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In Spring of 2015, the New York City Council voted to approve the East New York rezoning, but not without a bitter battle in the low-income, predominately black and Latino neighborhood that had seen very little investment from the city over the decades. Residents and advocates protested against the proposal to incentivize new development with affordable housing along Atlantic Avenue, a major thoroughfare in the neighborhood. This exposed the community distrust of government and the fear of yet another land use decision that might hasten gentrification and displace many low-income residents. While the final plan incorporated promises that reflected community input, including strategies to protect tenants, support homeowners, workforce training, and fund almost $300 million in capital needs in the neighborhood, many residents remain skeptical and claim that the plan is “not for us,” (Gould 2016).

This statement of distrust is weighted by familiar connotations of race and class, where changes in a community of majority low-income people of color are decided by a majority white and middle class cohort of government leaders. Throughout its history in the United States, urban planning has played a key role in both positively and negatively affecting the distribution of services and resources in neighborhoods, and thus life outcomes of different racial and other demographic groups. Whether through redlining, highway construction, or urban renewal, “Planners have historically been implicit in perpetuating racism,” states Elizabeth Sweet (2010, p. 230). Planning participation processes have been criticized over the decades for not representing various classes (Davidoff, 1965), for ignoring gender inequalities (Milroy, 1991), and disregarding gay and lesbian issues (Forsyth, 1997; 2001; Valentine, 1993).

In order to achieve more just and equitable communities, planners need to better understand, represent, and advocate for the constituencies most affected by injustice and inequality. Susan Fainstein, author of The Just City (2000), stresses the importance of participation in decision making by relatively powerless groups to reach equity outcomes. One way to achieve this purpose, perhaps the best way, is to have meaningful, if not full, representation in the planning profession of the diverse people from these constituencies. Diversity and better representation enables deeper awareness and understanding of the role of race, gender, ethnicity, and class in social inequity and people’s everyday lives, and ultimately, can lead to more effective processes and outcomes for diverse communities.

While several initiatives over the last 25 years have highlighted the underrepresentation of minorities in the profession and called for change, people of color continue to be severely underrepresented. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, in the New York Metro Area (NYMA), non-Hispanic white planners made up 78 percent of the total number of planners, compared to 58 percent of the total population. More than a decade later, non-Hispanic whites made up 71 percent of the total number of planners, while their proportion in the area’s population decreased to 45 percent (ACS 2007-2011 EEO Tabulation and ACS 2010-2014). While there has been a slight growth in the proportion of planners of color, the proportion relative to the general population actually decreased. Communities are diversifying, but the planning profession is actually less representative of the communities it serves today compared to 25 years ago. Latinos and blacks remain especially underrepresented, with representation gaps of -5% and -18%, respectively.

The following section summarizes the findings and recommended strategies of my study on the barriers to recruitment and retention of planners of color. Under each of the main barriers are strategies for employers, schools, planning institutions, and everyday planners to help overcome them and better promote diversity. This study, conducted as part of a Master’s Thesis at Pratt Institute, collected data from over 300 surveys, 11 focus groups, and 11 one-on-one interviews with planners and employers in the NYMA, explored the state of diversity in the profession and the experiences of minority planners. The quotes are courtesy of interview and focus group participants. For the full study, visit


1. Break cycles of poverty and economic injustice in communities of color. A main barrier to diversity in the profession lies in the dirty history of planning, which racially and economically segregated communities, and perpetuated systemic issues plaguing particularly black and Latino neighborhoods, such as poor schools, food deserts, crime and violence, and mass incarceration. These systemic issues limit the opportunities for certain racial groups to earn degrees in higher education that are necessary to enter the planning profession.

“Educational attainment in the neighborhood that I grew up in was very low because of all the things you deal with living in poverty. It was hard to get through high school for many, let alone college or even graduate school.”

Strategies: Apply a racial equity lens to planning work; implement community and participatory planning targeted to building the capacity of and including the voices of underrepresented groups; get involved in efforts to dismantle systemic racism affecting communities of color.

