pioneered the community development model in the 1960s, and efforts like the Flanner House community development initiative in the 1930s and '40s make for vital chapters in urban planning's history.
As we work to craft more inclusive planning curriculums, we should also highlight the present-day practitioners reimagining the tools and methods of urban planning. A surge of organizations all over the country are shining light on Black urbanism and Black experiences in the built environment, including the Texas Freedom Colonies Project (for more, read "Putting Freedom Colonies on the Map"), the National African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, and Undesign the Redline.
Our education never ends. While I graduated almost a decade ago, events like Black in Design have been crucial to developing my personal urban planning ethos. As we teach planning students the full history of urban planning, we must also widen the breadth of our own planning knowledge so that we may better grapple with the uncomfortable history of urban planning and race — and the ways it still impacts communities today.
Viewpoint is Planning's op-ed column. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine or the American Planning Association. Please send column ideas to Lindsay R. Nieman, Planning's associate editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.