Urban Planning Without Social Equity is Like Playing Chess Without the Queen

by on December 16, 2015 · 2 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, Politics, San Diego


By Murtaza H. Baxamusa / San Diego UrbDeZine

With rising inequality, a looming climate change crisis, and persistent state of housing unaffordability being the defining issues in the growth of American cities in the twenty-first century, it is time for urban planners to take social policy seriously.

Too often, social policy is relegated to a specialized role for advocacy planners, at other times ignored completely for being too political, and often times dismissed as “creeping socialism” that is inappropriate in land-use planning. This prompted planning legend Norman Krumholtz to call the profession “timid,” not as much to reflect on the work ethics of rank-and-file planners, but the leadership of those in power, who do not allow planning to pursue equity objectives. The most powerful piece on the planning chess-board is unavailable to most urban planners.

A myth that discourages planners is that social policy is antithetical to American politics. From the common sense approach of Thomas Paine in providing a basic income for seniors and disabled to protecting mothers and soldiers in the early twentieth century, to more recent approaches on poverty, pollution, retirement, and healthcare, successful U.S. social policy is informed by pragmatism, inclusion, and innovation.

In fact, social policy and urban planning in American cities are inextricably linked. Economic, housing, immigration and other social policies shape the structure of the metropolis. And the structure of the metropolis, in turn, shapes social institutions, neighborhoods, access to affordable housing, quality education, healthy food, good jobs, transportation choices and the distribution of socio-economic goods. These elements are essential to comprehensive planning.

Planning is a form of social action that shapes our society, how we live, work, travel, recreate and play. This is too often forgotten when planners deal with an “angry public” by aggregating social input on a superficial level. The strategic and forceful impact of community organizing for self-determination of physical, social and economic space is undermined by planners who box themselves in as apolitical technical experts.

To be effective, urban planning needs to dig deeper than obscure code, pretty pictures and jumbling data. It needs to make a difference in the lives of all people. With respect to the defining issues mentioned above, here are five fundamental socio-economic problems that urban planners face:

  1. Can cities and regions prosper more fairly?

Global economic forces shape the physical fabric of the city, employing its human capital. Hence, the fiscal incentives for corporate business attraction to cities may not provide for the self-sufficiency of city residents, exacerbating the urban impacts of families struggling to make ends meet. Recently, rising inequality and stagnant opportunities in large metros have become a mobilizing cry for egalitarian social policies in city halls across America. The very foundation of the American Dream – the middle-class – is losing ground. Minimum wage measures have sparked a renewed interest in a proactive role for local intervention on income and wealth distribution. Yet, urban planners often ignore the structural causes of income inequality, such as low-wage service sectors, declining labor union density, employment insecurity, and geographic concentration of poverty. These issues are not of design efficiency alone but concern the well-being of our client base – the consumers of our plans. Complicity does not equate to fairness.

  1. Is the “affordable” housing crisis in desirable places solvable?

Housing is both a basic human necessity as well as a market commodity that is largely provided by the private sector in the U.S. Foreclosures, substandard housing, over-crowding, unaffordable rents, and even homelessness are recurring themes in urban areas. Housing affordability is of concern in many metros, regardless of the housing cycle: bubble, boom or bust. It is especially acute in coastal areas with strong economic growth and desirable quality of life, since desirability increases demand, which in turn increases prices. This raises the question of what is “affordable” for whom? Viewed this way, the housing crisis is simply a function of the income crisis. With public housing constituting about 1 percent of the stock in America, a planner does not provide homes, and rarely does the government control rents. So it is unfortunate that the most impactful models in the supply of affordable housing used in other countries are generally off the table. Rather than formulating how the public sector can provide mixed-income quality housing integrated respectfully into neighborhoods, planners grapple with externalities of the private sector creating low-paying jobs and high-cost housing. Bold action on solving the “affordable” housing crisis requires setting a clear social priority, which I would argue should focus on those with the least means, such as the homeless, children and the disabled, groups which may not have the most political power.

  1. Are our cities prepared for significant demographic and cultural changes in the future?

National debate over immigration often focuses on security and welcomings. But on a local level, as city after city in America becomes minority-majority, they also transform into melting pots for immigrants. Hence, immigration is the key to understanding the growth and repopulation of American cities that have historically served as gateways to economic opportunity. Urban planning needs to integrate the cultural, spatial, and economic contributions of refugees and immigrants, and in particular of Latino communities.