2. Increase early-exposure to good planning. The survey found that 66% of planners heard about planning after their third year of college. Those that found out before college were majority white and it was largely due to advantages in social capital (e.g., someone they knew who was a planner). Lack of diversity in the profession today limits the knowledge of career pathways to the planning profession. Further, many communities of color have not experienced positive relations with government nor understand how planning could be a tool to improve their communities.

“If you grew up only seeing how the government destroys your neighborhood, and especially if that government doesn’t look like you or act like they care about you, why would you ever want to be part of the government?”

Strategies: Implement workshops with youth in communities of color exploring urban planning; conduct and promote more community-based planning; develop a campaign targeting underserved communities to raise awareness of planning, its connection to social justice, and its career pathways.

Photo above: 7th grade students in Harlem learn about the impacts of land use and urban planning on neighborhood health outcomes in a workshop coordinated by the APA New York Metro Chapter Diversity Committee. Photo Credit Kate Selden (2016).

3. Recruit and retain diversity among students and faculty, and integrate diversity in the curriculum of planning programs. In the NYMA accredited schools, white students made up 67% of the total student body in 2014 (compared to 45% of the general population). While the faculty is 81% white, and only 35% are female (Planetizen Guide 2014). Cost is a significant barrier for those who come from lower income backgrounds, as most planning programs in the area averaged over $100,000 in tuition costs, while the average annual salary for a planner across the nation is $66,940 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014). Lack of diversity in faculty also contributes to the challenge of recruitment and retention of diverse students, while faculty members of color have expressed feeling isolated and subject to unequal opportunities for growth and tenure. Interviewees noted that planning academia and practice do not centralize the social justice narrative as much as urban policy, education, social work, and public health fields, thus it often attracts fewer students of color, and thus less diversity in the profession.

“I would look around and always notice that I was the only person of color in the classroom. And then I’d be the only person bringing up race in discussions.”

Strategies: Fundraise for full scholarships / fellowship opportunities in collaboration with local firms for underrepresented students; connect with and recruit students from undergraduates in related fields of local colleges that have more diverse student bodies (e.g., Sociology, American Studies, Culture and Ethnic Studies); advertise about the profession in minority-market media; mandate cultural competency trainings and incorporation of diversity into the curriculum; support and promote the growth and visibility of faculty of color by encouraging and supporting them in publications, award nominations, tenure, etc.

4. Make access to work experience more equitable and acknowledge the value of the lived experience. Most employers said that they tend to hire those that have interned at their firm. However, as most internships are unpaid, this enables those of wealthier backgrounds (more likely to be white) to gain experience and skills, while limiting opportunities for those that may come from less privileged backgrounds and may need to work and/or have family obligations (more likely to be people of color and women). Focus groups and interviewees challenged employers’ notions of “qualifications.” While many employers from more privileged backgrounds referred to education pedigree, employers/managers and planners of color asked what about the value of the lived experience?

“I’m black, I’m Latina, born and raised in New York City and experienced first hand how certain policies affected my neighborhoods – shouldn’t I have more street cred as a planner for the city than some white chick from Ohio?”

Latinos and black planners are most likely to have grown up in similar environments to the communities that they serve as planners today, yet are the two most underrepresented groups in the profession.

Strategies: Shift the conversation on diversity as an asset; partner with local firms and agencies to develop full scholarship programs for students of color and opportunities for paid fellowships; proactively recruit for diversity (e.g., from community colleges and HBCUs) and provide meaningful mentorship to invest in growth of a more diverse future workforce.

5. Break unconscious bias and colorblindness in the hiring process. In our society, we have internalized a particular image of competence (white, male, and middle class) and often unconsciously become prejudiced and perpetuate systemic discrimination against certain groups in the hiring process.

“People often look at me, see I am a black woman, and already doubt that I am competent enough to do the job.”

In describing difficulties with retention, employers often refer to a lack of “cultural fit” with some planners of color, discrediting how people dress, wear their hair or speak, and often hark back to racial and gender stereotypes. “Cultural fit” thus often becomes synonymous with race, gender, and class. Employers also talked about being “color blind” in their hiring process (claiming to deem race unimportant). But being color blind limits employers from understanding that people have different cultural norms and needs, and it also blinds them from seeing the assets that diversity brings to the process and outcomes. All of that together leaves you with a less diverse pool of people entering the profession.

