Uncovering JAPA

Strategies for Creating More Just and Equitable Societies

Contemporary urban planning is often lauded as an equity– and justice–oriented profession dealing with land use, housing, and community. It faces criticism, however, for its inability to effectively work towards eliminating exclusionary systems that exacerbate racial inequality and fail to enact redistributive and affirmative policies that would make a more just society possible.

In the viewpoint "The Rents of Whiteness: Dismantling Possession and Exclusion in Anti-Racist Urban Planning," (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 89, No. 4), Philip M. E. Garboden examines the ways in which whiteness excludes non-white populations thus producing direct financial gains in the form of wages, housing asset accumulation, and natural resource extraction. If we truly wish to aspire to an equitable and just society, then regardless of analysis, there is no social value in maintaining an exclusionary system that always results in white communities' gain at the expense of non-white communities.

Garboden defines 'rents' in this context as the economic advantages that arise from the ability of an individual or group to manipulate economic and social systems to their advantage by means of exclusion, specifically in ways that limit competition. Such emergence may occur due to the nature of an asset, but can be attributed more frequently to the role public policy plays in maintaining the exclusive rights of one group at the expense of others.

Sometimes rents are socially desirable, such as when the government allows time-limited control of intellectual property laws to promote innovation. But in many other cases, such gains are simply an exercise of power by the powerful, making them inefficient and unjust.

As has been outlined before, historically, urban planning has been complicit in codifying racial exclusion to the explicit benefit of white communities. De jure segregation is one such example, wherein white communities excluded non-whites from owning property in certain areas through explicit racial zoning and racial covenants. In banking and lending, the process of redlining and the refusal of banks to lend in non-white communities protected white wealth, resulting in enormous inequalities that still persist today.

Contemporary urban governance continues to perpetuate racial rent-seeking, hesitant to act based on the misguided fear that any gain for a non-white community would constitute a loss in value for white communities. Developing subsidized housing in high-income white communities is one such example where a common racist trope is the belief that an influx of low-income non-white families would depress property values. Garboden argues that even if this were the case, such a loss would constitute the elimination of an unjust rent, not an actual harm to affluent communities.

From a policy perspective, Garboden outlines three ways in which such unearned gains can be addressed:

  1. Allocating revenue from a tax on rents (unearned economic advantages) can help those harmed by rent-seeking.
  2. Regulating profit-seeking can prevent privileged groups from reaping the benefits of gains at the expense of others.
  3. Disrupting mechanisms of exclusion can eliminate the production of rents altogether.

It is most important first and foremost to eliminate the exclusionary practice of racial rents altogether by addressing the mechanisms that perpetuate the system in the first place rather than the symptomatic outcomes that result from the system.

From a technical planning perspective, Garboden urges planners to consider the degree to which racial rents have contributed to the wellbeing of privileged groups.

From the lens of a communicative planning process, the dilemma becomes determining how land use can be allocated fairly when democratic processes are susceptible to monopoly by privileged groups. In this, Garboden implores planners to bring excluded voices into the process to ensure their needs and stories are given equal weight as those who already own property in a place. This proposed solution is unique in that it is not privy to the same limits as electoral politics.

Conclusion

White communities have benefited from economic advantages at the expense of non-white communities. The perpetuation of the status quo sustains this advantage through public policy that does not seek to affirmatively eliminate sources of racial rents. For meaningful equitable change, it is necessary to acknowledge and deconstruct the system that enables rents to enrich one privileged group at the cost of one that is not. The three aforementioned strategies can be used in combination to start dismantling the existing system in favor of one that works for everyone.

Top image: iStock/Getty Images Plus - Francesco Scatena


About the author
Lucas Flint is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

October 27, 2023