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Urban Planning in the African American Community In the Shadows

March 12, 1999 by Administrator in March/April 1999

by June Manning Thomas and Marsha Ritzdorf

If urban planning is to support the equitable distribution of public goods and services, it must recognize and address the dismal conditions of millions of Americans who are poor or people of color.

The primary focus of contemporary planners and planning students should be on finding and advocating solutions that help eliminate the problems of today’s cities. Any meaningful solution will need to be grounded in a thorough understanding of the race, gender, and class inequalities of American life. One of the most significant and dramatic stories in the history of twentieth-century U.S. cities has been the growth and evolution of the African American population. In the early 1900s, the African American population was simply one of many ethnic and racial groups living in U.S. cities. By the 1950s, massive emigrations from the rural South to the urban North had changed the complexion of cities. By the 1990s, successive waves of in-migration by rural African Americans and out-migration by mobile whites had created several predominantly black cities.

African Americans became so visible in many central cities that some scholars defined their predominance and spatial isolation indications of city decline. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, racial prejudice shaped the lives of Blacks as surely as it shaped metropolitan areas. Long after officially sanctioned racial prejudice subsided, racial oppression and inequality lingered. Poverty grew more concentrated, and the quality of social life unraveled. Physical deterioration became the norm.

The twentieth century also witnessed the evolution of professions that were dedicated to improving urban life and reducing urban decline. Prominent among these was urban planning. Branching off from the municipal reform movement, and away from the social work and housing reform movements, urban planning aimed to create well-planned, orderly cities that allowed people to live free of slums, blight, and physical disorder. As the planning profession evolved, its practitioners attacked various maladies affecting urban areas. They joined efforts to remedy social problems, and they created initiatives designed to redevelop specific areas, such as the central business districts. From the early part of the century, when planning focused on creating land use controls and regulating growth, to the end, when planners did these things plus many more, the profession’s stated goal was to improve the experience of urban life for all residents. However, the reality was often far different.

Throughout the twentieth century, the community of urban African Americans connected with the community of urban planning professionals. At times those connections were sources of conflict and oppression, at other times sources of reform and cooperation. Planning tools were and are often used for the purpose of racial segregation. Examples are exclusionary zoning laws and separatist public housing programs. Urban renewal clearance projects that bulldozed black communities into oblivion could also be classified as oppressive. But these were not the only interactions between the black urban population and the profession. During the 1960s, collective public guilt generated basic changes in urban planning professionals as well as in national policies. Some planners – whose ranks gradually became more diversified racially – dedicated their lives to fighting for the rights of the poor and distressed. Such dedication took the form of “social” or “advocacy” planning, neighborhood planning, or equity planning.

The precise nature of this dualistic relationship of conflict versus cooperation needs further clarification. Few historians of urban African-Americans give full and impartial treatment to the role of urban planning. Few historians of U.S. urban planning acknowledge the full influence of race and racial injustice on the profession. Contributions made by African American women to urban planning efforts are underappreciated.

In general, what is needed is an overview of the critical linkages between the urban planning profession and the nation’s most visible racial minority. Race and racial injustice influence all efforts to improve urban society. Urban planning, an active profession, purports to help improve civic life in metropolitan areas. It cannot do so unless its practitioners more clearly understand the historical connections between this people and this field.

Planning and Public Policy

The period after World War II saw two simultaneous processes: (1) the movement of the White middle and working classes to the suburbs, a movement spurred by the return of World War II veterans and the assistance of home mortgage insurance programs, and (2) the consolidation of ghetto boundaries. It is for this era that we have the best documentation concerning the relationship between African American urban life and planning decisions. As several scholars have demonstrated, political leaders’ desire to shape black residence patterns profoundly influenced public housing and urban renewal policies. Just as urban migration of rural blacks and other ethnic minorities was the demographic motivation for racially exclusionary zoning and restrictive covenants during the period between the world wars, the need to contain blacks in restricted sections of cities influenced public policy decisions after World War II.

The movement to the suburbs by the white middle and working classes, which one author calls a true “metropolitan revolution,” clearly established decentralization as the dominant urban pattern for the following decades. This decentralization, however, was exclusionary. For example, Levittown, New York, a well-known suburban community that set the pattern for numerous others, housed 82,000 residents in 1960, not one of whom was African American. Although white families found new opportunities opening up in freshly constructed suburbs, African American families experienced disproportionate overcrowding and limited mobility within the central cities left behind.

A series of federal policies set the stage for these conditions. Urban renewal was one of the most invidious. Often called “Negro removal” by critics, it provides countless examples of the interconnection of racial change with local policy. Urban renewal systematically destroyed many African American communities and businesses and, for most of its history, failed to safeguard the rights and well-being of those forcibly relocated from those homes and businesses. That clearance for urban renewal worked in conjunction with clearance for highway construction only made matters worse. Backed by the federal government, cities simultaneously cleared out slums and displaced racial minorities from prime locations for redevelopment and highway construction. These policies shaped and defined the black ghetto.