Strategies: Promote leadership that understands and deeply values diversity as an asset; proactively recruit for diversity at all levels, not just entry; reach out to local diversity coalitions, committees, and groups, such as the APA local chapter’s Diversity Committee.


Many planners of color expressed frustration and were leaving (or avoiding) work in certain sectors due to the following experiences.

6. Address Microaggressions and Discrimination Fatigue. “Microaggressions” are subtle expressions of bias where the aggressor often is unaware of having done any harm, but nonetheless refers to painful stereotypes. For example, when someone asks an Asian American person, “No, where are you from?” or when someone tells a black person, “But I don’t really see you as ‘black’. Microaggressions unconsciously disenfranchise people of color, especially women.

“People don’t take me seriously because I am a woman and a person of color. In meetings, they’ll look at the white guy next to me for answers, who is actually my intern.”

“To be taken seriously as a woman, I have to be more assertive—but then when I am assertive, then I’m all of a sudden ‘the angry black lady’ and am told I am ‘too aggressive.’”

Participants shared that many times in the community or in meetings, others have said inappropriate things to them based on their race or gender, but colleagues and supervisors often remain bystanders and don’t address the hurt and inappropriateness. In interviews, white colleagues and employers expressed uncertainty about how to respond, but many planners of color said that silence validates. Over time, these microaggressions build up to cause discrimination fatigue. About 32 percent of blacks in the sample reported persistent experiences of disrespect, invalidation, or discrimination due to race or ethnicity, compared to only 8 percent for Asians and 12 percent for mixed-race individuals. Women of color expressed feeling more racial fatigue than men of color, and more gender fatigue than white women.

Strategies: Host mandatory anti-racism and anti-oppression trainings for all staff to be more aware of personal biases; ensure staff is introspective and ready to support a diverse environment.

7. Support and validate planners of color to prevent isolation and self doubt. Planners of color shared feeling isolated in being often the only, if not one of the few, people of color in a workplace, and this became the reason for some to leave a certain firm or sector. For example, according to the survey, the private sector planners in the NYMA are the least diverse, with blacks making up only 2% of total planners. Planners also expressed an uncertainty if they were really valued or if they were asked to be there just to make a company look “diverse.” Some expressed that this isolation can often build self-doubt. Planners of color and especially women not only face external pressure, but internal pressure as well. In the survey, people of color, and women regardless of race, were more likely to feel that making a mistake at work would be attributed to their identity (this was statistically significant at p=.000).

“I’m a woman of color and I’m competent and confident - but I’ve had a lot of self-doubt because of the way people treated me throughout my career.”

Strategies: Recruit and foster diversity genuinely, beyond token diversity; consciously validate and legitimize planners of color; take a stand to intervene and address issues of discrimination in the office (and events in the world related to hate crime and discrimination); create space for discussion to safely share how diversity is experienced in the workplace; ask diverse staff what kind of support they want to see from colleagues and leadership; connect with the local chapters of the American Planning Association (APA) and their diversity committee, if they have one.

8. More equitably promote and assign meaningful and visible work among staff. Planners expressed being marginalized and type-casted, continuously being skipped over for promotions, and limited in their opportunities to grow. For example, Latino individuals assigned to work only with Latino neighborhoods, or on projects that were not as visible as the projects assigned to their white counterparts.

“To be promoted, you need the sexy projects – the ones that get you in front of the Commission. But only white planners get the sexy projects.”

“There were many qualified people of color who did their time but were passed for promotions for less experienced whites. People left because of that.”

The effect of that less visible and meaningful work is clear. Overall, only 25 percent of people of color in the sample were in senior-level positions, compared to 34 percent of whites. In fact, blacks in the sample are the least likely to be in positions that allow for more senior responsibilities, such as hiring, representing the organization, soliciting projects, etc.

Strategies: be intentional in leadership to advance skills, visibility, and the growth of planners of color; support mentorship programs connecting young planners of color; assign meaningful projects and rotate projects to diversify exposure and experience.

