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All over American people are rising up in anger over the repeated murders of Black men and women by police, and the impunity most of them are granted in the courts.

This is a distinctly urban phenomenon. Mass movements have sprung up in most of the country’s major metropolitan areas – New York, San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Madison, and beyond – and reflect a widely recognized truth about our cities and towns: life chances for people of color remain dramatically lower than their White neighbors. Racial capitalism continues to reign, locking up Black men and women by the millions, curtailing their choices in the “free world,” and sometimes ending their lives abruptly in a hail of police bullets.

Given both the incredible importance of this issue and its centrality to urban life, one might imagine that urban planners would be all over it, designing policies, programs and public spaces that would aim to fight back against this brutality. So where are the planners? As Sylvia Morse showed in the Winter 2015 issue of Progressive Planning, we are largely silent, missing in action. As a discipline and a profession we have said nothing about these deaths and what it would take to end them. It turns out, however, that we have a lot to say about the circumstances that caught the police’s attention in the first place.


Michael Brown was 18 years old when he was murdered by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, a Black suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. Walking in the street with a friend, they were confronted by Officer Williams, who shouted profanities at them and insisted that they move to the sidewalk. A few minutes later, Brown was dead, left bleeding on the pavement for an hour and a half before detectives arrived on the scene.

Eric Garner was 43 years old when he was strangled to death by Office Daniel Pantaleo on a street corner in Staten Island, New York. Garner was known to many in his neighborhood of Tompkinsville as a local character, a guy you would see, recognize, maybe smile and chat with for a bit. The police knew him too. The NYPD had arrested him several times before for “quality of life violations” – things that are barely illegal but challenge prevailing norms of public behavior. On the day he was killed, he was standing outside a corner store, allegedly selling loose cigarettes.

Akai Gurley was 26 years old when he was shot to death by Officer Peter Liang in the stairwell of his building. Gurley and his girlfriend decided to take the stairs after the elevator they called for failed to come. The stairwell was dark – despite numerous complaints, the New York City Housing Authority had failed to repair the lights – and Officer Liang, a rooky cop patrolling those staircase, was apparently startled. Without warning, he shot Gurley dead with a single bullet to the chest.

Rekia Boyd was 22 years old when she was killed by Officer Dante Servin in North Lawndale, Chicago. Officer Servin went out for a bite around 1 am, carrying a loaded automatic weapon on his hip. He drove by Douglas Park and saw a group of four Black men and women hanging out. He warned them that the park closed at 11 pm, and that they were in a residential area. Officer Servin claimed he then mistook one of the men’s phones for a gun and shot indiscriminately into the group, striking Boyd in the head and abruptly ending her life.

Trayvon Martin was 17 years old when he was slain by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer at The Retreat at Twin Lakes, the gated community where both Zimmerman and Martin resided at the time. He peered from his window as Martin walked toward the townhouse where his father’s fiancé lived. Zimmerman grew furious, calling 911 on this alleged “intruder.” Minutes later, he shot Martin dead, just 200 feet from his soon-to-be step-mother’s home.

Charly “Africa” Leundeu Keunang was 43 years old when his life was taken by three Los Angeles police officers whose names have, as of this writing, not been released. They were called to San Pedro Street in LA’s quickly gentrifying Skid Row, in response to an argument between two homeless men. The officers confronted Africa, who pushed back and attempted to retreat into his tent. They pinned him down and punched him in the face again and again. Minutes later, two officers and a sergeant shot Africa dead.


These cases, seared in our memories, share much in common. All of those brutalized were African Americans; most of them were men, and most of them were young. They were attacked in their own neighborhoods. These are the facts that have bound these deaths together into a common narrative. But they share another common thread: they all relate to the most common concerns of American planning professionals.

Michael Brown first came to Officer Wilson’s attention because he was walking in the street instead of the sidewalk. For decades, planners have encouraged cities to prioritize pedestrian access through a number of common strategies, including traffic calming measures, car-free streets and streetscape enhancements. Many planners would leap to the defense of pedestrians over any other mode of transportation, arguing that walkability is at the heart of good city form.

Eric Garner was the kind of person Jane Jacobs, patron saint of progressive planners, argued makes a neighborhood whole. He was the familiar, friendly face of street life, providing “eyes on the street” and increasing human interaction without the intrusive familiarity she felt marred small town life. People like Garner are the human pulse of neighborhood life.


