We are not in the same boat; we are in the same storm.

Charles Brown

A note: The following piece was written in 2020 and reflects the situation on the ground at that time. As we mark a year since the unjust killing of George Floyd, we believe this paper serves as a reflection of the past year’s events along with still relevant strategies to address many aspects of the built-in systemic racism that has plagued the planning profession and which current practitioners seek to work against. 

The killings by police of numerous Black Americans in 2020, including the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, spurred renewed calls for social justice and for the dismantling of systemic racism. Calls to change the very systems our country is built on grew louder as individuals began to reckon with what Black people have known for centuries: that their voices need to be heard and listened to, that Black Lives Matter, and that the country could no longer be comfortable simply looking the other way.  

We, as planners, must actively work against the roots of racism and work to ensure a just society for every individual regardless of race or ethnicity. To do this, we must recognize the ways that racism has been integrated into our own profession, both purposefully and unconsciously, and continue to refine our work. Planners are situated in a unique spot where we have the potential—and responsibility— to enact changes that have a substantial impact on society and individual lives both in the present and far into the future.  

At Foursquare ITP, we have intentionally sought to incorporate equity, i.e., getting all groups involved in the planning process and ensuring that their voices and needs are incorporated, into our planning work over the past decade. Our work is focused on providing transportation solutions that improve communities and bring opportunities to the people living and working there. From ensuring that public and stakeholder outreach intentionally reaches and incorporates the input of marginalized communities to incorporating the needs of these populations, we make this a priority in all of our work—even before the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of “essential workers,” and even more so now.  

In 2014, we led the development of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s award-winning Title VI Public Participation Plan, which identified how best to reach a diverse base of transit users. We integrated these lessons into all our subsequent engagement work, and we continue to evolve these practices today. We rely on the evaluation of the needs of minority, low-income, youth, seniors, and zero-car households as we develop transit plans in communities of all sizes, as well as working with transit agencies across the country to develop and implement Title VI Programs and equity analyses. In the COVID and post-COVID world, we are working with transit agencies as they refocus their services on providing access to jobs for essential workers—often Black and other minorities—and helping regions evaluate the equitable distribution of transit. 

However, while we’re proud of the work we’ve done to-date to integrate equity in the transit planning process, we recognize that there is much more to learn and that centering equity in the planning process is something that must be worked at every day. To this end, we reached out to three experts on planning and equity to engage in an honest conversation on the intersection between planning and equity and how it shapes our profession: 

  1. Charles T. Brown, MPA, CPD, LCI is an urban planner, keynote speaker, thought leader, and adjunct professor at Rutgers University who has been an advocate of Black lives and Black voices. 
  2. Monique Earl is the Executive Officer at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation as well as a NACTO Fellow and former Deputy Mayor of the City of Los Angeles. 
  3. Jonathan Brooks is the Director of Policy and Planning at LINK Houston, an organization that “advocates for a robust and equitable transportation network so that all people can reach opportunity. 

The conversations and themes that follow are sobering and enlightening and include concrete next steps to take as our profession grapples with both the racism that is at the center of the history of planning and the lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) individuals in America. A specific set of discussion questions was used to direct the conversation toward the intersection of equity and planning. For the sake of brevity, the overarching themes were taken from those conversations. 

Calls to Action 

Engage the community, value qualitative data

“Infrastructure is a part of it, but it’s more than the built environment, it is the social environment too. Part of the critique of urban planning scholarship is that it focuses too much on the latter and less on the former. The ‘P’ in planning for too long has meant ‘place’ instead of ‘people.’” —Charles Brown 

Formal urban planning education covers the importance of data in multiple regards from a qualitative and quantitative point of view. Proper project planning requires an understanding of project plans, neighborhood context, potential impacts, populations served by the project, and more. Some of this data can be gleaned from a quick search of demographic data (US Census, etc.), some can be gathered from academic publications and current news, and other data needs to be gathered through public engagement in the community where a project is occurring.  

