Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so firstly, huzzah! to all of you who are taking this opportunity to participate in a day of service in honor of his legacy.

Secondly, today of all days seems to be a good moment to reflect on the racial diversity (or lack there of) in the profession of urban planning.

Humans have cognitive biases which are essentially flaws in how we logically think due to us, you know, being humans. And there are a LOT of them. [Note that I am currently suffering from: Déformation professionnelle.] Planners are humans, too, and also have these biases. We are constantly dealing with change in a public sphere: Trying to facilitate positive change, avoiding bad changes, dealing with most people who usually don’t want any change, etc… So while “status quo bias” (unconsciously making decisions that keep things the same) is a cognitive bias that seems to not fit well the profession of urban planning, it is important to recognize that we too occasionally fall subject to it (and a number of others) in our hiring practices as well as the rest of our lives. This type of bias, when combined with other cognitive and emotional biases, is likely a major contributing factor to what results in systemic racism. [This is my very non-scientific theory anyway.]

One of the attractive things about becoming an urban planner is that it is a future-oriented field and therefore has the chance to attract optimistic people intent on making their communities better. Yet, the amount of people of color in urban planning is shamefully low.

And yet underrepresentation by both race and gender has been a problem in the past. In Canada and the US, diversity by gender has grown over the last few years, although not as rapidly as might be expected given the increasing presence of women in planning student populations (Rahder and Altilia, 2004). The presence of racial minorities, however, is low relative to total population figures. In the US, the body of professional planners, APA, probably includes fewer than 10 percent racial minorities, compared with over 30 percent of the general population. In 2004, APA estimated that 2.7 percent of its members were black or African American, 2.9 percent Asian, and 2.2 percent Hispanic (APA, 2005a). This situation has led the professional planning organization in the US to initiate a series of strategies designed to increase recruitment and retention of racial minorities in the planning profession (APA, 2005a).*

If one were to look at the academic side of urban planning, it is much bleaker if this paper (chapter 12) is any indication.

For planners who see their role as promoting a more just society, the issue of who is doing the planning and to what end is paramount. Therefore, ensuring that our profession is diverse is important both because meaningful conversations about the impacts of planning decisions need to occur [you can usually identify these by the lack of agreement that is exposed during the course of them], and also because communicating well with non-planners and diverse communities is essential to this work.

While larger organizations and society struggle to deal with why there is systemic low recruiting and low retention of minorities, what is the role of the individual in all this? I suppose this is essentially asking “How can we be better humans?” or perhaps “How do we shed our cognitive biases as well as our racial and emotional biases as well?” Or more simply put: What would Martin Luther King, Jr. do?

I will leave you to ponder that with the below quote from the Keynote Address of The Planning in the Black Community Division at the American Planning Association Regional Meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina (2002)…

This is where the black urban planner comes in. Planners are that one group in the African American community that possess the knowledge, technical skills, and insights to drive a radical neighborhood movement that will transform fundamentally the conditions of life found in black communities. No other strata in the African Americans community can do this. Brilliant scholars like William Julius Wilson, Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West, Manning Marble, Robin D. G. Kelly, Nell Irvin Painter, bell hooks, and Darlene Clark Hine can generate life-transforming ideas and provide deep insights into the black experience, but they cannot plan a neighborhood, design an effective transportation system, create public spaces that will encourage social interaction and community development, nor can they build a cross-class, multi-cultural neighborhood. They lack the knowledge and technical skills required to become architects of the new society. They do not know how to transform their ideas into refashioned cities and physical neighborhoods and communities. They cannot plan and rebuild neighborhoods and formulate strategies that will integrate such communities into the broader metropolitan region. This task falls to the black urban planner. This is our destiny.**

*June Manning Thomas
The Minority-Race Planner in the Quest for a Just City
Planning Theory November 2008 7: 227-247, doi:10.1177/1473095208094822
**Henry Louis Taylor, Jr., Ph.D.
Back to the Roots: The Challenge of Black Urban Planners
Keynote Address
The Planning in the Black Community Division
American Planning Association
Regional Meeting
Charlotte, North Carolina
August 15-17, 2002

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One Comment on “WWMLKJrD?”

  1. Syed S. Ahmed January 21, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

    Very thoughtful and time appropriate. This post made my MLK day better than President’s inauguration.


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