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  • Kimia Ipakchi

Is Urban Planning Racist?: The Hidden Reality of Institutional Racism

How do you build a modern city? In 1956, President Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act introduced the latest development of urban renewal in the US: the construction of the interstate system. The authorisation of 41,000 miles of highway construction led to the connection of major cities to meet the ‘needs’ of a growing population and promote ‘economic development’.

Urban planning and its link with institutional racism

However, in the first 20 years of the federal interstate system, more than one million Americans were displaced, the majority being low income people of colour. No federal funding was provided for relocation of these displaced communities, despite the federal system subsidising ‘white flight’ from the city and destroying Black neighbourhoods in the process. Furthermore, urban planners like Robert Moses built underpasses to affluent suburban beaches too low for buses to drive through them, knowing it was the primary mode of travel for low income ethnic minorities. It was clear that while the needs of some of the population were met, others were actively disregarded.

Urban planning and racism: what's the link?

This is part of a longer history between urban planning and racism. From redlining and exclusionary zoning enforcing racially segregated neighbourhoods, to racial discrimination in the housing market, urban planning has played a crucial role in shaping the institutional racism we see today.

"urban planning has played a crucial role in shaping the institutional racism we see today"

It’s broad in scope. It includes elements such as designing of transport, housing regeneration projects, and city planning at a higher level. But it’s more than just a mere argument of design, construction or funding. Understanding urban planning is looking at its social impacts, specifically, how it’s used as a tool for pushing certain political and racist agenda, and as a result, creating and sustaining social inequalities between communities of people of colour and their White neighbours.

Urban planning and its link with institutional racism

Redlining in the US: Past and Present

One of the clearest examples of institutional racism in US history were the redlining policies under the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s. Along with organisations like the Home Owner’s Loan Coalition (HOLC), the government used this policy to colour code which neighbourhoods the government should issue mortgages. Areas where communities were majority Black were described by the HOLC as having an “undesirable population” and marked as “red areas”. These communities were not only denied federal loans, but were further refused better housing opportunities outside these redlined regions.

While such policies were prohibited in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, redlining continues to occur today, although in a different form. Instead of centralised control, real estate industry players and lending institutions (e.g., banks) now weaponise loans and interest rates to maintain social inequalities along racial lines. An example of this is ‘reverse redlining’, a form of predatory lending where banks reserve high-interest loans almost exclusively for people of colour.

Urban planning built on racist agenda, is therefore not only an issue of the past, but concerns our present and future. By withholding opportunities to build wealth on property ownership, the federal government prevented these communities from creating generational wealth and played a key role in creating a significant wealth gap between Black and White families, the impacts of which are still being experienced today.

UK housing

The link between urban planning and racism is not unique to the U.S. Katie Mulkowsky, founder of Planning for Justice at the London School of Economics, compares UK and US examples of racism and urban planning: unlike U.S-associated examples of racist urban planning policies like exclusionary zoning, the UK has a long history of racism within housing and the housing market.

The UK government’s racial disparity audit reflects the extra pressures on ethnic minorities in the housing market compared to White people. For example, those from ethnic minorities are much more likely to wait longer for a housing offer, be offered flats rather than houses and poorer quality homes. Furthermore, ethnic minority households are often neglected, compared to their White counterparts: they are not only more likely to live in overcrowded, inadequate or fuel-poor housing than White households, but are also more likely to be unsafe. The Grenfell Tower became a nationally recognised tragedy when one of the smallest yet richest boroughs in London neglected the safety of a community that was predominantly people from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Homelessness is also an urban planning and race issue. There has been a huge disproportionate increase in homeless people from ethnic minority communities, from 18% to 36% in the last two decades alone, despite ethnic minorities only making up around 11% of households. Members of ethnic minorities who are homeless are further vulnerable to additional struggles such as experiencing hate crimes in hostels, higher rate of stop and search and even being refused by homeless shelters.

Regeneration projects: throw some money at it

When urban planning projects look to completely change the urban ecosystem of a particular area, will more money fix potential problems? The short answer is no. The problem isn’t shortcomings in budgeting, but prioritising profit over people: not centralising the generations of local marginalised communities who may be potentially displaced in urban planning discussions. This is at the heart of gentrification, a recent example being the controversy of the transformation planning in Brick Lane and the local Bangladeshi community, whose small independent businesses as well as their history and culture, will be wiped out at the hands of a new and ‘trendy’ five-store consumerist hotspot.

In fact, money is an important driver of urban planning. Markets and lending institutions are often at the centre of urban planning discussions, rather than the experiences of displaced minority ethnic communities. Regulation, particularly in construction and housing, has taken a more consumerist approach in the UK since 2011, which further disadvantages ethnic minorities, who often have to battle an increasingly commercialised social housing sector.

This means that ethnic minority households have to battle the very economic system which profits from the institutional racism that disadvantages them in the first place. As a result, social inequalities are not only sustained, but this deepens the divide between White and ethnic minority households.

BLM and bringing ‘institutional racism’ into the mainstream

Undoing the deeply rooted racial injustice in the blueprints of our towns and cities is neither quick nor easy. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests brought the issue of structural racism into mainstream media, evoking many decision-making bodies to make public acts of accountability for their role and contribution to everyday racism and racist structures. The removal of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, marked an arguably pivotal moment in understanding structural racism beyond institutions of our police, education, etc., but also the almost “background” structures of our public spaces.

Urban Planning for Good

However, decolonialising our towns and cities extends far beyond removing a statue. It requires focusing future transformative planning around historically marginalised communities and eradicating inequalities. Such aims are at the centre of organisations like BAME Planners Network and Planning Aid for London, who aim to connect like-minded people in the hope of equality-driven urban planning.

Another example of inclusionary planning is the growth of the housing sector for ethnic minorities in the UK. Made up of 70 organisations managing 69,000 homes (that’s 2% of the nation’s social housing), it remains ‘crucial’ to achieving racial equality in the UK housing sector. In the last three years, 66% of social lettings were made to ethnic minority applicants by specialist housing associations compared to a relatively miniscule 17% by mainstream social landlords. Such initiative becomes a source of autonomy for ethnic minority households, allowing for people of colour to influence neighbourhood investment, boost social mobility and have a say in urban planning done for them, rather than to them.

A task for future urban planning

Upon first glance, it is difficult to consider how our route to work or shiny local investment could be linked to racism. But the effects of racism and urban planning are too easily overlooked when they shape the everyday realities of these marginalised communities. Urban planning continues to be an industry prioritising profit over people, usually ethnic minorities and so the question remains: how will urban planning discussions compensate for decades of displaced families and strive for eradicating the social inequalities it is responsible for?

For more resources on institutional racism, head to our dedicated Racism, Islamophobia & Antisemitism section.

Edited by Abbie Harby

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