Five Things White Urban Planners Should, but Likely Won’t, Do During COVID

Photo: Taylor Wilcox, Unsplash; Illustration: Vitaliy V.

The past weeks have already brought on a wave of “listicles” of tips for making sense of the COVID crisis and envisioning its impact on urban life. Inspired by a list I saw from the American Planning Association and my growing anger and helplessness at the data coming out of this epidemic. I am lucky to be surrounded by many razor-sharp, passionate experts, urbanists, and artists working to make cities better for all its residents who push me to be a better advocate. Alas, that can’t be said for all my peers and I am tireless in using my ounce of privilege in making noise about racial, spatial, and gender equity. So here is a sort of wish-list. There is no sugar-coating here – polite talk when people are, and have been, dying is a distraction from the massive task at hand. Read on:

  1. Tie virus data to public policy – We are all obsessed with the numbers of infections, recoveries, and an ever-growing death toll. Many are paralyzed by ever-climbing graphs and maps turning darker shades. But, aside from also seeing silver linings and faith-restoring anecdotes, seeing just numbers misses not just the human stories behind them, but the policy implications of how the virus has ripped open our society’s fault lines. For me, data is useful not just in of itself, but for what it says and amidst the avalanche of data being produced now it has confirmed what advocates have been shouting at for decades – that policy failures at every level harm cities, places, and their residents.
  2. Confront your complicity in maintaining inequality – In one survey, 55 percent of White Americans said that it is them who are the discriminated minority. Many others think tackling racism depends on not talking about it. And yet, as more COVID data emerges, most victims are Black. Why? The systemic racism that too-many would rather not discuss that, yes, urban planners are complicit in maintaining. It should be clear that policy-makers are the gatekeepers to their communities’ disparities, and yet many fail to see their role in perpetuating that which they claim to disavow. Often, not for a lack of desire, but because these things are so vast and calcified. But, given that many have extra time on our hands, this is an opportune time to pick up some critical reads – ideally from an indie bookstore – on tackling white privilege, income inequality, and the long march of policymakers who have built systems that are now exacerbating COVID. Most important is to consider how each of us can be complicit in such systems, even if we are firm believers of rejecting them. Consider what this history says about why your suburb is how it is, about why the jobs are in one place but people in another, and how you personally may have benefited at every step. Compare the median income of your community versus a minority-majority one. And no, having a Black friend does not count. Neither does being “woke.” And yes, you are racist. Accept it and instead learn how to be an anti-racist.
  3. Take an online urban planning course – Fact is, many people employed in land use, zoning, and urban development have no training in urban planning. They are village managers, park district admins, and the like – which in itself is fine – the grand dame of planning Jane Jacobs had little training beyond her razor-sharp mind and critical eye, but this can mean many doing the bulk of urban planning never to to learn much, if any, urban theory, history, or concepts. If you have some time, why not learn some!? Sure, brush up on ArcMap or SketchUp, but also look into how humans sense place, case studies from abroad, and some good ol’ theory – MIT is a good place to start; Planetizen is great too.
  4. Look at zoning and municipal code critically – Ask yourself the utility of mandating setbacks, building heights, unit limits, parking minimums, or lane widths. Why, for all the individualism America is famous for, do we permit so many limitations on urban form at every step? Who benefits and who is harmed in this quickly goes back to what you’ll learn above. This rigidity is symptomatic of society’s desperate need to segregate people at its own detriment. See if there’s a Redlining map for your area and compare it to the zoning map. Then, lay it over a map of racial and economic data. And finally, pore through the code and look for lines that act like fence posts keeping certain groups – like renters – away from certain places. If you can, print it out, take a huge red marker and cross them out – what does that code look like with the invisible fences gone?
  5. Commit to doing thing differently post-COVID – While we are all eager to go back to normal, it is clear that post-COVID life will be different. And as scary as that is, consider it a chance to make some sort of progress in your line of work. No one knows what yet may come and we’re all learning as things progress. But this pandemic, whether just at its onset or already past its peak, has shown that many accepted norms are just flimsy excuses against progress. Cities are canceling rent and loans, closing streets, and changing transit policy. With millions out of work and entire industries shuttered or upended what else can and must change? How can clear skies be maintained post-pandemic? How can lessons from these weeks improve places, rather than continue funneling money to the wealthy, away from those who need it most? Each of us stand to be changed by this – how will you change for the better?

Bonus: Are you someone who also cares? Then say so! I get lots of compliments and congratulations on my advocacy – APA-IL was even generous enough to give me a prize for it – but that is not what I am after. If any of this resonates with you, then please please use your platform, no matter how small it may be. The biggest thanks you can give is by taking action.

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