Over the summer, in the wake of a wave of protests sparked by the unjust murders of Black people across the country by police, I joined Lisa Servon and several other students and professors in rethinking how the School of Design can more explicitly become part of a growing movement towards antiracism. We had several meetings thinking through what antiracism means, and what needs to change at Weitzman and Penn at large to become an institution that fully rejects white supremacy. The group broke out into three topical subgroups: Policing, Culture, and Curriculum. I joined the Curriculum subgroup because I believe at the heart and soul of any institution is what it teaches to its students. I felt that joining this subgroup was a way to have some impact in the way planning interacts with Black communities and Black thinkers in the field. And to be frank: as a Black student from a Black community in a half-Black city, I have several qualms with it.
Before coming to Penn, I got my bachelor’s degree in Geography and Urban Studies from Temple University. Geography is known to be a very white discipline and many of the geographers the discipline deems important are white men. Even though it is seen as a “progressive” discipline, drawing from Marxist, feminist, and critical-race thought, the radicalism falls flat because it is taught, spoken, and understood through a white gaze. When geographers speak about Black people, Black neighborhoods, and Black culture, it is almost always
from a place of deficit: what Black people and spaces lack, in relation to white people and spaces. Rarely is the richness of Black culture and spaces spoken about at length.
Sometimes, I feel the same way about planning. It is good that the profession is trying to reckon with its past and how it has played an active role in the destruction of Black communities through vehicles such as redlining and redevelopment plans that encouraged the bulldozing of entire neighborhoods. The trauma from these events still lingers in the urban fabric of our cities, and in the hearts and minds of people who still remember them. That should never be minimized. That said, it isn’t often that I hear stories or read journal articles about Black resilience, how Black people build community in spite of the tragedies our communities have faced. It’s rare that I read or hear nuanced depictions of Black life outside of trauma narratives. But in a field that is predominantly white-male driven, is this a surprise?
If Black communities are going to be “planned with” and not “for”, then Black neighborhoods need to exist outside of trauma narratives. We can acknowledge the level of systemic trauma and inequities that exist within a community all while acknowledging the spirit, creativity, heart, and legacy that also exists there. What should also be acknowledged is that Blackness is not monolithic, and neither are Black communities. They exist across urban, rural, and suburban landscapes, representing all income levels and other cultural influences. Naturally, with such diversity among a group of people, they will not share the same vision for their respective communities. It is up to planners to work with these communities to map out a vision that feels authentic to these communities.
Aside from making engaging with the planning process simpler and more streamlined, one of the ways in which we can elevate black communities is to position Black planners and built environment professionals as subject-matter experts in race as well as their respective fields. Black planners, architects, landscape architects, developers, investors, and academics are not only well-versed in their professions, but also have a level of cultural competency that makes their presence and input especially important, particularly when working in Black communities. Projects such as the Crenshaw Mile1—a mile-long art exhibit showcasing Crenshaw’s Black history facilitated by a team of Black community residents, architects, and curators—are perfect examples of many actors coming together to create a uniquely black experience among a very important corridor in the city in the midst of change.
Profession-wide, it looks like the demand for Black people to see themselves in the built environment professions is so high, many have taken matters into their own hands. BlackSpace, a group of Harvard design students frustrated by the lack of representation in their professions and curriculum, not only devised their own curriculum but planned their own “un-conference.” They also created a network of Black planners and designers that would tackle issues of social justice and equity that they so craved in their curriculum and employment. The influence of the group even struck Maurice Cox, Detroit’s Planning Director, who has since brought some of the Black in Design attendees on in the aiding of Detroit’s recovery3. Since its inception in 2014, the movement has spread across the country4 to Black design students and practitioners eager to us their design expertise to advocate on behalf of black communities.
At the end of the day, these communities want what all communities want: a safe, clean, inviting neighborhood with local amenities that sustain local life. It is important that planners from all backgrounds understand that any community is more than its markers of marginalization. Making sure planning’s curriculum reflects a multitude of Black voices from all concentrations within the profession can help non-Black planning students understand these communities from multiple perspectives and not simply the trauma narratives we’re often fed in school and in the world. I am thankful to have taken part in very productive conversations about how Weitzman Design can achieve a more diverse curriculum with words written from more diverse authors. But as we’re having these conversations, let's leverage and uplift the Black voices we have and make space for more. These stories matter—and they are sorely needed.
By Stewart Scott
1 Destination Crenshaw, https://destinationcrenshaw.la/mile-long/.
2“Unconference”, or the Black In Design conference that ran in parallel to the 2017 American Planning Association conference, which partially was spurred from BlackSpace’s workshop proposals being rejected from the conference.
3Maurice Cox, Director of Planning for Detroit MI, hired several attendees of the Black in Design conference to work for him.
4“Meet the Black design collective reimagining how cities get built”
BlackSpace members facilitating a group discussion
Proposed design intervention for an existing wall in Crenshaw, Los Angeles
Source: Destination Crenshaw