Re-imagining City Planning After the Protests

Summer Seminar features discussion of urban planning's role in social justice
June 26, 2020
A small lake with Minneapolis high-rise buildings in the background
A Minneapolis scene. Photo: Meet Minneapolis

In the aftermath of George Floyd's murder and the ongoing crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, attention has turned to the role of urban planners in reshaping our cities with a social justice approach. Both crises underline the historical legacy of urban planning as an instrument of racial power shaping contemporary disparities in Minneapolis and cities across the country.  

In an online forum Thursday, Humphrey School faculty and alumni discussed how urban planning can be reimagined to respond to current challenges. The forum was part of the School’s Summer Seminar Series, which features Humphrey School faculty experts discussing a variety of topics every Thursday at noon through the summer. 

Here are excerpts from the conversation featuring Associate Professor Ryan Allen, Assistant Professor Fernando Burga, and alumnus Denetrick Powers (MURP '18). Powers is co-founder and director of planning and engagement of NEOO Partners. The discussion was moderated by alumna LisaBeth Barajas (MURP '04), community development director at the Metropolitan Council.

Responses were edited for length and clarity. 

On the ideology of the field of urban planning: 

Fernando Burga (FB): My notion of the underlying ideology of urban planning is white supremacy. It’s embedded in the systems that define urban planning—transportation, parks, housing, land use, and emergent systems such as education and food access. This is a really difficult issue to think about, especially for white people who are becoming aware of the different aspects of their lives that are informal white supremacy, but it is something that we must recognize. 

Ryan Allen (RA): One way of understanding the ideology of planning is to understand it as promoting and replicating and reinforcing the status quo, not just today but in in history—from codified racialized zoning and "sundown towns," to racial covenants and redlining, to the large federally sponsored urban renewal programs and transportation infrastructure, to exclusionary zoning that still exists today and has been reinforced in many communities.

So the ideology of planning is certainly one of white supremacy and reinforces economic systems that favor whites over Blacks. And it is unfortunately, I think, very entrenched.

On being a person of color living in Minnesota:  

Denetrick Powers (DP):  When I’m asked about my Humphrey School experience, I joke that I was trying to start fires … on purpose. I was very angry. There were times where I felt like I wasn't being heard, or I was being ignored. There were times where even if someone didn't have the answer, instead of admitting that they didn't have the answer, they just ignored me, which is one of the issues that you see in urban planning, specifically in community engagement. Instead of saying, ‘I don't know the answer, but here's what I do know, and here's how you could possibly figure it out based on the tools that I have,’ we just ignore the community. And people are just getting tired of being ignored.

FB: Living in Minnesota as a person of color amazing; it’s an experience unto itself. I grew up in places in which people spoke Spanish openly in public, and that would not work against your social capital. In fact, it gave you social capital. Minnesota is different because people of color and minorities find themselves surrounded by the white gaze, and the projections of white liberal imagination, and the capacities and limits of what minorities represent. It's a question of numbers, a question of power, a question of who's elected, a question of the representations that surround us and tell us that we belong or not. 

Having been here for a while, I always joke that I never thought white people would be so interesting. And I say that because I also recognize the complexity and diversity in the experience of whiteness being here, moving through this very difficult space. And that opens a lot of difficult questions for people of color, especially in planning and policy systems work, like how do we create new bonds and relationships, how do we think about allyship or becoming accomplices? How do we think beyond the usual toolkits and keywords that define racial awareness, when some white people are just now starting to become aware of race and white privilege? 

On obstacles to changing our current planning systems: 

DP: I think the first challenge is how we measure impact. People will first jump to a quantitative formula about how to measure white privilege and social capital. I would say that you can't. I wouldn't know how to—it's an internal measurement that I have with myself, whether I have a wealth of social capital or don't. It begins with me, and how those people that I surround myself  with make me feel. So how we approach measurement is a big challenge in moving towards social justice in urban planning, because everything is so quantitative.  

RA: One of the major barriers, in my opinion, is the complete inadequacy of the tools that we imagine we have at our disposal as planners, given the crisis in front of us. For example, a recent story in The New York Times examined research showing that the racial disparity and earnings for Black and white men have been constant from 1952 until now.

If you think about the legal changes in the civil rights movement, everything that's occurred since the '50s, and to know that the economic outcome is unchanged, that kind of deep and persistent disparity remains, and we respond to that with offering triplexes in the city of Minneapolis.

I don't mean to downplay how difficult it was to pass a comprehensive plan that did away with single family zoning, and many other things in that plan—but I do believe that if we are serious about moving to social justice we're not going to be able to nibble around the edges. If we are going to rely on that kind of strategy, then we're going to be mired hopelessly, in my opinion, in trying to change dramatic societal problems.

If we're going to imagine a new beginning for what our society can be, I believe it has to be predicated on economic advantage and equality. Not just the promise of being able to get a job, but the actual delivery of having economic opportunity across racial boundaries, which is currently not the case.

LisaBeth Barajas (LB): I think we all recognize here that planning has played a large role in setting the foundation. Once you segregate people, it's easy to decide who gets what resources. You can separate them from jobs, and you can separate them from schools, and you can make it easy to limit people’s access to the things they need to have full and complete lives.  

FB: There is this tension between the fixed nature of the comprehensive plan, the demographic analysis based on census data that places and identifies people of color in the city in pathological spaces, spaces of emergency, spaces of perception, versus all the thriving practices, ideas, and innovations that are going on in these locations that are not visible to urban planning practices, because we rely on the demographic data to tell us what to do. 

I would argue that this crisis of measurement actually redefines whiteness and reproduces white supremacy because, in my opinion, the numbers actually serve to paralyze white people from actually doing the difficult work of going there, of taking the risk to go beyond the census data and the demographic analysis to actually build the relationships, observe and understand the practices, so that we can imagine how we do policy work and planning. That's the challenge.

On using the momentum of the protests following George Floyd's murder to make changes: 

RA: In my experience, the most effective planners are those that have deep trusted relationships in the community. And the unfortunate reality is that many planners don't ever establish those. The municipal planners parachute in when they are doing a comprehensive plan, they do a cursory kind of participatory activity, and call it a day. And I think many of us acknowledge that is clearly insufficient.

FB: We need to think about planning as not this large document, but something that is discrete, provisional, temporary—something that involves relationships, something that may be on the ground, which appears and disappears, and also has a very lasting impact. 

Consider, how do we understand and how do we plan for George Floyd's memorial? How do we make sense of that space in our work? That space will remain permanent in our lives forever. That's a sacred and profane space at the same time, which is magical in its expression. How do we think of the emergency food access points that are sprouting all over Lake Street and West Broadway? How do we think of the self-help housing efforts and encampments that are going on at Powderhorn Park?

What do we do with those experiences, and how does the comprehensive plan actually address them? We don't have the languages, we don't have tools, we don't have ways of seeing and visibility to be able to truly grasp that experience. And I would argue those experiences of the city are going to become more permanent, they're going to become more of the status quo. 

DP: One of the things that the Humphrey School could do is start training planners to be organizers. Not mobilizers, such as Get Out the Vote efforts, but actually getting people building relationships, developing leaders, developing people's capacity to be able to lead themselves, and acting as a resource and a facilitator among multiple different stakeholders; somebody who's going to come into a room and ask questions, instead of always having the answer.

Right now you have all these community members who are organizing food drives, resource drives, who are taking care of each other, trying to figure out whatever it is that the city is going to do. They're not waiting on the city; they always get it done. That's what these poor communities have always done.