Monday, March 26, 2012

Why walkability would not have saved Trayvon Martin and Why Planners need to Look at Inequality

By now even the most uninformed of individuals has heard of the story of Trayvon Martin and his death in Sanford, FL. This story has transformed, thanks largely in part to the persistent pressure of folks on varied social media platforms, especially twitter, demanding greater information, accountability for the Sanford police department and justice for Trayvon. In many ways, it is a testament to the power of social media to sway greater traditional media by grabbing the attention of mainstream journalists and getting them to wonder what all the fuss is about. There has been a barrage of columns and commentaries on Trayvon's killing. Some have been incredibly heartfelt expressing what Trayvon's death represents in terms of living as a black man and the existential angst and terror that accompanies it, the experiences of black women in relation to living with the memory of dead black boys and men. Other posts have attacked Trayvon or defended his killer, George Zimmerman, by excusing Zimmerman's belief that Trayvon was suspicious because he wore a hoodie, and other individuals (who I refuse to link here, y'all can use your search engine of choice to corroborate) defend Zimmerman by casting aspersions upon Trayvon's character or saying that Zimmerman was justified in shooting Trayvon because Trayvon may have bested him in a physical altercation.

There has been a lot written, and even more said, about this horrific event. Recently, over the past few days, urban thinkers and planners have started to wade into the case with a more critical eye, looking at Trayvon's neighborhood and seeing how the built environment may have inadvertently contributed to Trayvon's death or, vice versa, how different design could have saved Trayvon's life. One article, in particular jumps out to me,  bettercities.net. This article looks at the gated community that Trayvon was visting and, astutely, points out how such communities are designed for those who own cars and that walkers are often marginalized in such places. The article goes on to describe how the economic downturn has helped to concentrate some poverty and that the residents were "majority-minority" with a large Hispanic and Black population and how George Zimmerman had a long history of viewing black males as suspicious and calling 911 in order to make this complex as inhospitable as possible for those he viewed as interlopers. All of this is pretty boilerplate stuff, but then the article takes a weird turn where the author talks about how if the development had been more friendly to walkers that this tragedy could have been avoided. I stopped. I re-read the line.

Okay...for the record, I am not anti-pedestrian or walkability, but we, as planners and urban thinkers, need to think MUCH more critically about these kinds of subjects before going directly to environmentally deterministic modes of thought. A walkable neighborhood would not have saved Trayvon Martin, just like being in a pleasant, walkable downtown did not save Emmit Till's life. It is incredibly frustrating to read an article that points to how greater socioeconomic and political forces have shaped the character of this development and explicitly mentions how George Zimmerman has frequently engaged in racially charged attacks on black males, and then crow about the need for walkability. How does walkability change ANY of the reasons that article JUST listed that contributed to Trayvon's death? You have a housing development that has been buffeted by the economic downturn, that suffers from entrenched racial and social tension that is omnipresent in American life, a man, with delusions of grandeur, carrying
a concealed firearm, and a local police department that has shown relative indifference in the case of a killed young black man. Somehow building more sidewalks and mixed-use developments are supposed to have saved Trayvon. Let's forget that racial profiling is rampant, like New York's "stop and frisk" policy that explicitly target Black and Hispanic men, or that Black men have gotten shot literally any where people end up, including transit stations, or in a car. These cases are not about neighborhood design, they are about racial profiling, the perception of Black criminality, the devaluing of the Black body in the eyes of the state. These cases also call into question issues of class, gender, and a myriad of other important topics. And yes, the physical environment can be an incredibly vital part of these equations, but focusing only on the physical environment without interrogating the socioeconomic structures that placed them there is, at best, myopic, or, at worst, dishonest.

