Is urbanism only for white people (and other musings)?


A few weeks ago, I came across Daniel Hertz’s blog post on “Why is Urbanism So White?” This is a topic I have been thinking about a lot lately, considering our Bay Area housing crisis and my observations in the Plan Bay Area meetings I went to. A lot of us aren’t getting heard, and I don’t know why.

I commented on the post, and I’ll excerpt a bit here:

I realized a couple of things (about the lack of diversity in urbanism):
1. People like me didn’t even know there was an urbanist party
2. We don’t even know if we are invited to the party
3. Things are intersectional for us
4. The urbanist movement is terrible at framing things in a way that will resonate with multiple audiences
5. Many people can’t see beyond their own perspective

It is like everything else, most people only know people like them. We might care about the same things, but we aren’t having these conversations together because we aren’t traveling in the same circles.

The short answer – why is urbanism so white:

Urbanism comes packaged with gentrification and displacement which invokes complicated feelings.

The long answer is a bit more nuanced.

Disclaimer: I’m not an urban planner, I did not study urban studies, my point of view is influenced from my own black middle class world view. If I moved to certain neighborhoods, I would be a gentrifier. This is all opinion and conjecture.

Before drilling into the reasons I think urbanism isn’t diverse, it is good to note why many black people are trying to get out of the city. We (as black people) are only about 40 years into having “full” choice in housing and neighborhoods; forced segregation only ended in the 60s. Segregation lingered well into the 70s.

Today this choice is still hamstrung by systemic racism, the wealth gap and predatory lending.  But many of the worst polices, like redlining finally ended in the 70s. This choice in housing was limited to people with the right sort of privilege and experience to choose (and afford) to live in any neighborhood.

After generations of being forced to live in rural areas or in the “inner city,” black people could finally pick any neighborhood. Experiencing the suburban American dream without too many consequences. After watching the turmoil in many American cities in the 60s: divestment in our urban areas, “redevelopment” and “urban renewal” projects, is it really a surprise, that people with choice decided to look for white picket fences? Good schools and large lots awaited.

As a result, we also lost some of the connectedness and community that came from consolidated black neighborhoods, where all income levels utilized community service and support in the same place. There is a separate set of issues that came with the transition to integrated communities, but that’s off topic for this post. For those with “choice,” it was possible to mitigate some of those challenges, and come up with a strategy to build community and identity.

Your mindset is really different, when you choose your environment versus being forced into a particular environment. No matter how great that location is on paper. Choice in itself is a form of privilege. When communities were displaced due to gentrification or urban renewal, they lost their homes, their sense of community, connection and history.  Root Shock is a great book on this topic, and how it can lead to PTSD-like symptoms.

I think the academic, mainstream perspective on urbanism is one based on privilege. You can choose to give up your car, choose to live in an urban neighborhood (but the other neighborhood types are open to you as well). This attracts people with the freedom and privilege to choose. Most of those people are white, middle-class and educated.

Now back to my five key points on why I think urbanism is particularly white. Urbanism is a fairly new field of study, not well represented in pop culture, so it is largely unknown.

1. People like me didn’t even know there was an urbanist party

I did not know that “urban planning” was an option of study until I was late in my college years. I had a few friends who minored in “urban stuff” (planning, studies or similar), andI thought it sounded pretty interesting. I was well on my way studying something else, and didn’t really think much about it.  It didn’t exactly seem like something you could get a job in. For many people with my background or similar, one of the key goals of college is to study something that will help you get a job.

I remember as a child wanting to be an interior decorator.  When I told my grandma, she thought it was hilarious. She said, there is no way anyone will pay you to decorate their home.

So I didn’t realize that this was a job or concern.

2. We don’t even know if we are invited to the party

Now that I know there is “urbanism” and it is a “movement,” it still feels like a pretty exclusive club.  It is mostly inhabited by people who are architects, engineers, city workers, and other people directly employed in the practice. We are well aware of the lack of diversity in both STEM and architecture.  Only very recently, has urban planning started to approach things more holistically, from a health, transportation and social equity lens. This offers a good opportunity to both add more voices and more perspectives to the movement.

But most urbanism conversations are still confined to City Hall, the classroom, or with real estate developers. [Great book on why it is really hard to build urban projects these days.]

3. Things are intersectional for us, sometimes.

Intersectional is the key academic buzzword in “social justice” circles. I think it is a good tool to frame urbanism as well. To grossly generalize, for white urbanists, the center city neighborhoods are a new frontier. Most “urbanists” are younger, and don’t have the history or experience of watching their popular downtowns crumble and decay. They have always been seen as a dead zone waiting for renewal/reuse. Younger people are also more likely to not be intentionally segregationist.

The approach today is still a lot like Columbus discovering America. “There is stuff here, but not stuff I care about, so I’ll just claim this territory for myself and change it.” And sure enough the development follows.

