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Op-Ed: Whose Streets? Black Streets

A May 30 Black Lives Matter protest in Philadelphia, Pa. Source: Joe Piette via Creative Commons.

Editor's Note: The following article originally appeared on The Tyee and is republished here with the permission of the author. 

Amina Yasin. Source: NACTO.
Amina Yasin. Source: Francis Georgian / PNG
Amina Yasin. Source: NACTO.

After purchasing groceries during a pandemic that’s widened food insecurity in Minneapolis, 46-year-old George Floyd is forced face down on the street, with the knee of an officer mercilessly pressed into the back of his neck.

He cries out to his deceased mother and echoes the last testament of Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe.”

Floyd is murdered in the midst of very old, very familiar and deadly enemies — a plague and systemic racism — two of the greatest public health threats ravaging Black and Indigenous communities across North America.

As I witnessed his death on video, Toni Morrison’s words ran through my mind, “If I take your race away, and there you are, all strung out. And all you got is your little self, what is that? What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart... if you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a very serious problem.”

As an urban planner, I’ve been contemplating this problem and the ways the planning profession has had its knees in the necks of Black people through policy, top-down design approaches and unacknowledged white privilege. These factors, along with public space enforcement and anti-Blackness have been suffocating Black communities for decades.

Today, Black people across North America are reclaiming their cities with calls of “Whose Streets,” “George Floyd” and, in Toronto, “Justice for Regis” and “No justice, no peace.” Urban planners need to interrogate whether the profession has value if it fails to protect the public interest by not analyzing the historic and current manifestations of racism, specifically anti-Black racism, that pervades it.

I invite all of us in urbanism fields, especially those who espouse “cities for all” and “open streets for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds,” to consider why Black people are harassed and dying in public spaces while jogging, riding their bicycles, walking, playing, bird watching in the park, having a barbeque, just existing in public space, or even — yes — driving their cars. Moving forward, planners and elected officials must seriously contemplate what they can do to answer the calls for justice, redress and reparations.

In Toronto, Black residents make up 10 per cent of the population, yet account for 61 per cent of all cases where police used force resulting in death, and 70 per cent of police shootings that resulted in death. In the U.S., Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men, and Black women are 1.4 times more likely to lose their lives to police violence than white women.*

Every planner and urbanist should consider how our history of city building has brought us to the point where Black community members are more likely to be harassed and killed in public spaces by public officials with impunity.

Given the number of Black people profiled and murdered on our streets, how can urbanists remain singularly focused on fighting inanimate objects — like cars — while actively ignoring human rights, and silencing advocates who point out that streets aren’t in reality for everyone? Perhaps systemic racism, in which ableism is entrenched, is the greatest enemy to cities and not cars?

To understand better why so many Black lives are snuffed out on streets, sidewalks and parks, recall the “tale as old as America” that played out on May 25, prior to Floyd’s murder. A Canadian white woman, Amy Cooper, calls the police in New York’s Central Park for reinforcement against a Black man, Christian Cooper, who was out birding.

Christian simply points out the park board rules to Amy, who in an act of white spatial entitlement maliciously calls the police, who decide who can and can’t access public space, in order to save her white womanhood. Amy’s entitlement has been enshrined over time through the genesis of the park, the racialization of space and the protection of whiteness: Central Park was originally designed by 19th-century urban planner Frederick Olmsted to eradicate an entire Black-American owned community, Seneca Village, in order to privilege and protect certain ideals — and users — over others.

There is no moving forward without acknowledging this historic and tethered relationship between public space, enforcement and anti-Blackness. It is unacceptable for our profession to continue to ignore the I can’t breathe call for life-saving aid from racialized communities being strangled by city planning initiatives and policing.

The fact that racism determines policy is not statistically debatable. Racism insidiously finds its way into “livability” programs with stated goals of urban renewal, as we saw when Vancouver aimed to drive a highway through Hogan’s Alley in the early 1970s, intentionally decimating an entire Black community through crime prevention, design, displacement and policing under a historic white spatial order. We also see it in health care outcomes, such as the high fatality rates of COVID-19 on Black lives. We see it in food and housing insecurity, which is based on race and income. We see it in access to transit and neighbourhood walkability and roam-ability. We see it in community surveillance and housing. Racism, especially anti-Black racism, permeates every aspect of public space. It is the very foundation of the built environment.

Anti-Black racism as a tool of spatial segregation did not develop out of thin air. American writer and philosopher James Baldwin once wrote “know from whence you came.” If the preoccupation for planners and urbanists is to move towards resilient, smart and sustainable cities, they must first address the historic anti-Black racism and ableism embedded within its practice and practitioners.

To understand the foundations of our field, we must understand that the root of anti-Blackness in urbanism and planning was the transportation of enslaved and stolen Africans. That sparked a pattern of racial and economic segregation embedded into laws, land use and policies that were spread and protected over time through the colonial settler process and policing.

Cities and neighbourhoods across North America developed by ensuring that social and public interactions became institutionalized and regulated through racial segregation. As a result, many white neighbourhoods and residents are shielded from the type of police violence experienced in Black, racialized and Indigenous communities. We’ve seen this play out during the COVID-19 crisis, for example, where on May 24, at Toronto’s gentrified Trinity Bellwoods Park, police and bylaw enforcement inequitably applied physical distancing regulations, in strong contrast to the disproportionate criminalizing of Black, racialized and poor residents in other areas.

These connections between race, place and power continue today, and those concerned with the murders of Black people like Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery must begin to disassemble these fatal links. To do this, I direct you to the work of author Ibram X. Kendi. In his book How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi invites us all to consider that since cities were built on stolen lands by stolen people, there is “no such thing as a non-racist idea.”