9. Be aware of the covert cultural ways in which the advancement of diverse planners can be hindered. Many planners of color described that others often perceive their cultural values and expressions to be at odds with the markers of dominant western patriarchic culture and its association with “promote-ability,” which covertly hinders the advancement of people of color and women.

“Whites (and men) grew up with different cultures than us, and they often misinterpret humility and modesty as a lack of confidence; I’m very confident - it’s just not my nature to self-promote; jockeying is not my style.”

Most places in the U.S. still do not have paid parental leave or support for childcare, and these limit especially women’s ability to fully reintegrate with their career life after having children. Caregivers are often unable to work the same number of hours as male or other non-caretaker colleagues and thus unable to build experience and visibility at the same pace. The survey found that whites and men in the sample are often blind to this covert discrimination. While whites are more likely to agree that their work environments fostered diversity, inclusion, and opportunity, planners of color are four times more likely to disagree (this is statistically significant at p=.05).

Strategies: Hold effective cultural competency and anti-oppression trainings for staff and managers catered to planning work; enable work flexibility like working from home, day care services, paid leave; ask staff how to foster more inclusive environments.

10. Create room for debate and move beyond the predominant white and male planning lens. Planners of color expressed a lot of inner conflict and frustration on the lack of acknowledgement of race, the condescending tones about communities, the policies that are based on assumptions about the poor and people of color, and the resistance to change.

“I think people are uncomfortable that inequity is how our city developed, but we need to acknowledge that communities were invested in unequally[…] there is a deeper sense of accountability when we are called out on how we destroy communities.”

Photo above: Limited diversity amongst participants at the APA National Conference in Seattle (2015). Photo Credit: American Planning Association

Strategies: Own the discriminatory history of planning and centralize justice in everyday work; build cultural competency in the workplace through trainings; encourage introspection and debate on planning work and ethics in the workplace; be open and encourage innovative models of community-based approaches in planning work.


In conclusion, a progressive city is one that enables opportunities and quality of life for all, regardless of race, gender, class, ethnicity, color, sexuality, religion, culture, educational attainment or ability. In a planning world where white males continue to be the majority of those hired to make design decisions for communities, planning will continue to be blind to potential discriminatory effects and perpetuate inequality. The issues and recommendations identified above serve as a framework to understand the landscape of achieving diversity, and begin to implement small interventions to overcome the barriers to better recruit and retain diversity in the profession. They call for greater introspection within ourselves and within our profession; for greater awareness of how inequality permeates our everyday work; and for taking proactive steps on the individual, interactional, and institutional levels to promote diversity and progress.

These barriers to diversity are structural and systemic, and thus doing nothing will only perpetuate planning as a predominantly white profession. Real change will require economic, political and educational reform, and the dismantling of the status quo. But we planners are uniquely positioned to play a central role. Increasing diversity in the profession may not be a radical or new idea, but certainly one unrealized strategy that can disrupt the existing balance of power, reduce instances of discrimination by design, and bring us closer to ensure that the aspiration for health, happiness, and quality of life is achievable for all.


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Institute of Planners, 31(4), 331-338. doi: 10.1080/01944366508978187

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Research 25(2): 121–30. doi: 10.1177/0739456X05279275.

Forsyth, Asencio. (1995). “Diversity issues in a professional curriculum: Four stories and

some suggestions for change.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 15(1), 58-63. doi: 10.1177/0739456X9501500105

Forsyth, Asencio. (2001). “Nonconformist Populations and Planning Sexuality and Space:

Nonconformist Populations and Planning Practice.” Journal of Planning Literature, 15(3), 339-358. doi: 10.11777/088541201221093069

Gould, Jessica. Jan 7 2016. “East New York Housing Plan Gets Mixed Reviews at Hearing.”

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Study at the University of Illinois.” Implementing Diversity: Contemporary Challenges and Best Practices at Predominately White Universities. Edited by Helen A. Neville, Margaret Browne Huntt, and Jorge Chapa. Center on Democracy in a Multicultural Society at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Recruitment and Retention of Planners of Color in the NY Metro Area.” Pratt Institute Masters Thesis.

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