George Floyd’s killing has mobilized people across the globe to protest police brutality and renew calls for broader reforms to eliminate structural racism.
Advocacy and community development planners have been working on this issue and other forms of injustice for decades. But how can planners working in technical fields such as land use regulation, transportation planning, or environmental analysis address these issues?
Here are three suggestions, building on my practice as a transportation planner.
1. Shape Organizational Culture and Purpose So That Racial and Social Justice Are Prominent
First, we can convene conversations about race and equity in our workplaces, in formal meetings and informal discussions with coworkers and community members. That means knowing fellow professionals and community members better. It also means scrutinizing issues across city departmental units.
For example, there is a relationship between infrastructure plans and inequities in policing practices, such as patterns of ticketing for jaywalking or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk when the street is unsafe. These issues have facility design, operation, and law enforcement dimensions.
Well-facilitated dialogues can transform organizational culture if they are recurring, consistent, and reciprocal, but culture is only part of the equation.
A community’s values are memorialized in its plans, programs, personnel policies, implementation tools, and municipal budget. Racial and social justice should be explicitly addressed in these documents.
We also need planning organizations whose makeup resembles the community they serve, in staff positions and leadership. In that regard, planners can team up with local planning schools to introduce planning to underrepresented students in high school, community colleges, and universities.
2. Change the Way We Engage With and Learn From Constituents
Second, our interactions with community members, from the zoning counter to the public meeting, reflect our implicit biases and encounter those of our constituents or clients. While we cannot eliminate implicit biases, we can increase self-awareness and find ways to deny them a chance to operate.
We should seek deeper listening and commit to learning from it. This doesn’t mean setting aside our professional expertise but empathetically listening and learning.
Understanding implicit biases brings about a humility that leads to deeper understanding and supports change. And understanding how racism can be coded in polite language about community character supports better strategies to counter and resist such appeals.
Lastly, in technical fields, what we measure, how we measure it, and how we present it can illuminate or hide issues of racial and social justice.
3. Examine and Reform the "Overlooked" in Standard Practices
Past transportation planning practices claimed to objectively serve the public interest but created harm for Black communities. Examples include freeway construction in inner cities, transit-spurred gentrification displacement, and prioritizing rail transit over needed bus service.
We need to further examine the embedded assumptions in those methods, as is required by environment justice analyses in regional transportation plans. In our day-to-day work we can ask: Do past and current planning practices discriminate or systematically favor one group over another? How can we expose and correct that?
An Example from the Weeds
My professional work is way down in the weeds of reforming parking supply and management — nerdy zoning code and parking management stuff. Yet there is a strong connection between parking reform and racial justice.
For example, insistence on high minimum parking requirements can mask racial exclusion. Excess parking requirements thwart local economic development (making new small businesses infeasible in locations without off-street parking), reduce housing supply and skew production to high-end units (high rents are required to amortize the cost of building parking), and capture value that could go otherwise go into housing affordability or other public benefit programs.
Moreover, the need to seek adjustments to parking requirements favors deep-pocketed developers and hinders small, local developers who can’t play the system.
Lastly, crowded curb neighborhood parking often leads residents to resist infill development, further restricting new housing supply. Managing and pricing residential curb parking can address this last issue, with equity being addressed through rebates or transportation subsidies to low-income residents.
As I critically examine my planning practice, I am more aware of how technical planners profoundly affect racial justice.
Of course, some planners directly address police reform in their work, but planners of all types have a role to play, through the suggestions noted above and in other ways.
You can act in your own job, now. If we all do this, our effect will be powerful, systemic, and long-lasting.
Thanks to Robin Scherr and Brian Bulaya for insightful comments on this post.
Top image: Black Lives Matter mural painted on the street by local artists in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, June 2020. Wikimedia Commons photo (CC BY-SA 3.0).
About the Author
Richard Willson, FAICP
Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.