We have much to learn as we work to create a city for people, by taking antiracist action in the built environment. We must:
- Acknowledge that equity is a matter of life and death — not an “add-on”.
- Center Black communities in transportation planning.
- Honor Black anger.
‘Centering Equity is a Matter of Life and Death’: Responding to Anti-Black Racism in Urbanism
Five visionary leaders shared their wisdom on how to take antiracist action in the built environment professions. Here are a few of the highlights for Streetsblog readers.
“Centering equity isn’t just a nice thing to do. It’s a matter of life and death,” Pitter said. “None of us [in the built environment professions] have clean hands. We are not working in a pure profession. What we need to do now is work actively to mitigate gaps.”
When it comes to mobility, advocates stress that real justice starts with the simple recognition that centering equity is integral to street safety — and not, as some Vision Zero chapters have claimed, an optional sixth “E” in Vision Zero’s “five E’s” framework for achieving zero roadway deaths. (The other 5 E’s are Enforcement, Education, Engagement, Encouragement, and Evaluation, with the sixth and seventh E’s of Equity and Engagement considered to be “encouraged” but not integral to the framework among some Vision Zero groups.)
2. Center Black communities in transportation planning
Planners must fundamentally rethink their profession in order to center the lived experiences of Black communities who are affected by planning projects — rather than paternalistically assuming that they know what the community needs.
Tamika Butler of Toole Design described an incident when a client could have fallen prey to that trap, but chose another path. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation had contracted with Toole to engage a predominantly Black community in a scooter project, but quickly found that the community didn’t want to discuss scooters — because it had other, more urgent government priorities.
“[You have to] acknowledge that the work you’re doing is not guided by you,” Butler said. “If you’re going say, ‘we’re going to talk to communities,’ you’re going to have to listen to communities. And you have to be willing to listen with curiosity…You have to be able to say, well, why don’t you want to talk about scooters? Tell me what else is going on?”
Butler said that, sometimes, those conversations will lead to different projects than the practitioner may have initially envisioned — which is a good thing. In the case of LADOT, she says, they were open to switching focus, which helped the agency better meet community needs.
“Decision makers, you have to be open to pivoting,” Butler said. “[City agencies] can’t just use [planning consultants contracted to perform community engagement work] to check a box, and if we tell you that people aren’t really talking about [your scooter program], use that as an excuse to say, ‘well, I’ll never hire you again, you didn’t get what I wanted.’ We got you what you needed. You have to know the difference between what you want and what you actually might need.”
3. Honor Black anger
Several panelists touched on their peers’ surprise that Black communities express anger in community-engagement sessions and other interactions with their government — even though government institutions have a long and well-documented history of harming those communities.
“We have to stop being so scared as practitioners of being cussed out and having high-energy conflicts and tensions in these meetings. Let it happen!” said Orlando Bailey of BridgeDetroit and the Urban Consulate of Detroit, Mich. “[There are] systemic forces that traumatize residents in the city of Detroit. That trauma has to show up somewhere. We need to make room for it.”
Bailey gave the example of a planning study he lead on the Lower East Side of Detroit, which made room for residents to voice their trauma and for planners to understand and translate that anger into meaningful change. The conversations were so intense that a three-month contract ultimately lasted two years — enabling his group to address a much wider range of local problems than the study initially anticipated.
It’s not hard to imagine how allowing more space, time and support for Black communities to express their concerns — and express their rage — could turn transportation projects into tools for restorative justice, rather perpetuating harms.
For the video: