“I want to express my discomfort that we, as privileged white people, are discussing racial injustice without African American speakers on this panel. I want us to reckon with that,” said Allison Arieff, research and creative director at SPUR and op-ed contributor to The New York Times, during a plenary at the Congress for New Urbanism’s Virtual Gathering.
The non-diverse panel comprising Arieff, Emily Badger, a reporter for The New York Times‘ The Upshot blog, and moderator Todd Zimmerman, principal at Zimmerman/Volk Associates, reached the conclusion that the twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustices are inextricably linked.
The pandemic and racial injustice protest movement are “exposing how poorly our systems work,” Arieff argued. As SPUR outlined in its recent Letter to White Urbanists, “the city is under strain because these places are not safe and healthy for everyone. White people are the problem and have to fix it.”
Badger, who covers all facets of urban policy for the Times, has been wrestling with a number of questions related to the pandemic when she realized the impacts of COVID-19 were connected with structural racism.
At first, she sought to answer big questions about the pandemic, such as: “Can we reconcile the benefits of density with its risks? Will a fear of density cause people to move to the suburbs? Will a fear of transit cause people to use cars more? Will transit agencies survive the collapse in funding? Will people working from home stay there permanently?”
With the understanding that racial inequalities in housing, education, transportation, land use are all connected, questions shifted to: “How does the police fit in with all of this? They are a part of this ecosystem of inequality and maintain racial segregation. What is their role? Why have segregation and poverty levels hardly budged since the 1960s? Why have income and racial inequalities become even worse? Should we spending more on housing than the police?”
Badger found that “COVID and race are not separate stories. Racial disparities and inequalities are feeding COVID and driving the protests.” Furthermore, COVID is likely to leave “lasting damage in the movement for racial equality,” as everything from deaths from the virus to evictions due to loss of jobs will be disproportionately higher in communities of color.
“Many of us working from home are protected and isolated. We don’t need to acknowledge how poorly the system works for most people,” Arieff said. “But the pandemic shows how fragile the social safety net is. Unemployment insurance doesn’t cover a huge set of workers. We can’t shut off evictions. Many didn’t realize schools feed a vast number of low-income students. Homeless people are now of interest because they could be carrying disease. All our structures are inadequate and need to be deeply rethought.”
One structure that many are calling for a total rethink is the police force. A recent analysis of police budgets in 150 cities by the Times found that police departments on average account for 8 percent of city budgets, and those numbers have gone up over the past 40 years even as crime has declined.
As police forces have grown, they have taken on more responsibilities. “They are now working with homeless populations and in schools. They have become mental health counselors and intervene in domestic abuse,” Badger explained. There is growing debate in many cities about taking away some of their responsibilities or defunding them. “Now that we know the jobs that they are doing, do we want them doing them?”
The ever expanding responsibilities of police forces is linked with the reduction in federal funds for social services and anti-poverty programs. Given there are no other groups mediating what is acceptable behavior in public spaces, “police have by default taken on the role,” Badger said. Instead, “community groups could take over some of the roles police are now playing.” Arieff commented that perhaps defund the police movement could be rebranded as “lightening the load.”
The debate turned to how the built environment professions — planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers — need to change how they work. Arieff said that “there is no easy, pat answer. Design is a top-down, white male-dominated field. But these issues aren’t limited to the design industry.”
The power structures in the built environment “controlled by white people have benefited them. White neighborhoods benefit from exclusionary zoning laws. Property values increase when there is no affordable housing near you,” Badger said.
Arieff argued that critical next steps are to “listen more and make greater effort to recruit panels of color for design conferences.”
To survive and grow, the design world needs to diversify. As an example, she pointed to Next City, a publication focused on cities, that changed the make-up of its editorial staff, significantly diversifying its team of writers. The result was that “readership massively diversified and grew.”
The conversation then veered to whether the concept of “eyes on the street,” and crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) in general, unjustly target people of color.
Arieff argued that “it’s not all or nothing. I’m not ready to dismiss the concept. There are different contexts and behaviors. We can’t homogenize all places. Different people of color use public space differently. We must be more open to how different cultures use public space.”
Zimmerman, the moderator, added that a once common description of a healthy city was that it was safe for a 7 year old. He thinks this should be changed to “safe for a 7 year old black child.”