Yes, encouraging walkability can get at some of the forces that placed Trayvon Martin the situation he was in, but it ENTIRELY ignores issues of racism, inequality, racial, ethnic and income segregation, and poverty; issues that many planners and urbanists are absolutely COMPLICIT in extending. Professors June Manning Thomas and Marsha Ritzdorf have a great book called Urban Planning and the African American Community, an edited volume of the role that planning and planners have had in the shaping of the African American community in the 20th century. Planners, from the North and South, have long worked with established political powers to encourage segregation, through zoning, have actively inhibited the ability of African Americans to gain access to affordable housing, have allowed for systemic disinvestment of communities and the rise of slums, and supervised the destruction of countless neighborhoods through urban renewal. As planners, we are taught to take responsibility for urban renewal and the resulting sprawl and we constantly flog ourselves to remind us to never repeat the mistakes of the 50s and 60s, and yet, within these discussions we are not forced to see how we are also complicit in designing, maintaining, and defending a built environment that reinforces social inequality. If we cannot own the fact that many policies we have encouraged or continue to encourage are indifferent to the poor and communities of color, then WE ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM.

We should look at planners, architects, and designers and ask them why they would build gated communities in the first place? Look at architects and designers and ask them why it is so uncommon to see uplifting positive, innovative designs for affordable housing. Ask city and regional planners why their own cities don't have inclusionary zoning or other regulations that at least attempt to mitigate the concentration of poverty and can expand good housing stock for low-income individuals. Look at architecture firms and ask them why their field is overwhelmingly white and male. Until we look at how we contribute to a society that criminalizes black people, that segregates our populations based on race and class, and implicitly accepts the notion that redevelopment and gentrification and displacement must go in hand in hand, then we are part of the problem.

Yes, I understand that the role of the planner in most places is that of a public servant. We do not make policy on our own and it may not be appropriate to lobby for particular policies etc...I recognize those limits. But I also say that if you use that as your reasoning as to why you do not speak up or advocate for vulnerable or oppressed populations, then you are STILL part of the problem. We, as a field, need to embrace our roles as guardians of the public interest and return back our roles as ensuring the equitable distribution of public goods. We should push for affordable housing, as a field and as academicians and practitioners, we should push fair and equal access to transportation, we should push for adequate and equal infrastructure provisions for all of our citizens. Anything less and then you get gated communities where black men are seen as intruders, not residents, and therefore open not only to execution, but also not worth the time and resources to prosecute his killer.

And if all you see when you look at this case is that the neighborhood had a low walkability score, then you're not looking hard enough. I'm out.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Race, Class, and Privilege: A Brief Reflection

I'm writing for many, many reasons. The first is that I've gotten A LOT of responses from people on my post on biking and privilege. Some of it has been quite positive, some quite negative, others have respectfully challenged my positions, and I try to respond to them all. I've actually really enjoyed the back and forth with some thoughtful commenters (I see you, Fern) and I realize that in the interest of brevity and being provocative, some of my larger critiques were not entirely clear.

The second is because earlier this week I went to a critique at my university's architecture school and I got to witness third-year architecture students try to describe their designs for a "hip-hop" community center in East Portland. The result was seeing a bunch of kids, and professors and professional architect reviewers. with no familiarity with hip-hop, no connection to the neighborhood or communities that this building will serve (it was noted at the beginning that the Rosewood neighborhood was "unique" because it had population characteristics similar to the rest of the country [read: it had people of color] all while the students and professors in charge we uniformly white and middle class). The results, after viewing three critiques, were a series of strained metaphors of what hip-hop is and how these buildings would save Rosewood's kids from lives of crime and gangbanging. It perfectly illustrated how having such a homogeneous student body can deaden creativity but it also illustrated the problematic nature of a field like architecture that purports to represent varied cultures, communities, or arts when many architects have no familiarity or intimacy with the concepts or communities they purport to represent.

My last reason why I feel this post is necessary is because of Trayvon Martin. The inadequate summary of events thus far is this: two weeks ago, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch member shot and killed Trayvon as he was walking back to his stepmother's house from a local convenience store to pick up food for his little cousins. Zimmerman, while sitting in his car, saw Martin walking back home at night in the rain and decided he looked "suspicious". He then called 911 to report the suspicious character to police and he was told by 911 dispatchers that a cruiser was being sent and to stay put. Zimmerman decided he would pursue Martin, so he got out of his car, chased Martin down the street, they got into a fist fight and then Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. Where is Zimmerman? He's walking the streets of Sanford, FL and the local police have not charged him because they claim there is a lack of evidence to charge him and they have kicked the case to the local prosecutor.

