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Reflections on Dialogues of Reckoning

This past July, civil uprisings against systemic racism ignited a time of reckoning for our profession. The Canadian Urban Institute responded by hosting a conversation, curated and moderated by Jay Pitter, noted equity-focused placemaker. Pitter followed this with “A Call to Courage: An Open Letter to Canadian Urbanists“, which calls on urbanists to speak out against anti-Black racism and urban inequity and address these issues within our everyday work. With this letter was an Individual Learning Agenda which challenged the profession to honestly assess its role in addressing racial inequity, and explore a topic on race and urbanism over eight weeks.

While Urban Strategies has had an Equity and Inclusion Committee since 2018, the events of July 2020 made it evident that we needed to rethink our approach, starting with a commitment to learning, action, and ongoing dialogue on anti-Black racism and urban inequity, at all levels.  As a starting point, Urban Strategies embarked on a two-month process guided by Pitter’s learning agenda. Each member of our Equity and Inclusion Committee facilitated a weekly group discussion with 6-8 staff members at all levels, guided by ground rules designed to support an open and safe dialogue. We were quickly met with the reality of how difficult these conversations were going to be. While not every group had the same dynamics, there was consensus that we are not as comfortable discussing race and urbanism as planners and designers should be. These conversations were only a first step in working through this discomfort and barriers it presents in addressing inequity and racism in our daily work.

As facilitators, we have come together to share our reflections with the broader profession in hopes of inspiring others to mobilize similar initiatives and organize equity and inclusion-based conversations in their organizations.

Defining a Baseline

It only took one session to realize that, as a firm, we were not operating from a consistent baseline level of understanding on issues of race and urbanism. From terminology, to history and sources of knowledge, we all joined the conversation at different points in our journey of learning and action. This presented a barrier in dialogue at times, making it difficult to share perspectives that are shaped by this baseline level of understanding and affecting participants’ comfort with speaking freely for fear of saying the wrong thing. Some groups chose to spend time discussing fundamental concepts such as equity vs equality, systemic vs systematic, and bias, discrimination and racism, and unpacking the history of racism in planning / design in North America. Spending time on these fundamentals allowed us to better communicate with each other and critically discuss contextual scenarios and case studies with an informed analysis. As experiences varied between groups, this highlighted a need to define a baseline at a firm-wide level to be able to effectively move forward in this work.

When establishing this firm-wide baseline, we must learn to effectively communicate across race and background. Speaking from the experience of racialized planners on our team, the transfer of knowledge on race, and more specifically the lived experiences of racialized people to non-racialized people, was challenging. It felt difficult to develop or identify a method to transfer knowledge in a manner that prompted others to authentically value what was being shared. This underscored the importance of open communication, empathetic listening, and collaboration in working towards growth and change through dialogue. Non-racialized planners must actively work to ensure they do not undermine or devalue how racialized planners navigate cities, share experience and show up in these conversations, at the risk of jeopardizing their integrity, openness to contribute, and mental health. They must instead embrace knowledge shared in “less conventional” ways to enable the transfer of expertise and perspectives within the organization and broader industry.

Decentering White Urbanism  

Amina Yasin, an Urban Planner from the Metro Vancouver area, will occasionally tweet the phrase “end white urbanism”. This tweet was shared in one of our discussion groups, provoking a series of conversations exploring the concept of white urbanism.

Just as white dominance is built into our everyday lives within a settler-colonial state, it is also both subtly and obviously packed into our everyday practice. Terms such as “areas in need of regeneration”, “underutilized site” and “community resilience” can work as euphemisms which set the stage to enable displacement and do not appropriately recognize the turmoil the people in these communities have gone through to survive in spite of practices working against them. The notions of “universal design” and “designing for the public good” raise the question “Who are we planning for?”. The more we analyzed our practices from this perspective, the more we realized the degree to which we centre whiteness as “normal”, “universal” and “public”. Which led to the question: “What would it mean to redefine “normal” in our practice?”.

In developing a theory of Black Urbansim, Sara Zewde (2010) states that black urbanism can be used as a creative departure to inspire the design and support of lively urbanism and inform a process when working with communities impacted by the racist history of planning. Similarly, Lauren Hood recently published an essay which defines AfroUrbanism as “an approach to urban planning that centres the lived experience, culture and aspirations of Black folks”. The idea is that centering blackness in urbanism (and thus decentering whiteness) is the most effective way to address inequities in our communities.

A significant barrier in centering blackness in urbanism is rooted in our sources of knowledge. While racialized practitioners, academics, and communities have made many contributions to urban planning theory and practice, white and euro-centric sources have historically dominated the conversation. We frequently point to European and North American precedents as best practices; prominent urban thinkers that the profession looks to for insight are often white. These conversations on race and urbanism highlighted the paucity of racialized sources we look to in the practice, and the need to more deliberately seek and understand the experiences, practices and ideas of racialized community builders to begin decentering white urbanism.

 Design as a process

In reflecting on our practice, some set out to define equitable design as a means of understanding our ability to influence change through our projects. At the outset, we were eager to identify tangible examples and solutions. Yet through discussion, we realized that it was more important to discuss the design process rather than design itself, critically assessing inequities in our approach. Essentially, if the approach is flawed, then even the best results will fall short.

Standard approaches in urban design and planning do not explicitly address the issue of inequity, leaving little space for conversations and analyses which are crucial to addressing anti-Black racism and urban inequity in our work. As a first step in redefining this approach, we:

  • Examined what it meant to authentically engage within racialized communities;
  • Discussed the importance of continuously testing and refining ideas with communities through inclusive design processes which actively identify and engage marginalized voices;
  • Identified challenges in building an inclusive process within our role on projects, including fixed timelines and budgets, and predefined processes that often do not leave room for meaningful participation from communities that are often left out of these processes to begin with; and,
  • Explored the importance of improved collaboration among planners, city-builders, political leaders, and agencies to enhance and better understand the impacts of our policies and ideas on the lived experiences of racialized communities.

When reflecting on these conversations as a firm, the need to redefine our processes through further exploration of these ideas was something we all agreed to be a necessary next step.

While these discussions are early steps on our collective journey, the importance of continual learning and reflection on our practice has become clearer for many of us. Issues pertaining to race, equity, and planning cannot be solved by a single individual or organization, yet these critical moments of reflection and discussion are important for igniting individual accountability and moving forward collaboratively on collective solutions. Much is still left unanswered, but what is evident is that the success of our profession will depend on how we challenge and redefine current ways of thinking, and engage and empower racialized communities through action across the community building industry and related decision-making processes. And the first step towards this is dialogue.

As Paulo Freire said best, “if the structure does not permit dialogue, then the structure must be changed”. So, let’s talk.


Dan Godin, Jc Elijah (Eli) M. Bawuah, Georgia Luyt, Lauren Haein An, and Yasmin Afshar authored this piece. They are Urban Planners with diverse public, private and non-profit experience on projects at various scales and a spectrum of city and community-building roles.