The 1960s, the era of civil rebellion, brought several important changes. The widespread civil disorders, which were volatile but predictable responses to long-standing racial oppression, forced significant alterations in federal policies. President Lyndon Johnson, attempting to build a “Great Society,” initiated new programs that focused on eliminating poverty and empowering low-income communities. With the War on Poverty’s community action agencies, citizens gained the power to supervise community improvement directly. Under Model Cities, local citizen governing boards also helped direct local redevelopment and made their own contributions to the redefinition of urban planning.

Well-known planning practitioners began to question the assumptions of traditional land use and redevelopment planning as well as the racial bias inherent in the profession. Proponents of advocacy planning suggested that the appropriate response to inner-city conditions was for planners to stop trying to represent public interest – an impossible task, leading planners to represent the status quo – and to work instead to help empower disenfranchised groups. Another response was for planners to develop “suburban action” programs promoting racial and income integration. Paul Davidoff, premier advocate planner and champion of suburban integration, urged planners to champion non-exclusionary fair housing laws, low and moderate income housing, and progressive zoning and subdivision requirements.

The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 killed the oppressive urban renewal program, but it also brought the promising Model Cities experiment to a halt. With the 1974 act, which created Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs), the federal government withdrew from high-profile attempts to target funds to distressed central-city efforts, defined and guided by local citizens. Instead, in city after city, citizens who had just begun to exercise some control over the redevelopment of their neighborhoods experienced the shock of government withdrawal. Although in later years the CDBG program somewhat improved on its record of participation, in general the program placed decision making in the hands of city government and dispersed national funding via a formula that spread increasingly scarce redevelopment funds to populous suburbs as well as to a wide range of cities.

Previous efforts to mesh social, economic, and physical development strategies, a mixture allowed under Model Cities, succumbed under the pervasive “bricks and mortar” orientation of the CDBG program. Any illusions that inner-city residents might have had that a benign federal government would “gild” their ghetto died quickly with the unstable funding, unpredictable longevity, and strong downtown focus that characterized urban-related programs such as action grants and economic development assistance funds in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. The mid-1990s brought promising federal program initiatives, such as Empowerment Zones/Enterprise Communities. But by that time African American families, even those in suburbia, remained highly segregated. They earned less money than others per capita and per family, and experienced much narrower options of residence than did other Americans.

African American Initiatives and Responses

Unfortunately, much of the writing about the relationship between the African American community and urban planning has focused on victimization. Of course, victimization, injustice, and oppression are important parts of the story. But throughout the twentieth century, African Americans have refused to be passive actors in this process. They documented their situation, built indigenous institutions, and undertook initiatives designed to improve community life. Scholars such as W.E.B. DuBois carried out path-breaking research, and organizations such as the National Urban League and the National Association of Colored Women made major contributions – which, while documented in other ways, are undocumented in the annals of planning history – to planning efforts in their own communities.

Early in the century, African American women often focused on the civic improvement of their communities. While they, like white women, had no legal or voting rights in the public world of politics, they were very active. Yet they, like their African American brothers, are invisible from the records of their time that planning historians commonly consult. For example, The American City, a periodical that began publication in 1909, was “the” source of information about urban issues, problems, and projects throughout the early part of this century. Between 1909 and 1920, only one article in any way related to African Americans, and it concerned the creation of a segregated low-income housing project. In 1912, an entire issue reported on white women’s organizations. Future work will need to look at the contributions of women who participated in projects linked to traditional urban planning, such as housing, parks, land projects, and sanitation, or who made a place for themselves in male-dominated organizations such as the Urban League.

The Urban League exemplified African American leadership and response to planning throughout much of the twentieth century. During the years of migration, local chapters actively sponsored day camps, food drives, employment programs, and numerous other activities. In the 1950s, these chapters were often leaders in the efforts to document the initial abuses of the urban renewal program. The Chicago branch’s 1968 report, The Racial Aspects of Urban Planning: Critique on the Comprehensive Plan of the City of Chicago, clearly identified the role of institutional racism in the planning process and offered proposals for change. As they noted, “Abstract statements about the goal of equality, while welcomed, are no substitute for technical work dealing with the realities of racism.”

By the 1970s, African American communities began to realize that environmental problems in their communities were related to discriminatory exposure to both toxic substances and unwanted land uses. Lead poisoning, especially from exposure to lead-based paint in substandard urban housing, was an issue of social justice that demanded their attention. The combined efforts of inner-city activists and a small group of physicians/scientists ultimately forced the issue onto the public agenda. A Philadelphia coalition brought a lawsuit against the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to ensure that HUD property was inspected, and if necessary, cleaned of all offending lead. Over the next two decades, groups identified myriad other urban environmental issues and added environmental justice to their civil rights agendas.

A range of other kinds of African American self-help efforts have persisted in recent years, particularly community development. Rather than wallow helplessly in defeatism, black politicians, faith-based groups, and community-based organizations in some cities have carried out remarkable, heroic efforts to preserve and improve their communities. These initiatives addressed a myriad of issues, including but not limited to redevelopment, housing rehabilitation, redlining by financial and insurance institutions, commercial development, and social improvement programs for youth and families.


This article is excerpted from Urban Planning and the African American Community, by June Manning Thomas and Marcia Ritzdorf. It is reprinted by permission of Sage Publications.

June Manning Thomas is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Michigan State University.
Marcia Ritzdorf was Associate Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Polytechnic and State University until her death last year.

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Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems.

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