"All of those brutalized were African Americans; most of them were men, and most of them were young. They were attacked in their own neighborhoods. These are the facts that have bound these deaths together into a common narrative. But they share another common thread: they all relate to the most common concerns of American planning professionals."


Akai Gurley’s death has been frequently linked to the malfunctioning lights in his public housing stairway. If they had been working, the argument goes, Officer Liang might not have fired his gun at all. This bit of magical thinking harkens back to a much earlier obsession with light. Since the days of Jacob Riis and Teddy Roosevelt, “progressive” reformers have linked darkness with danger, depression and squalor, and sought to fix structural problems like housing affordability with architectural interventions that increase the flow of light and air.

Rekia Boyd’s murder was preceded by a dispute over nighttime park closures. Planners have long debated the merits of park closure, and many have argued that our public open spaces are unnecessarily hard to access, especially at night. They have moved towards more open and subtle park designs, which shun towering fences or walls.

Trayvon Martin was killed inside a gated community, the kind of space that planners and designers love to hate. Gated communities are derided as militarized spaces of exclusion, unnaturally separated from the urban spaces that surround them. In contrast, “New Urbanism” is touted as the preferred suburban form, with relatively high density, walkable streets and central public spaces all contributing towards a better community. After Martin’s murder, the popular planning blog Planetizen, the New Urbanist website Better Cities & Towns and even the New York Times published editorials speculating that Martin might still be alive today had his step-mother-to-be lived in a smarter environment.

Africa Leundeu Keunang was a homeless man in a part of the city that is transforming into a wealthy enclave. American planners have long focused on homelessness as an urban problem. From the Progressive Era through the 1960s, planners focused on providing temporary shelter for itinerant workers. As the country entered the neoliberal era and “modern homelessness” became a structural urban problem, planners increasingly focused on design for exclusion. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis describes how LA’s premier planners, architects and designers utilize the tools of their trades “in a relentless struggle to make the streets as unlivable as possible for the homeless and the poor.”


For all their official silence, the discipline and institutions of planning actually have quite a lot to say about the situations in which these Black men and women initially found themselves. The problem is, planners have nothing to say about the reason we all know their names. We continue to focus on issues that amount to quality of life for some and life and death for others. We have diagnosed a set of problems with American cities – poor walkability, not enough light, etc. – and set out to treat them without challenging deeper inequalities.

In a sense, this “quality of life” approach recalls Martin Luther King’s warning 46 years ago. “I've come to believe,” he told his friend and collaborator Harry Belafonte, “we're integrating into a burning house." Planners are helping make cities more usable and accessible to all, while ignoring the fact that if you’re Black the police might kill you for exercising your right to the city. But maybe it’s actually worse than that — less facilitating integration into a burning house than stoking the wood beneath it. For by strengthening our cities without confronting the horrors they produce, planners are making a deadly urban system more efficient, resilient and appealing.


"In the context of racial capitalism, a blind adherence to quality of life planning only makes cities prettier and more efficient killing machines."


A similar dynamic exists with planners and the discourse of “livability.” Since the 1970s, planners have focused on small-scale interventions to make urban spaces more pleasant. Key priorities have been walkability, mixed-use development, and contextual design. Almost entirely lost in this argument is the question of who can live in these so-called livable spaces. In the context of a capitalist land market, these reforms usually coincide with rising property values, development pressures and rent hikes. “Livability” then becomes a two-faced slogan, implying its opposite – displacement – for those who can’t afford to buy into the new urban lifestyle.

Planning has nothing to say about the most important issue of the day in American cities. If planners are to revive the discipline from irrelevance, we must place front and center the fact that lived experiences of cities are dramatically different for different groups in society. Quality of life planning is worse than meaningless in the context of killer cops; it helps propel a pattern of White inclusion and Black denial, or, worse yet, White life and Black death. In the context of racial capitalism, a blind adherence to quality of life planning only makes cities prettier and more efficient killing machines.


Samuel Stein Samuel Stein is a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center and a professor of Urban Studies at Hunter College.



We feature stories on inclusive urban planning practices, grassroots organizing, and civic action. Our contributors and readers are activists, reporters, practitioners, academics, and community members.


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