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Black Planning in Action

By Abigail Moriah The following piece appears in Planners Network's forthcoming 2nd annual Disorientation Guide. More information to follow.


About seven years ago, feeling disillusioned, I began to reflect on my career in planning and development as well as the tensions I was experiencing. Self-doubt emerged, and I started to question my role in planning and if I was the right ‘fit.’ As a Black woman, should I be in this field? As a person committed to working with Black, racialized, and low-income communities, was planning the right path? I wondered where the other Black planners were and why I did not see more of them. I noticed the value placed on ‘technical planning’ versus ‘community knowledge’ or being in community. I was conflicted by what I heard from Black communities and what I observed in practice: the lack of historical recognition and protection of heritage, unequal infrastructure investment such as the provision of sidewalks, incompatible land uses adjacent to homes causing safety and environmental problems, and development-induced displacement.

These experiences and reflections made me increasingly curious about the experiences and motivations of other Black planners. The Black Planning Project was created in 2018 in response to what I saw - and to what I didn’t see - around me in the field of planning in Canada. Through interviews with Black planners, I began to ask a series of questions to understand their planning journeys and aspirations in the field.


Many of the individuals I spoke with described how they had little knowledge of planning or knew few (if any) people working in the profession before they entered the field. They chose planning because they saw it as a way to participate in and shape more beneficial outcomes for Black, racialized, and lower-income communities. Some people talked about how they found it challenging to have few opportunities to meet others who shared similar lived experiences, racial or cultural backgrounds. In addition, some individuals questioned how planning was being done, its impact on historically Black communities or areas with a strong Black presence and spoke of the internal conflicts they experienced in the workplace or classroom as a result. Importantly, many people reflected on the roadblocks they faced as Black planning professionals trying to build experience and skills to advance their careers.


While these conversations with Black planners provided a glimpse into how the planning profession in Canada could change from their perspective, the year 2020 (re) surfaced and amplified the reality of inequitable conditions in Black neighbourhoods and unjust experiences in urban spaces for Black people more broadly. Despite the historical destruction of Africville, Hogan’s Alley, and countless other Black communities in Canada, there was still minimization and denial surrounding anti-Black racism and violence in the country, both past and present. This revealed a lack of knowledge about the histories of Black communities and their relationships with planning, both in the classroom and in professional practice.


In this context, a conversation about Black planning has been reignited. In his 2022 ACSP conference presentation entitled “Black Planning at MIT,” Darien Alexander Williams emphasized that this is not the first time Black planners laid out a set of demands. He reminded us that today’s discussions are reminiscent of the 1969 walkout at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when Black planners requested resources to address planning issues, establish a Black epistemology, and support grassroots participation of Black communities in planning matters.

Black representation and voices – individually and collectively – are lacking in the planning profession. Importantly, Black spaces and communities are still experiencing more harm than benefits from planning. Planning practitioners and Black communities are urgently in need of a Black Planning lens. As planner Jamilla Mohamud posits in her article Anti-Black Racism in the Liveable City and Canada: “What would it mean to rethink livable cities, and urban planning more broadly, to center the lives of Black people?”.


What does this mean for planners who want to engage in planning that is informed by and centers Black experiences and histories? How can planners responsively engage in planning to restore and reimagine Black spaces? Where do I, as a Black person and planning practitioner, turn to for hope of what might be possible in communities with significant Black populations? And how might this inform how Black planners, non-Black planners, and Black communities engage in planning, and reimagine and expand how planning is done? Understanding the experiences and histories of Black people and places is a first step. It can inform what we know about planning, how it is taught, and hopefully impact how planning is practiced. To illustrate this, I turn to the community-driven work happening in the community of Beechville in Halifax, Nova Scotia where the Beechville Community Development Association has led and worked alongside a team of municipal planners to engage in planning quite differently.


Beechville: Black Planning Transforms from the Ground Up


Beechville is a historic African Nova Scotian community founded by Black Loyalists and Black freedom seekers in the early 1800s, after the War of 1812. Over the years, Beechville has faced many land use and planning challenges, from incompatible land uses and development encroachment to shrinking community boundaries. In recent years, when Beechville residents started to engage planning staff at Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) to address planning and development pressures in their community, residents required the city to work with them on their terms, not through the typical planning engagements.


At the request of the community, HRM planning staff were asked to participate in community walks led by members of the Beechville Community Development Association, not once or a few times, but on a biweekly basis. Through regularly inviting planners into their community for these walks, the residents showed them what was happening, sharing their history and drawing on their experiences with planning, land use, and development. This fundamentally transformed how community and municipal planners engaged with each other and the community. The community strengthened their knowledge of planning policies, processes, and instruments and began to identify their needs and priorities. This formed the basis of a community action plan, providing strategic direction and a vision for how the community could develop, which in turn began to transform how the HRM does planning with African Nova Scotian communities.