However, far too often in the project process, public engagement can be seen as a tedious requirement rather than as a meaningful step in creating a community-informed plan. Further complicating the process is justified hesitation from the communities that have experienced disinvestment and have frequently been underserved. The people in these communities can sometimes harbor distrust for the planning process, and if public engagement is not deliberate and intentional in who it wants to reach, voices will often go unheard. Monique Earl emphasizes that “as it relates to participant trust it is very important to establish at the onset that the only expert in the room, on any project, are those with the lived experience in the community. Full stop.”  

According to Earl, upon establishing that qualitative data has enormous value comes the responsibility to often prioritize “people’s lived experiences [which] have more value than the potential quantitative data that may be biased in its approach.” Jonathan Brooks points to Houston as a case study in which “data-driven planning instigated or perpetuated [racism at] every stage” of projects with patterns of entrenched disinvestment, segregation of communities with infrastructure, and reduced density and economic competitiveness. He states that “the key is to engage communities from the get-go to help craft plans and empower people” and through this, planners can hopefully overcome any existing distrust from the community. Communities want to see that their opinions are valued and heard and that a project addresses their concerns with concrete action.   

Another critical piece of the public engagement puzzle says Brown, is that as an agency, “you have to diversify your staff so that the people who are going out and engaging with these target areas reflect the diversity of those areas,” because communities will be more trusting of individuals that reflect their own diversity. He also states that these individuals will often bring an understanding to the project that cannot be grasped by planners who do not reflect the makeup of the community.  

Finally, it should be reiterated that the process of community engagement must be a continual process, it should never be a check box that ends before a project is complete. Charles Brown asserts that “it should be a constant process of listening to, responding to, and keeping up to date on the communities that we have engaged with.”  

Let BIPOC voices be heard 

“We have to really say okay, we have heard you and this is what we have done as a result.” —Charles Brown 

Planners and agencies, in this time of political and social strife, need to also use their power and influence to be an ally to Black and Brown individuals and to communities that are frequently unheard and underserved. Jonathan Brooks highlighted a model instance of such an alliance in Houston, where LINK Houston, a transportation equity advocacy organization, joined forces with the community. Brooks explains that “we formed the Affordable Housing + Transportation Task Force to collaborate with about 100 community members (i.e., actual residents of affordable housing and transit riders), housing stakeholders, and transportation stakeholders.” This task force collaborated through various workshops to produce a Housing + Transportation Decision-maker Scorecard; Counselor Facilitation Guide; and Individual Workbook: Considering Transportation in Your Housing Decision.  

While this has been changing in many places in recent years, many of those in leadership roles at public agencies—both at the staff and oversight board level—are often not representative of the communities that they serve. In many cases, agencies must address diversity not only by hiring BIPOC individuals but by empowering them to have a say, influence, and decision-making authority. To reflect on and address racism, social justice, and equity in both planning and our society, there needs to be a collaborative effort of understanding. BIPOC individuals need to be represented at all agency levels and their voices need to be heard, as the lived experience of someone who is non-white can have an impact on how planning decisions are made and be more reflective of the needs of a particular community.   

Rewrite “standards,” be anti-racist 

“When you start to center people in the conversation you find that there are people that have been advantaged and there are people that have been disadvantaged. And as planners you have a moral and a professional obligation to address the needs of all people but particularly those who have been affected by past and current decisions.” —Charles Brown 

The inherent nature of the planning process in many cases lends itself to the notion of “standards,” which do not always come with an attached negative connotation. Standards allow planners to utilize past practices and employ them on future projects; this can be a positive so long as the standards are based in sound, anti-racist planning. The problem with standards and the problem with the phrase “the way things have always been done” is that when it comes to planning policy and project planning, there is often the presence of overt or nuanced racism. For example, zoning has been used in the past to perpetuate inequities within communities, and redlining resulted in a repeated pattern of disinvestment in Black communities. This “standard” will continue to perpetuate these patterns until all discriminatory policies are reversed. To ensure that discriminatory policies are reversed, planners need to carefully consider who and what is defining the standard that a project adheres to.  

