Uncovering JAPA

The Continued Challenges of Bias and Discrimination Within Planning Education

The next generation of planners needs to be well-equipped to engage with a diverse set of communities. Planners and city officials across the United States have to reckon with the legacy of 20th-century discriminatory practices that segregated cities and divided neighborhoods along racial and/or ethnic identity lines. Only by taking deliberate steps to undo the embedded divides within the built and social environments will planners be able to create inclusive and diverse urban spaces where all communities thrive together.

Addressing Diversity Gaps in Planning Education

As planners grapple with this legacy of bias and discrimination, new tensions emerge, as noted by Ivis García, AICP, et al. in "Like a Fish Out of Water: The Experience of African American and Latinx Planning Students" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 87, No. 1). The authors point out that while planning practitioners and faculty often recognize discrimination as a problem within the field, they "struggle to create more inclusive planning programs and workplaces that reflect greater diversity." Furthermore, while many have worked to address diversity and inclusion within planning education more broadly, there has been very little focus on the experience of planning students themselves. This study used a survey of 451 urban planning students of all racial and ethnic identities as well as 14 in-depth interviews with Black and Latinx students to focus explicitly on the lived experiences of students. The authors focused on the tensions arising within the classroom because they argue that unless intervention occurs at this level, planners will continue to reproduce racial and ethnic hierarchies once they transition from the classroom to the workplace.

Even though it has been nearly three decades since the beginning of the efforts to increase diversity and create more inclusive work and learning environments within the planning world, there has been little change in the absolute numbers of Black and Latinx planning students across the United States. The study shows that Black and Latinx students continue to be underrepresented by about 50 percent compared to the overall population (see Figure 1 for a summary). The composition of planning faculty lags even more with Black and Latinx instructors representing 8 percent and 7.6 percent respectively of all faculty at Planning Accreditation Board-accredited programs.

Figure 1: Student composition in accredited planning programs from PAB Annual Report data. In the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol 87, No.1).

Table 1: Student composition in accredited planning programs from PAB Annual Report data. In the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol 87, No.1).

Addressing Discrimination in Planning Education Programs

The survey found that the students experienced different levels of discrimination depending on their citizenship status, race/ethnicity, and nationality. Latinx students reported more discrimination based on nationality and citizenship status, while Black students reported more discrimination based on race/ethnicity. Overall, more than 50 percent of both Black and Latinx students agreed that they had been singled out in class because of their identity. Four main themes emerged from the qualitative data that the researchers collected through the in-depth interviews: (i) lack representation and feelings of alienation; (ii) feeling singled out or tokenized; (iii) working twice as hard and feeling hypervisible; and (iv) not being taken seriously and feeling dismissed. In general, participants did not believe that planning education was allowing students to develop the skills to be culturally sensitive planners and many interview participants pointed to a clear distinction between the rhetoric of the institution versus the everyday reality experienced by the students.

The feelings of being dismissed or not understood discourage students from speaking and actively participating in the classroom, which effectively erases their viewpoint from the discussions. How can planning programs pride themselves in accepting and training a diverse cohort of students when implicit biases and unconscious attitudes regularly silence and discard the opinions of Black and Latinx students once they arrive at these programs? While this experience is unfortunately not unique to planning education, as pointed out by the authors, this hostile environment is particularly problematic in planning because "academics claim to teach students how to undo injustices and create inclusive communities."

The authors suggest that planning programs and offices should develop training on microaggressions, strengthen peer relations and mentorship programs, incorporate issues of diversity and equity as part of required courses in addition to offering elective courses on the topic, as well as actively work to build counter-spaces in which students can discuss their challenges and foster a sense of belonging. Overall, the researchers recommend more collaborative work between academia and the planning profession in hopes that any supportive institutional culture at the educational level would translate into practice as well.

Top image: SDI Productions/gettyimages.com

About the Author
Elifmina Mizrahi is a Master in Urban Planning candidate at Harvard University.

March 25, 2021

By Elifmina Mizrahi