How Urban Design Perpetuates Racial Inequality—And What We Can Do About It

Our cities weren’t created equal. But they don’t have to stay that way.



Cities are complex organisms shaped by myriad forces, but their organization bears the fingerprints of planners and policy makers who have shaped them for decades. At the root of many of these practices is racism, and modern cities bear the legacy of that discrimination.

In an era of social protest, when movements like Black Lives Matter are bringing inequality back into the national conversation, it’s time to reassess the practices that have perpetuated these problems—and how we fix them.

But the first step is understanding the urban policies that got us here. For decades, planners slashed through neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal and slum clearance, underwritten by federal funding from the Housing Act of 1949 and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, displacing residents using tactics like eminent domain and condemnation laws.

As a result, much of our highway system courses through black neighborhoods(which helps explain why they’ve often become spaces of civil protest). “This method fails,” wrote grassroots urbanist Jane Jacobs in the Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the most influential planning books ever written. “At best it merely shifts slums from here to there, adding its own tincture of extra hardship and disruption. At worst, it destroys neighborhoods where constructive and improving communities exist and where the situation calls for encouragement rather than destruction.”

Access to public transportation—which affects everyone in a city but disproportionately impacts low-income and minority neighborhoods—is another factor. In the San Francisco Bay Area, some have argued that the scarcity of public transit in certain neighborhoods is an intentional tactic to keep affluent communities isolated and more segregated. Robert Moses purposefully designed some overpasses on Long Island to be too low for buses to drive under them, thereby segregating one of its beaches from low-income residents. “Legislation can always be changed. It’s very hard to tear down a bridge once it’s up,” he told his biographer, Robert Caro.

Realtors have also contributed to racial segregation through practices likeblockbusting—using scare tactics to convince white homeowners to sell cheaply—and racial steering—guiding prospective homebuyers to certain neighborhoods based on race. This process has led to increased racial tensions, as is what happened in East New York, a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn which has recently been rezoned in an effort that some say will lead to more racial displacement. Others view the rezoning as necessary to boost affordable housing stock in the city.

These examples are by no means an exhaustive list of how racism has influenced modern cities, but representations of how complex and deep the problem is. Recognizing that design can’t solve all of our social problems, we asked architects, scholars, urbanists, and planners to share their recommendations for ways design can be a starting point for more equitable cities.


Justin Moore, an architecture professor at Columbia University, believes that while designers focus on creative solutions for urban problems, issues that are rarely broached are shortfalls within the profession, like diversity, a deep understanding of the communities in which they’re building, and the methodology of design education.

“There is a need to redesign the designers, and to give them the tools and competencies to work within social constructs and spatial contexts that they are meant to serve. Designers spend much of their academic and professional training to build the spatial, technical, communication, and critical-thinking skills that are needed to do the difficult work of transforming spaces and places. They use their skills, often with good intentions and ‘best practices,’ toward results that may not align with what is needed or wanted in a given context.

“There are major blind spots, and the design professions and design education systems need to develop other sensibilities, frameworks, skills, and technologies for designers and design practice that includes not only social or community engagement but also better understanding and relations.

“The demographics of the design fields are improved from a few generations ago, but there are still very few people of color or from lower-income backgrounds in these fields or in the schools—and certainly there are few in the leadership, resource-allocating, and decision-making positions. This results in a missed opportunity to have the diversity of understanding, ideas, talent, and perspectives for the very important role that designers have in influencing the constant change of urban and built environments. click to read


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