Monique Earl stresses that not every neighborhood is looking for the same thing or shares the same values. She notes that “we have to be very careful when we allow prevailing ideas and conventional wisdom to paint society with broad strokes. Every single neighborhood is different and while one community may appreciate the idea of having their street blocked off to cars or adding a bike lane, others may not.” Standards need to be defined by a community and carried out with their best interests in mind, ensuring that planning is intentionally anti-racist; history and data need to inform, but not drive, future decisions.  

For the sake of the planning profession, it is important to point out that when it comes to reversing these patterns of racist standards, the opposite of racism is not the absence of it, but rather the deliberate act of working against the institutionalized racism that persists in our society. For a planner, the act of being anti-racist requires directly working to dismantle policies from the past that perpetuate racist ideas and actively working with BIPOC individuals to understand and solve the racist practices in place today. Jonathan Brooks reasserts that “planners who want to be anti-racist, seeking to reverse the impacts of past and ongoing discriminatory policies, must be data-informed, not solely data-driven.” He goes on to say that “highly effective planners will perceive barriers to plan implementation and deficiencies in public processes and work to create the changes in institutions.” The important takeaway for all planners is that they do not need to have all of the answers at first, and they do not need to be the subject matter expert, but they do need to be intentional in their methodology, thought processes, and practice moving forward to be an anti-racist planner. Finally, and most importantly, as Charles Brown asserted, we as planners have “a moral and professional obligation to seek social justice in [our] work.” At its core, planning is about protecting the most vulnerable.  

Be informed 

“The best thing that urban planners can do is to become educated on the policies that were used to segregate our cities neighborhood by neighborhood, understanding where those policies (in any form) still exist in their respective organizations and then set out to methodically unravel and replace them.” —Monique Earl 

Documentation exists on our history as a country, on slavery, and Jim Crow, and redlining, and every other egregious act of racism and injustice insofar that history should not repeat itself. Yet, that very same institutionalized racism is evident every day, and planners need to become as informed as possible to prevent further perpetuation of the issue. According to Earl, “professionals should now prioritize their concerns with how historic decisions made at various levels of government continually cost humans their lives and livelihood.”  

When dealing with an issue as pervasive as racism, it is important to address the root cause and not just the symptoms. Informing ourselves about the past and engaging with the forces at play will allow planners to create targeted responses in the future and it will allow planners to better serve their communities. Says Brown, “redlining is the symptom of a much larger problem. Housing discrimination is a symptom of a much larger problem. Traffic violence is a symptom. And it’s okay to address the symptoms but you must know what the problem is. The problem is racism.” Once planners understand both the root cause of many problems as well as the associated symptoms, they can develop more well-rounded, community-centric and people-centric plans. Similar to any other type of education, a good option for becoming a more informed planner is to lean on published works that deal with issues of racial injustice in planning.  

Look forward; consider the past 

What [COVID-19] exposed was what is a luxury to some is a necessity to others.

Charles Brown

While the COVID-19 pandemic is getting under control in most parts of the country, over the past 15 months it has ravaged communities, caused cities and transit systems to grind to a halt, and has further laid bare the inequities of our healthcare system, functional city life, and public transit. In response to how the pandemic would change planning, all three individuals explicitly stated that, overwhelmingly, COVID-19 shed light on the state of day-to-day life rather than what the future may look like. BIPOC individuals are disproportionately impacted both by the physiological effects of the virus but also the socio-economic results. The important thing now for the planning profession, is that we do not forget these disparities as they recede from the spotlight with the pandemic. BIPOC communities are, and will continue to be after the pandemic, often more reliant on public transit. Their vitality needs to be served and aided by transit service, equitable planning policy, and the same intentionality and awareness currently made possible by COVID-19. Earl suggests that “planning must be looked at comprehensively with an understanding that each part of the process is intricately linked to the other in order to effectuate the most ideal outcome.” Looking to the future, Jonathan Brooks says, “we hope planners and elected officials are motivated to take longer strides to improve the practical function of the walk/roll/bike/transit networks, so people can move about safely, affordably, reliably, and with dignity during the remainder of the pandemic and in the new normal that emerges after.”  

Photo from Kiera Burton via Pexels.