After ignoring downtown for decades, when well-to-do white people move in, and the city starts picking up the trash, cleaning up the “blight” and worrying about school quality. Meanwhile existing residents toughed it out through neglect and decay. Other more educated people have covered gentrification, and I don’t want to rehash anyone else’s research.

We here in the US make a conscious connection between “black,” “urban,” and “poor.” These 3 things are all euphemisms and synonyms (and I am not including all 2000 other more negative code words). Anyone black who doesn’t meet that description is one of those “exceptions,” and we find ways to not lump them into the bucket of “regular” black people. Things can be twofold: someone like me should not take transit, or live in the “inner city” because I have enough privilege to do something else (drive a nice car or get a big house). On the flip side, according to the stereotypes, my only choice is to take the bus (and never commuter rail) and live in the hood. On some level, choosing urbanism is both not recognizing that I have choices, and feeding into the stereotypes of black people.

But I grew up in the ‘burbs.

My transit experiences growing up were (mostly) pleasant or in the form of a vacation. When I was 11, I took a field trip on the newly opened San Jose light rail. It was shiny, new and air conditioned. In middle school, I took the Amtrak to DC for a field trip. It was a blast, surrounded by friends and classmates and enjoying the scenery. In high school I went to Montreal and marveled at the subway stops with huge underground malls.

The few times I took the transit, outside of a field trip, during childhood was when I visited my aunt. It was just part of the experience, my aunt was “eccentric” and always did interesting things.  So taking the bus was another one of those interesting things.  Another time we took the Greyhound cross country (and that is an experience for another blog post).  But overall, I spent my childhood being carted around in the backseat or fighting over shotgun with my sister.  We were a 2 (and later 3) car family.

As an adult, after experiencing car-free life in college, and low desire to drive, I haven’t really been so keen on a similar 2-car suburban existence for myself. But in the back of my mind, thinking about our society, and our attitudes, I know that some people will see me as a gentrifier and other people with have problems with me identifying as such (since the idea of a black middle or upper class makes their head explode).

4. The urbanist movement is terrible at framing things in a way that will resonate with multiple audiences

Right now the urbanist movement is becoming synonymous with the hipsters. So based on the typical framing, all “urbanists” want craft beer, parklets, 3rd wave coffee and bike lanes. It is a vaguely white, upper class, liberal, college-educated-ish point of view.  These people can choose to live in up and coming neighborhoods, but have the option to fall back onto generational wealth, high paying jobs and other things that give you more choice.

This leaves out a ton of people: people who believe mobility choices lead to individual economic freedom, people concerned with climate change, people who want oil independence, libertarians who want to build stronger local economies, people looking for development without displacement and dozens of other issues.

Our definition of urbanism is one that pitches a lifestyle for liberal middle to upper middle class people.  People who travel to Europe, and want to recreate the “idyllic” walkable environment at home with baguettes, cheese shops, cobblestone streets and old world charm.

We rarely look to Asia, Africa or Latin America for urban inspiration. Where a scrappier, DIY mentality has taken hold, with urbanism for the masses. In Latin and South America city governments make improvements in infrastructure and safety for poor people, so they will stay home and create opportunity instead of going abroad. Cities in Africa have an unofficial and well-organized system of vans and jitney buses to provide transportation without public funding. In Asia density is a policy, and in places like Hong Kong, the government profits by leasing land to developers. In Korea freeways or torn down to improve air quality and build parks and public spaces. Our urbanism is romanticized old-world or Danish modern.

Urbanism cannot diversify, without building a wider base of different perspectives, and looking at issues from more angles. Urbanism has the potential to help us solve micro and macro economic issues, environmental issues, civic participation and engagement issues, affordable housing issues, social justice issues and public health issues.

5. Many people can’t see beyond their own perspective

Over the past 20-30 years, society has undergone a monumental shift.  One of the biggest ones is related to a loss of “mass culture.” There were plenty of problems with “mass culture,” since it was synonymous with “white culture” and wasn’t very inclusive to other groups. Now we are in the midst of a sort of “Long Tail” culture. No matter how niche your interests are, you can retreat into a world where only your stuff matters.  On the internet, via meet up groups or other social groups. You can exist in a walled garden full of like-minded folks.

We have lost the idea of the collective good, and rarely interact with the “public” or people not like us. In the old days when everyone went downtown, to the town square or the post office, there was an opportunity to interact with people of all stations in life. Now it is super easy to live in a world where the only people you interact on a regular with are like you: similar education, class and ethnicity. Income inequality has lead to separate everything from schools to jobs to neighborhoods to transportation.

This lack of collective spirit is reflected in Washington’s motto of ideology over logic, mass (and niche) media and pop culture. And this extends well into our planning decisions. The politicians and leaders deciding on transit do not ride or use transit.  Suburban-based governments are making decisions for city streets.

So why is urbanism so white? The real question is do we want urbanism for the masses or just the elites (or near-elites).

Where is our American brand of urbanism, built on true democratic process (not pay to play) and inclusivity?