Spaces and Places of Protest

The Cost of Social Injustice in Communities of Color

Racial segregation in U.S. cities is no accident. As historians have extensively documented, our unequal social landscape is in large part the result of specific urban policies, from redlining and zoning to highway construction and suburban incorporation. These are the banal instruments that have shaped economic and health disparities in communities across the country. [1] The uprisings in Ferguson and elsewhere are a testament to both the enduring effects of these historical policies and more contemporary laws that reinscribe racial difference (see: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations and Richard Rothstein’s The Making of Ferguson). But such protests have also, for many planners, served as a call to action. How can planning and design professionals show up for communities of color? How might they begin to undo these violent histories and promote more just cities?

On May 8, Gehl Institute co-hosted “The Cost of Social Injustice in Communities of Color,” a panel discussion on the role of planners and policymakers in addressing racial inequality. The event took place at TransitCenter, and was organized with WXY Studio and the Planning and the Black Community Division of the American Planning Association (APA).

The two panelists were Justin Garrett Moore, Executive Director of the NYC Public Design Commission, and James Rojas, founder of Place It! and the Latino Urban Forum. Shin-pei Tsay, Executive Director of Gehl Institute, served as the moderator.

The idea for the event came from conversations on social media, such as the Planning and Black Community Committee Facebook page. Aldea Douglas, who led the ad hoc committee that formed to organize this event, explained in her opening remarks that many of the organizers met each other for the first time that evening. Members of the committee were committed APA members and connected over their shared question about how, as Black professionals, they could catalyze conversations about and change practices in planning and design in communities of color.

Justin Garrett Moore opened his presentation by pointing out the lack of representation in planning and design. Only 15 percent of registered architects are women, he stated, and less than 10 percent of registered architects are Black and Latino. He then reflected on a model of public housing development, Flanner House, from his hometown Indianapolis, where Black civic leaders garnered foundation funding to initiate its construction for Black families in 1903. Crucially, Flanner House was led, designed, and developed by the Black community. Today, the formerly thriving business center of Indianapolis has been changed forever by highway ramps, and the public housing developments the city developed are partially demolished. However, the Flanner House community remains in place, with the homes, school, ball fields, and recreation center still intact. Moore concluded by proposing self-determination as an intrinsic part of planning.

James Rojas presented next on his unique approach to public engagement and envisioning, in which people of all ages play with city models to imagine the different forms their community spaces can take. Rojas often works in Latino immigrant neighborhoods where most residents are left out of the planning process. He explained that planners should begin with asking community members, “What is your life like here and how can we improve it?” Instead of working off their own assumptions, planners must find common ground with residents to tap into local knowledge and ingenuity. “Art, creativity, imagination…everyone has these tools in their bag,” Rojas stated.

Following the presentations, panelists and audience members discussed the overlooked assets of communities of color, scalable strategies for addressing racial injustice, and the difficulties of working with colleagues who won’t discuss race. “We have to challenge people to be uncomfortable,” said Moore. The panelists were in agreement that histories of racial exclusion should be a required component of planning education, and that all people should be made aware of their right to engage in the planning process. Rojas emphasized the importance of safe spaces where marginalized people can come together to discuss their experiences openly. Moore offered an interesting example from San Francisco, where the city will sometimes provide toolkits to communities to start working through planning issues on their own — without city officials present.

Towards the end of the discussion, an audience member expressed her excitement at the age of the crowd, which she estimated as 75 percent under 40 (in stark contrast to other panels that weekend formally organized by the APA). The event was immediately followed by an open house at WXY Studio, in which computer monitors displayed images of political demonstrations across the U.S. Planners Chris Rice and Amina Hassen of WXY encouraged attendees to strike up conversations with strangers, and to consider the relationship between architects and planners to spaces of protest. The moment recalled a question posed earlier in the night by Shin-pei: given the hundreds of years of injustice, where do planners start? The gathering itself, and the discussions that constituted it, seemed a worthy answer.

Moderator Shin-pei Tsay with panelists Justin Garrett Moore and James Rojas

Event attendees at the TransitCenter office


[1] Many of these tools are compiled in the forthcoming book by Interboro Partners: The Arsenal of Exclusion and Inclusion (Actar, 2017), which was written and edited with Riley Gold, Research Assistant at Gehl Institute.

All images by Joelle Ballam of TransitCenter.