He argues that “every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity.” Racism and inequity are embedded into policies, codes and regulations through land use, livability standards, design requirements and transportation and climate change programming, all under the historic technocratic tyranny of predominantly white expertise.

Going forward, planners and urbanists can take four anti-racist actions.

1. Recognize your role. Wherever you are right now is likely a space of privilege. Despite everyone staying in their homes due to COVID-19, we still find ourselves with inequities where the middle class — a concept premised on whiteness — are sheltered and working from home. The wealthy have escaped to vacation homes. The poor, who are disproportionately racialized, have been conscripted by economic force to perform the “patriotic” duty to risk death for middle- and upper-class consumers. So today, more than ever, is your chance to reflect on how your temporarily restricted access to the city and its streets compares to the experiences of those who’ve always had their mobility restricted through racist policing and ableist city planning.

2. Divest from the theory of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. CPTED, an approach used by urbanists to manipulate the built environment to create “safer neighbourhoods,” has been enshrined within official community plans especially for social housing projects, encouraging the surveillance and enforcement of public and shared spaces. CPTED is based on the premise that the built environment affects behaviour, with design being able to increase or reduce crime. Spatial anti-Blackness — such as those areas or neighbourhoods that have in the past explicitly excluded Black people — anti-poor policies and an over-reliance on CPTED “eye on the streets” doctrine (often advanced by retired police in consultant roles) have historically criminalized Black, Indigenous and poor people in public space by rendering these groups as “out of place.”

We’ve seen this happen repeatedly where Black people asserting their rights in “white spaces” are policed at their homes or the common areas of their condominiums by predominantly white neighbours. Neighbours define and enforce belonging through policing, building design and bringing the white gaze to approaches to “optimize visual oversight” and asserting “ownership and intended use, along with intended users.” Following Kendi’s premise that there are only racist and anti-racist ideas and actions, planners and urbanists can no longer be complicit in a relationship between planning and policing; Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design principles must be removed from city planning policies, regulations, training and design standards moving forward.

3. Defund policing. Municipal budgets reflect the values of cities. Across North America, larger shares of budgets are allocated towards policing; 27 per cent of Vancouver’s budget and 23 per cent of Toronto’s budget is spent on policing, including funding for Vision Zero programs. Vision Zero is a street safety plan that focuses on reducing street-related fatalities by prioritizing the safety of our most vulnerable users. Planners, urbanists and elected officials should contemplate how the engineers and enforcers of deadly streets — police — can be trusted to uphold a street safety plan premised on zero fatalities and serious injuries.

As unemployment soars during the pandemic, the one area that cities and other governments are refusing to cut in their austerity budgets is enforcement and policing. Throughout multiple health crises, mainstream urbanists have attempted to silence advocates by comparing the number of lives lost to the pandemic, homelessness, racism, the opioid crisis and the police with the number of lives lost to cars, citing the Vision Zero framework. But the lives lost to public health crises that are disproportionately Black, racialized and disabled are not in competition with lives lost to cars, which historically have also been mostly racialized, disabled, elderly and poor lives, due to pollutants and traffic fatalities.

Vision Zero must mean more than zero lives lost to traffic fatalities. It must also mean zero Black and Indigenous lives lost on our streets to police violence. As protesters risk COVID-19 to call for justice and the end of police impunity; elected officials, planners and urbanists must heed the call to defund policing, including the reallocation of Vision Zero funds from policing towards programming across other city departments. Cities can do this by valuing and investing in mental health, trauma-informed urban design and programs, safe supply, housing, youth development, equitable transportation and non-displacement/stabilization, while reimagining “neighbourhood watch” as “neighbourhood care” programs, all of which have been proven to be more effective than policing.

4. Abolish ‘communicide’ urban planning. Communicide, as described by Alan Morris, is the systematic and deliberate destruction of a place-based community in order to disempower and disperse tenants, which results in intergenerational suffering.

Our profession must understand that the reality for many Black lives is one where local, provincial and federal governments have systematically imposed racial segregation and policing based on an insidious colonial claim that on one hand Black life devalues property, while white infrastructure innovations add value to predominantly Black, racialized and poor neighbourhoods. To ensure that Black people would never be settled, entitled to or able to find adequate and dignified housing, city planning projects through the guise of white technocratic expertise have displaced predominantly Black communities through “neighbourhood revitalization” projects. These projects are also often heavily enforced through policing.

For example, Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver’s first and last substantial Black community, (which was relegated to an alley) was decimated by inefficient infrastructure: an incomplete highway.

An immediate anti-racist action that we can take is to stop systematically “revitalizing” predominantly Black and Indigenous communities, while seeing other neighbourhoods as being the pinnacle of peak livability or perfection. Another anti-racist action is to donate to and sign petitions for local Black community organizations working to redress historic city planning and policing harm.

It is our ethical duty to listen to and build safe communities for Black and marginalized residents, who are asking for justice, redress and reparations. Planners, elected officials and lovers of cities can answer their call by lifting their knee from their necks, to help them “breathe” and help them live.

Pursuing anti-racist actions that focus on anti-Black racism, that defund and divest resources away from harmful revitalization and communicide planning practices, that defund policing, abolish Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design approaches to urban design and reallocate funds to community care initiatives can move us towards a “city for all,” while meaningfully accomplishing urban planning and urbanist goals for smart, resilient and sustainable cities.

*Story updated on June 18 at 11:20 p.m. to correct that Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men, not white people in general.

Amina Yasin is a city and regional planner working across development and policy planning in the Metro Vancouver area. She is also a Vancouver city planning commissioner, a board member of Hogan’s Alley Society, and co-chair of the Canadian Institute of Planners Social Equity Committee.

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