The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Revisiting Black Urbanism

Painting by artist Jacob Lawrence detailing the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North throughout much of the 20th century.  This led to the birth and development of a great many black urbanists.  Source: wtop.com
Three years ago, in the very early days of this blog, I posed a rather provocative question — where are the black urbanists?  The genesis of this question came as I looked over a list from 2009 by Planetizen of the top 100 urban thinkers, as designated by a poll.  The list included many architects, landscape architects, elected officials, designers, philosophers, people from antiquity and from the present day.  But the list included no African Americans.  A quote from my original post on this:

As a result of this transition (the Great Migration that brought millions of blacks from the rural South to the urban North between 1910-1970), African Americans have had a profound impact within the communities they’ve moved to. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, blacks are the majority demographic in 19 of the nation’s 273 cities with more than 100,000 residents, and are between 25 and 50 percent in another 36 cities. Taken to a metropolitan scale, blacks exceed the 13.6% national proportion of population in eight of the ten largest metropolitan areas, with blacks making up 32.4% of metro Atlanta’s residents, 25.8% of metro DC, and 21.0% of metro Miami. Clearly, blacks have left a significant imprint on America’s cities.

So where are the black urbanists?

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of black elected officials who represent cities and advocate for policies and strategies that will improve them. There are plenty of black activists who passionately speak on matters such as crime, poverty, income inequality, affordable housing, and other special interests that are often perceived as strictly urban issues. And there are many black entrepreneurs who grew up in cities and make an effort to incorporate some semblance of urban policy into their corporate work.

But there is a dire lack of a black voice and perspective in the traditional channels of urbanist dialogue.

For their part, Planetizen themselves recognized there were some diversity issues with the list from the outset.  They said the list was far from definitive, and they were quick to note that while the urbanist who ranked first on their list was a woman (Jane Jacobs), there were only nine women in total.

I attempted to provide an explanation for this oversight:

When I think of urbanists, I think of two distinct groups of people. The first group consists of intellectual types who are mostly interested in developing ideas to improve the urban form. They often have rather abstract views of cities, and focus on design as the key mover of an improved urban form. They are big proponents of things like walkability, transit use, denser development, and the like.

The second group is often less intellectually-oriented in their approach, but has a laser focus on a special interest they advocate. This group is made up of bike advocates, transit supporters, urban agriculture activists, and other urban special interests. They are also big proponents of walkability, transit use, and denser development, but they strongly feel that getting there means increased bike usage along dedicated bike networks, or heavy- and light-rail transit, or converting vacant land to agricultural use.

In either case, the groups are almost exclusively white.

In a followup post on the subject that received far less exposure than the first (again, this was from the very early days of the blog when my readership was mostly, uh, me), I again tried to explain why such an oversight could take place.  Shortly after that I came across a critique at the blog Surly Urbanism that made the case better than I did:

When I first read this piece I must admit that I nodded right along and found it a bit refreshing. But upon further reflection, and discussion with @rjkoscielniak and @tressiemcphd over email and beers, I became increasingly discontent and have decided that I disagree with the premise of the piece for a few reasons. There are black urbanists. We’ve simply been ignored or excluded. In other words, it’s not community activist recalcitrance, white flight, or even large cultural perceptions of urban=bad/dirty that have limited the voices of Black urbanists, but widespread structural and cultural racism, and an urbanist community that is largely silent on issues that many Black urbanists, activists, and scholars have advocated over the life of this country.

In the 3 1/2 years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve tackled lots of different subjects and carved out a little niche.  However, I never fully came back to this matter — and the above quote is exactly where I wanted the discussion to evolve.

Given what’s happened in our nation’s cities over the last three-plus years, with a growing emphasis on exploring inequality in our cities, it’s time to reignite this debate.

This is where I stand.  I believe that for decades, especially after World War II, conventional thinking on urbanism is that its adherents come to it from one of three areas, illustrated below:

In their attempts to explain cities and improve them, well-educated people from design, policy and economics fields banded together to discuss the physical makeup of cities, their economic interactions and economic goals, and the best kinds of policies to make them function efficiently.  Traditionally, however, either because they haven’t pursued the same educational avenues, or (more likely) because they’ve elected to pursue the course of action most pertinent to them, black urbanists have focused on issues of equity and inequality in cities — which has only recently come to the forefront of broader urbanist discussions.  This leads to a graphic that might look more like this:

The urban equity sphere is where community development advocates, affordable housing proponents, education and crime researchers and others interested in equity have been residing for quite some time, but they’ve rarely been at the table as the “traditional” urbanists have been in discussion.

There are many blacks — indeed, many people of all backgrounds — who have dedicated their life’s work to addressing matters of equity.  In America, matters of equity and inequality seem to ebb and flow, only becoming topics of broader discussion when the distance between haves and have-nots widens.  Our present era is one of those times.

Fortunately, there are a number of people who have explored issues of urban equity throughout American history, largely because they’ve understood that the distribution of wealth and power has a social component in addition to the economic, design and policy components we typically acknowledge.  In fact, there are some possible policy answers that come from the equity sphere that could be useful in addressing present day conditions.

In the next few days, I’ll put together a list of short list of black urbanists and show how they’ve impacted our nation’s cities.

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