Taubman College’s Symposium “Planning in a ‘Post-Racial’ Society (?): New Directions and Challenges” asked the question: do we live in a post-racial society? The existence of this question, and its inclusion in the title, suggests that a “post-racial” America is not a completely far-fetched notion. However, as the symposium panelists asserted the new dialogue on race in America might not be post-racial. In fact, what may be passing as post-racial might really be race blindness, or the blindness of difference. The planning profession has been guilty of such blindness, despite the importance of race to the profession’s history and future. For Taubman College, this symposium was a major step in the right direction. The conversations facilitated by the symposium have presented steps that the field of planning must take to address race, difference, and ultimately social justice. The first step is the recruitment of minorities to the profession. Next, the curriculum must change to include the history and perspective of minorities. Lastly, the planning process has to change from one of exclusion and blindness to one of awareness and support of the difference that makes up the American landscape.
The field of planning can address issues of social justice by recruiting a more diverse student body to planning programs leading to more diverse practicing planners.[i] Whether or not we live in a post-racial society, and the subsequent disappearance of affirmative action policies begs the question of whether recruitment of minorities is even necessary. However, the planning field has had notoriously low representation of African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos, a situation that has not improved significantly over time.[ii] Lack of representation is problematic for many reasons; however, one reason the field should be pursuing diversity is the benefit a more diverse group of planners could have on communities. Diversity has the possibility of leading to a much more robust, thoughtful, and creative planning process. During the symposium, Lisa Bates discussed the possible retributions of not having more diversity in the field of planning. She mentioned an incident in Portland where a mostly white group of planners built a bike lane in a mostly minority neighborhood. The community did not ask for, or want a bike lane in their neighborhood. The lack of communication between planners and the community they were working in led to major backlash. This incident showed local planners’ inability to make good decisions in neighborhoods of difference where community values and desires may be different from the normative. Additionally, it revealed an inability to facilitate an open planning process in situations of difference. While diversity in planning may not prevent all situations like this from happening, it can certainly help to give a voice to minority populations who have borne the brunt of bad planning practices in the past.
Karen Umemoto asserts that a more diverse cohort of planners have tremendous power. Ultimately, they have the power to “level the playing field” and empower the “silenced communities.” In the context of planning practice:
Political co-operation requires a less substantial unity than shared understandings or a common good, it requires first that people whose lives and actions affect one another in a web of institutions, interactions, and unintended consequences acknowledge that they are together in such space of mutual effect.[iii]
If diversity in the planning field can take this simple step, then the effect planners have on communities will be exponentially more valuable. Ultimately, while the planning field needs more diversity to promote the field’s own relevance, this pursuit should not simply be done for the betterment of the field itself. Recruitment efforts are meaningless if there is no consensus as to why more diversity is important. As an audience member of the symposium also said, diversity cannot simply be for the good of all; it must be done in the pursuit of justice and in an active effort to end discrimination for those groups that experience it. If these values of justice are not present in recruitment efforts then it will be meaningless. [iv]
Diversity in the field of planning will not be enough to lead to better practices. Training in planning schools must also include a shift form the normative. While it might seem obvious, minority viewpoints are integral to a more authentic planning curriculum. Umemoto explains how meaning affects a planner’s understanding of the urban landscape: “When a planner enters a community, he or she enters into a cultural setting at a particular historic moment. Culture, history, and collective memory shape the interpretive frames through which meaning is made.”[v] While collective memory is nearly impossible to teach, a better understanding of culture and history outside of the normative culture can be attained in the classroom and will be integral to practice in all types of communities. Umemoto notes that while understanding every cultural paradigm might be impossible, “It is not unrealistic, however, to create the foundation for social learning that emphasizes multiple epistemologies within planning processes.”[vi] It is this foundation that planning programs should aim to create.
Conversely, not changing curriculum could have real consequences. Maintaining the status quo when it comes to curriculum could impede the recruitment process through exclusion. Even if planning programs recruited a more diverse student body to Masters and PhD programs, students might not stay if they find that courses have very little to do with their own history and understanding of their communities.[vii] This effect can be compounded if the technical courses teach skills that perpetuate inequality.[viii] Leonie Sandercock and Betsey Sweet emphasized alternative methods in planning practice, including storytelling and non-verbal modes of research. Umemoto states that, “storytelling is a commonly used method of passing on knowledge or sharing an understanding of self or a place and time.”[ix] While planners are taught quantitative research methods, these methods may not be the only necessary tools to solve urban problems. By exploring alternative data gathering techniques such as storytelling or body language analysis, planners may become better at understanding diverse communities.
Finally, planning practices must also reflect the increased diversity of professionals and changes to planning curriculum. The first change required is how planners deal with difference in their practice. Planners can never be “’neutral observers’ in the politics of difference. Any set of rules established by planners and state agencies will reward some kinds of recognition claims while discouraging others.”[x] It is tempting for planners to take the stance of neutral, or color-blind in situations of difference. However, as the symposium asserted over and over again, we do not live in a post-racial society, and ignoring difference perpetuates urban problems. Christina L. Ross said that if we stop talking about racism then we are complicit in its existence. Lisa Bates echoed this point in saying that difference should be embraced and not ignored, especially in the spatial makeup of our cities. Furthermore, Bates asserted that it is not the existence of strong black communities that perpetuates the urban underclass, it is the segregation of black communities from the rest of the urban community. Assimilation of the urban framework is not the answer to segregation, rather embracing difference and ending discrimination will allow every person to enjoy the benefits of urban assets while maintaining their own identity.
However, the inclusion of difference may lead to conflict.[xi] One reason for this is that planners must understand how and why group identities form.[xii] Many group identities form not from a sense of inclusion, but rather exclusion from normative or powerful sectors of society. [xiii] This means that the group identity might be based on the very conflict with another self identified group with whom planners may be working. This does not mean that conflict will be impossible to resolve; however, it does emphasize the importance in being aware of group identity and facilitating conflict resolution between differing groups accordingly.
The future of planning should be focused on confronting urban issues based on discrimination. Discrimination constrains through impoverished neighborhoods, the criminal system, and a growing disregard for difference. While deconstructing the social structures that lead to inequality in the urban environment will certainly not happen over night, socially just planning practices will have their hand in deconstructing the power of a discriminatory society, and will lead to more just cities. By increasing diversity in planning, changing the skills gained in planning schools, and how reworking normative practices, planners can pursue a just city. This can only be done if the field recognizes the importance of race, and embraces difference not as an issue, or as an uncomfortable topic of discussion, but as an expression of the diversity on which cities are founded.
Fincher, Ruth and Kurt Iverson, “Conceptualizing Recognition in Planning,” in Readings in Urban Theory, ed. Susan F. Fainstein and Scott Campbell, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2011).
Thomas, June Manning. “Educating Planners: Unified Diversity for Social Action,” Journal of Planning Education and Research, 15 (1996).
Thomas, June Manning. “The Minority-Race Planner in the Quest for a Just City,” in Readings in Planning Theory ed. Susan F. Fainstein and Scott Campbell (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2012).
Umemoto, Karen. “Walking in Another's Shoes: Epistemological Challenges in Participatory Planning,” Journal of Planning Education and Research 21(2001).
Young, Iris Marion. “Inclusion and Democracy,” in Readings in Planning Theory, ed. Susan F. Fainstein and Scott Campbell (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2011).