Jan. 20, 2022
Years before the 2020 killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other Black Americans forced the country to reflect on a legacy of police brutality, planners were dissecting the role planning has played in systemic racism through practices like redlining.
The first Black in Design conference in 2015 was one catalyst. That's when Black architects and planners began organizing in New York, says Daphne Lundi, a deputy director with the NYC Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency. A group that included Lundi hosted brunches later that year, and eventually, what started as an intimate gathering of urban planners, architects, and others in the design space soon blossomed into a national nonprofit: BlackSpace.
The organization has since expanded beyond New York to connect Black design professionals across multiple states, highlight Black contributions to the field, center Blackness in design, inspire Black youth to explore the design fields, and examine and address the ways planning has impacted communities of color.
After a successful six years, the nonprofit continues to grow. In December 2020, it hired its first dedicated staff. Now, they're launching new projects, coalitions, and plans for expansion — all guided by the same dedication to uplifting communities of color.
A 2018 American Planning Association survey found that only 13 percent of its membership was Black, Latinx, and/or Asian or Pacific Islander. Given that significant lack of racial diversity, it's not unusual to be the only planners, policy makers, or professionals of color in the room, says Lundi, one of BlackSpace's founders and a member of its working board. Planning education can be isolating, too, as it often focuses primarily on white architecture, white urban planners, and white policy makers, she adds.
"The idea of BlackSpace is thinking about how we center Black experience in planning, but also thinking about: How do we rectify the gaps in history and understanding of the role that Black people played in urbanism and continue to play in urbanism?" Lundi says. "So much of the work we do is focused on learning from people in communities, that's why it's also centered on amplifying the work of people, particularly Black urbanists, as a way to fill in the gaps in the planning canon, in general, and how we think about who shapes the built environment."
Since its founding in 2015, BlackSpace has expanded to Atlanta, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Oklahoma. Now, planners in other cities, including Baltimore, Birmingham, Detroit, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., are exploring becoming cousin — not sister — sites (a play on the loving descriptor often used among Black Americans to describe people who aren't technically relatives but feel like family). A recently developed cousin kit will help guide affiliates interested in joining, Lundi says, adding that the organization is currently fine-tuning the infrastructure that will support these cross-country partnerships.
So far, BlackSpace has amassed around 40 members in its organizing community — including board members, cousin groups, staff, project partners, and advisors — and a 389-user Slack network, says Kyra Assibey-Bonsu, the nonprofit's project partner.
A new direction for planning
According to BlackSpace's 2019 annual report, the organization has created 20 learning workshops for more than 1,500 attendees. Before the pandemic, the nonprofit also received and redistributed grant funds to Black food vendors, artists, and others within the Brownsville community in Brooklyn, Lundi says. They were able to direct over $21,000 to Black-owned small businesses.
As coronavirus regulations relaxed in 2021, the collective held its first in-person gathering that November, which Assibey-Bonsu described as a joyful experience. "It felt really wonderful to be close to people that you've either been communicating with online or just looking at virtually, and the ability to actually connect and to really feel somebody is definitely transformative, to say the least," she says.
Now, the organization has its own dedicated staff to support its growing number of members, cousin cities, and projects, like a redesign of Red Hook Farm in Brooklyn. BlackSpace worked with staffers from the Red Hook Initiative, a Brooklyn-based youth and community nonprofit, and volunteer farmers of the Wolcott Street Farm to create a new layout, explains Kenyatta McLean, comanaging director of BlackSpace.
The team is also working with the Brownsville Heritage House, a multicultural center in New York, to develop a design strategy and community archive that will highlight Brownsville's history and community, she adds.
These projects are driven by BlackSpace's manifesto, which includes a series of guiding principles: move at the speed of trust; create circles, not lines; celebrate, catalyze, and amplify Black joy; and reckon with the past to build the future.
"At minimum, we use it as a gut check to make sure that as we take on a project or as we do an interaction with folks, that we're doing it in a way where we're trying to always read these principles," Lundi says. "I think of it as a guide for how we want to move in the world."
As more allies connected with the organization following 2020's Black Lives Matter uprisings, the manifesto has been an important compass for collaborations, too, she adds.
Looking to the year ahead and beyond, Assibey-Bonsu ultimately wants to see more Black planners entering the industry. To make that easier, she'd like to see more support provided for Black planners who often lack familial wealth and must take out student loans for their education.
Lundi, meanwhile, hopes BlackSpace can devote resources to informing students of color that urban planning is not only a potential career path, but also a field that could benefit tremendously from their lived expertise.
"I want planning to move into a place where it's reckoning with its role in shaping the built environment, in shaping the inequalities that we still see in it, and is moving towards a place of reconciliation, really, in acknowledging harm and wrongdoing and, again, thinking about ways to undo it," Lundi says. "In my mind, it's a truth and reconciliation process that needs to happen."