What do these disparate topics have to do with issues of privilege, race, or class? In short, everything. First let's try to unpack this concept of "privilege". All three of these examples are textbook cases of "white privilege". Succinctly, white privilege are the benefits that white people accrue simply from being white. While this idea is not particularly new, Peggy Mcintosh's classic essay on "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" is a great exposition from a white woman on exploring the implications of privilege (starting from the subject of male privilege in feminist theory) and extending that to issues regarding race. She gives a series of statements illustrating many of the unstated benefits of white privilege, here are some examples:

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area, which I can
afford and in which I would want to live.

3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely

6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my
color made it what it is.

7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their

8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.

9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket
and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone
who can cut my hair.

And the list goes on from there. As you can see, white privilege is a nuanced, complex, subtle phenomenon and the greatest example of white privilege is the ability for white people to ignore that it exists. This is not the case for people of color in this country. The reason why I bring up this idea of white privilege is to point out that there are many forms of privilege and they shift and change depending where you are. As a male, I have male privilege. I recognize that the ways I learn and communicate are often rewarded compared to other forms. I know that people will assume that I am more rational based on my gender than a woman and a myriad other small advantages I receive every day based on my gender. I can't necessarily eliminate sexism or the structural and cultural institutions that exacerbate it, but I can recognize my privilege and attempt to act in a way that is self-reflective and that respects the views and experiences of other people. I cannot impose my own particular worldview, and by extension the advantages that I unfairly receive that they may not benefit from, onto other people. It's counterproductive and if you are actually interested in addressing a problem, then it distracts from looking at deep, structural causes of many issues.

In my biking post, I wanted to illustrate that the normative rhetoric regarding voluntary bike commuting and sustainable living often comes from a privileged position that does not recognize the lived differences and experiences of people that would lead to choose not to bike. I tried to describe how simply lambasting non-bikers for not living sustainably, for not living close to their place of work, for not being willing to take a shower at their job after biking, is counterproductive and misses the multitude of reasons, structural, cultural, institutional, economic, and behavioral that go into someone's choice of their dominant mode of transit. Frankly, we cannot talk about getting more people to bike without talking about housing-jobs geographical mismatch, we cannot talk about getting more women to bike if we don't talk about the beauty standards that women have to meet in the professional workplace that make bike commuting a less viable option for them, we cannot talk about getting more people to bike if we don't seriously examine the multitude of factors that go into transportation choices. The situation is much more complex than simply building more bike lanes (although we should have better infrastructure for cyclists). I am not anti-cyclist. I wish that people could live where they could choose a multitude of affordable and sustainable transportation choices, but until we get to a point where everyone has that opportunity and we live in a culture that does not unfairly penalize individuals for choosing to bike, then we are NOT helping the situation by criticizing people who choose to not bike for legitimate reasons. We should be examining much more deeply how people feel about certain modes of transit and how can we best offer them services that they want/need, and not simply champion one mode over another and pathologize those populations that choose not to participate.

This position of privilege is also reflected in my other two examples. It is mindboggling to me that you have a profession that purports to represent and serve communities, yet it was obvious that not only did this particularly university group have a decidedly monochromatic make up, but they spent very little to zero time actually talking with the people in the neighborhood that they are designing a building for, AND they had very little actual connection with the art/culture, hip-hop, that this community center was to be based around. When your entre into hip-hop culture is a hip-hop dance course (really) and you live in a city that doesn't have a hip-hop station other than your top-40 pop station, it is absurd to think that you could reflect the feelings/desires/needs of a community. It's beyond arrogant. Combine that with an especially offensive presentation that made the Rosewood neighborhood sound like Beirut (seriously, this one student designed her building with bulletproof glass and put the kids common area of the third floor because she said people often shoot at eye level, not up) and not a SINGLE reviewer called her out on her assumptions regarding the neighborhood and you see how institutional racism is reproduced in the academy and in other professional fields. And what makes this worse is that such attitudes are precisely the kinds of attitudes that lead people like George Zimmerman to look at a kid like Trayvon Martin and not see just a kid walking home but to see a criminal and someone deserving of being killed.

