Uncovering JAPA

60 Years of Racial Equity in Urban Planning

The relationship between urban planning, racial equity, and social justice is long-standing yet complex. Though often well-intentioned, planning policies have frequently contributed to displacement, segregation, and harm against marginalized communities.

Analysis of Racial Equity Planning Evolution

In "Sixty Years of Racial Equity Planning: Evolution of an Ethic", (Journal of American Planning Association, Vol. 89, No. 4), John C. Arroyo, Gerard F. Sandoval, and Joanna Bernstein analyze the evolving approach to racial equity planning (REP) across four key eras to inform contemporary reconciliation and anti-racist planning strategies.

In Table 1, the authors identify four periods associated with new approaches to REP, each with a primary theme:

  • The Civil Rights Era (1961-1968) is defined by social justice.
  • The Model Cities Era (1969-1991) is characterized by citizen participation.
  • The HOPE VI and HUD's Sustainable Cities Regional Planning Grant Era (SCRPG) is defined by equitable housing.
  • The Contemporary Era (2015-2021) is characterized by local partnerships and racially based reparations.

In carrying out their analysis, the authors reviewed 17 geographically dispersed plans across all four eras. They found that relevant plans have long centered around race.

For example, Walter Thabit's 1961 alternate plan for Cooper Square in New York was the first plan to advocate against the displacement of people of color and homeless individuals. This kind of advocacy planning helped transform planning from a neutral into a passionate profession and laid the groundwork for more participatory or responsive approaches.

Table 1. The four periods with new REP.

Table 1. The four periods with new REP.

Racial Equity Planning's Evolution Insights

Norman Krumholz's 1975 equity planning approach in Cleveland, which aimed to provide a wider range of housing choices for residents and promote redistribution at the neighborhood level, is one such example.

Over time, racial equity planning expanded from the neighborhood to encompass national coordinated efforts that centered community voices confronted racist legacies, and mandated federal reforms.

Arroyo and his colleagues argue that an explicit focus on REP will be essential as planners seek to ameliorate housing and facilitate economic reparations. Essentially, this demands a commitment to a participatory process leading to resource redistribution, the recognition of diversity, and the empowerment of all minority groups.

Despite the acknowledgment that racial equity planning must directly confront race, challenges persist. Even reparational plans from communities of color overlook the complexity of racial dynamics and discrimination. Plans are often positioned in a White-Black racial binary that doesn't account for the status of other groups like Native Americans, Latinos/as, and Asian Americans.

In this paper, Arroyo and colleagues provide an insightful analysis that should inform practitioners seeking to advance racial and social justice. Lessons from historical planning efforts can help planners leverage time-tested strategies while employing innovative new solutions that meet the demands of the present.

For planning to evolve in its ethics and achieve core values like economic, social, and racial equity enshrined in the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, practitioners must revive, honor, and build on the legacy of racial equity planning.

Top image: iStock / Getty Images Plus - Auseklis

Adin Becker is a master's student in the urban planning program at Harvard University.

January 19, 2024

By Adin Becker