What does the Beechville example illustrate? The Beechville example shows how residents were able to place themselves at the center of the planning process. By inserting themselves into the planning process, they ensured that Black voices and perspectives were represented. Beechville residents also introduced an engagement and knowledge sharing tool to the municipality which was not frequently used in community planning: community walks.


In these community walks, residents took space to talk about the history and impact of planning (by design) on the Black community. They revealed how it has created many harms and the challenges they are confronting today, such as poor public transit and unaffordable housing. This laid bare the question: who really benefited from government planning decisions? Municipal planners learned about Beechville’s history and place based narratives through the eyes, experiences, and knowledge of its residents, many of whom have been advocating for decades. The relationships established between planners and community residents created allies and advocates within the municipal planning department. These allies and advocates pushed for policy change to support the community in their efforts and prioritize their needs through planning tools and policies, enabling planning practice to happen differently.


A Black Planning Lens: People, Place, Pedagogy and Practice


Applying a Black Planning lens to our work as planners, requires that we interrogate who is doing planning, how planning is done, and what are the impacts and outcomes of planning practices and policies on specific populations and geographies. I suggest that this starts with acknowledging and responding to the gaps in the areas of people, place, pedagogy, and practice. The table below offers a guide for how planners might apply a Black planning lens through outlining a set of reflection questions, issues to acknowledge, actions to take, and resources to read.





Conclusion


It is critical for planners to acknowledge and address place-based planning inequities. To have different outcomes on the ground requires changing who is engaged in planning, how planning is taught, learned, and discussed, and how we engage in planning. Who is doing planning and how planning decisions are made determines the impacts and outcomes on people and places. To shape just and equitable spaces, it is our responsibility as planners to understand the impact of dominant planning practices and decisions on particular populations, people, and places, including those communities that have been historically excluded from planning benefits and harmed by planning practice. With this knowledge, we can depart from planning as usual and set a new path.


Author’s Note: I would like to acknowledge the Beechville Community Development Association for leading this work. With the commitment over many years from Carolann Wright, Jenee Jarvis and Danielle Jackson and numerous others in the community as well as those who have passed on, we would not have the opportunity to learn from this work.



Abigail Moriah is a connector, facilitator and planner specializing in affordable housing and equity in development. In 2018 Abigail founded the Black Planning Project and through her practice is elevating Black Planning to center Black experiences and engagement in planning and development. She co-founded the Mentorship Initiative for Indigenous, Black and Planners of Colour (MIIPOC) in 2019 and also serves as a Founding Board member for the Black Planners and Urbanists Association established in 2020.



Additional Resources


People


Ahsan, S., Belay, R., Moriah, A., & Nash, G. (2020, August 25). Why is urban planning so white? Spacing Magazine. Available from http://spacing.ca/toronto/2020/08/25/ why-is-urban-planning-so-white/


Goetz, E. G., Williams, R. A., & Damiano, A. (2020). Whiteness and urban planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, 86(2), 142-156 DOI:10.1080/01944363. 2019.1693907


Place


Allen, S. (2019). Fight the Power: Redressing Displacement and Building a Just City for Black Lives in Vancouver. Simon Fraser University.


Mohamud, J. (2020). Anti-Black Racism in the Livable City and Canada. Ontario Professional Planners Institute Blog.

Roberts, A. (2018). Interpretations & Imaginaries: Toward an Instrumental Black Planning History. Planning Theory & Practice. 19(2), 254-288.


Thomas, J.M. (1994). Planning History and the Black Urban Experience: Linkages and Contemporary Implications. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 14(1),1-11.


Yasin, A. (2020, June 18). Whose Streets? Black Streets. Available from https://thetyee.ca/ Analysis/2020/06/18/Whose-Streets-Black-Streets/


Pedagogy


McKittrick, K. (2011). On Plantations, Prisons, and a Black Sense of Place. Social & Cultural Geography, 12(8), 947-963.

Mohamud, J. (2020). The Paradox of Black Life: Discourses of Urban (Un)livability. [Master’s Thesis, York University] Available from https://yorkspace.library.yorku.ca/xmlui/bitstream/ handle/10315/38252/JM%20MES%20MP%20final.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y


Thomas, J.M. (1996). Educating Planners: Unified Diversity for Social Action. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 15(3), 171-182.


Practice


Beechville Community Development Association. (2020). Beechville Planning Strategy Review and Community Benefit Action Plan. Available from https://www.halifax.ca/sites/default/files/ documents/city-hall/regional-council/200929rc1116.pdf


Black Urbanism Toronto. (2020). A Black business conversation on planning for the future of Black businesses and residents on Eglinton Avenue West. Available from https://static1.squarespace. com/static/5ee50028e2a496763f512cc1/t/5fc5997d5147b14804f35347/1606785495837/ LITTLE+JAMAICA+REPORT+-+2020-09-23


Ontario Professional Planners Institute (OPPI). (2021). Anti Black Racism in Planning Task Force Recommendations. Available from https://ontarioplanners.ca/inspiring-knowledge/anti-blackracism-in-planning-task-force


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