Until we ALL step back and examine our own privilege that comes from our gender, race, income levels, religious affiliation etc we won't be able to move forward and we'll certainly have a hell of a hard time communicating with people that are different from us. Being "colorblind" or saying you "don't see race" doesn't eliminate the privileges you receive, all it does is ignore the real differences that other people live every day. And that's a crying shame.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Knotted Cities, Planning, and Embracing Messiness

I had a fascinating exchange on twitter this morning with my classmate, RJ (@rjkoscielniak, follow him). He posted an article from the New York Times looking at Rio's central command center designed by IBM. It's an integrated command center that takes data from around the entire city through a series of sensors, GPS trackers etc and brings it all into one area where the city can, ideally, react to disasters in a coordinated fashion, better manage large events (like Carnival) and get a better hold on the city as a whole.

The planner and geek in me absolutely LOVES reading stuff like this. I'm a sucker for the rationalist/managerial approach and I think it has its place and necessity, especially in a world where we have cities of 10, 15, and 20 million people. When you have that many people, combined with cities that are often more informal than formal, trying to exert control over it is a natural (and I would argue, good) instinct.

What RJ pointed out to me, well of the many things he pointed out, was that systems like this give a false sense of security because it does not recognize the inherent complexity and messiness of lived urban life, at all scales. To quote him,"...complexity is hidden in a sea of panoramic data". What systems like IBM's ignore is the constitutive and adaptive nature of cities. This system works in one direction and imposes rules and linearity to a system that flows in multiple directions up and down scale and is "knotted". To put it as RJ did,"...systems like this ignore the natural dialogue between cities and its residents". People adapt and use the city as they need to every day. We walk across empty lots or through buildings to get to work, we have rooftop or windowsill gardens, we open up fire hydrants in the summer, we have rent parties or block parties. We also steal, salvage, scrap, tag, and burn the our cities. We have deep networks of residents, neighborhood leaders, elders, cops, politicians, teachers etc that all play into how we interact with our cities and our governments. Top-down approaches (and as a planner I am often engaged in designing and thinking about top-down approaches) often ignore this incredibly complex urban milieux in an attempt to tame it, to control it, and, ultimately, to predict and guide it.

As I said, I'm sympathetic to the planner here, it's what I am. But RJ made a great point about residents and the city being constitutive (one affects the other and vice versa) and adaptable and how planning does not adequately speak to that, and in an attempt to exert control over the city and its operations it has to obscure or ignore these forces. We cannot grasp the city as such, the more tightly we attempt to grasp it, the faster it flits away. Even in a world where London is under constant scrutiny and surveillance by an intrusive state, you can still have catastrophic subway bombings or riots. The only way to "tame" the city is to become totalitarian, to monitor everyone and to remove all choice and freedom. There are some who insist that planners are seeking to do this or that the past decade has seen us take bigger steps towards that ultimate outcome. I do not believe this is so, but the critique and implications are strong.

We cannot "solve" the city. It is ultimately unknowable, and I'm ok with that. But given this insolubility, we have to better respect the lived experience of city residents at all levels. A building that collapses due to neglect and people stealing its bricks and piping is a natural part of urban decay. The city consumes and recycles its own wastes. Just as "informal" housing (also known as "slums") is a sign of city's natural, informal, chaotic growth. What I think planners should do is to find a way to include these areas and actions into their understanding of the city and into their "interventions". Are slums and favelas huge issues in many cities? Most certainly. But the answer is not blight clearance and displacement but to find ways to include and absorb such areas and respect the fact that people live and flourish there. Mapping schemes, infrastructure advancement, the opening of clinics to assist with health...these are positive steps that recognize and cooperate with the informal and the messy.

RJ says that one of his many goals is to tear down the separation between the "informal and formal". While we often butt heads on how far we should go, I do believe that planners, as well as "urbanists" (whatever they happen to be), need to respect the lived experience of those who are already here. We need to embrace the complex messiness of the city. Otherwise we are simply hoping to grasp shadows, reflections of reality that comfortably conform to our assumptions and rules.