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.

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