Furthermore, urban America is being transformed with diversity, multiculturalism, changing demographics, and evolving familial relationships. Immigrants, refugees, millennials, “dreamers”, mixed-race, LGBTQ and gender inclusive communities are causing a tectonic shift in both the physical fabric as well as social norms of urban living. Yet, zoning jargon, technical studies, and idyllic architectural renderings could attempt to conceal underlying historic and structural causes of discrimination. Examples are financial redlining, predatory lending, steering in residential location, racial profiling, exclusionary zoning, and housing segregation. Projects and plans can create disparate discriminatory impacts accumulated over several piecemeal actions scattered in time and place. And a socially-neutral design of public spaces conceived by planners could result in producing space that is perceived differently by diverse social groups.

  1. Should urban plans and projects be scrutinized for public health impacts?

Public health is increasingly relevant to urban planning, with empirical linkages between sedentary lifestyles and obesity, air pollution and asthma, food deserts and diabetes, etc. General plans are now including a health element, planners are using health impact assessments in community development, and healthcare providers are responding to the changing needs of an aging population. The science of the health benefits of active living is clear. Planning and designing healthy places is no longer an option left to developers, but a public health imperative in every land-use decision. Therefore, if a plan or a project causes unhealthy and toxic conditions in humans, no matter how profitable to the proponent, should it not come with the equivalent of a Surgeon General’s warning?

  1. Should transportation planning reorient from cars to people?

Through much of civilization, city streets were designed for horses and urban growth limited by walking, riding and access to mass transit. During the twentieth century, there was a shift to cars, which symbolized personal freedom and technological advancement. Auto-based suburbs shaped the sprawling post-World War II planning. Apparently, tailpipe emissions replaced horse manure. Dr. Seuss’ Once-ler put transportation agencies to work though highway planning and road design. As the Thneed-making business grew, the costs and benefits of mega-projects were systematically distorted. And from their ivory towers of traffic-flow models, transportation planners and engineers rarely looked down into social issues like the brown Bar-ba-loots that relied on the Truffula trees. But, land being a finite resource, our planners and developers kept running out of road-capacity and green-fields to sprawl into.

Now, research shows that increasing freeway capacity does not reduce traffic congestion but, to the contrary, has significant social cost in the form of divided communities, pollution, and blight. Moreover, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is becoming a global imperative, downtowns are making a resurgence with high-density lifestyles, urban communities are advocating for cleaner modes, and there is a second look being given to mass-transit systems, biking, and walking. Once-ler is feeling a bit remorseful, if only because of the interdependence between our social and environmental resources. Urban design and street safety are being reoriented towards bicyclists and pedestrians. Planners are realizing that even more important for walkability is not just the physical design, but the social milieu, such as the presence of other people in the neighborhood.

Lorax-300x155These five problems and many more cannot be solved by hiding one’s head in the proverbial sand of social darkness. Planners that I know care about equity, a lot. Planners are people too. They are subject to plans and their social consequences like the rest of society. However, the veil of technical indifference to social equity often subverts the principles of justice by rationalizing indifference to the social consequences of planning actions. It makes planners a willing instrument of the existing power structure in protecting and enhancing their own interests. As a result, on the issue of social equity, words do not often result in meaningful action.

Therefore, I would propose that planners put the queen back on the chess-board. Plan a city based on the principles of justice. Pursue equity as an integral element of all plans. Allow community organizing to flourish within the planning process. And empower the voiceless by giving them a seat at the decision-making table.

“Equity planners should be of good cheer; their work has improved the quality of life of poor people and poor neighborhoods. Although mainstream planning may seem to be untouched by the examples of equity planners, social equity agendas have begun to be embedded in many plans, policies, and programs.”

~ Norman Krumholtz


Photos by Nooriya Baxamusa (Chessboard) and The Green Parent on Flickr (Lorax).

Murtaza H. Baxamusa, Ph.D., AICP is a certified planner, writer and thinker. He develops affordable housing for the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corporation, and teaches urban planning at the University of Southern California (USC). He has over 12 years’ experience in economic development and sustainable urban planning, and has previously worked for the USC Center for Economic Development as well as the Center on Policy Initiatives. He has doctoral and master’s degrees in Planning from USC, and a bachelor’s degree with honors from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. He serves on several nonprofit boards, including Civic San Diego, the San Diego City-County Reinvestment Taskforce and the Middle Class Taxpayers Association.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rufus December 17, 2015 at 7:32 pm

You lost me at the big lie: “looming climate change crisis”.

Chicken Little, the sky is not falling.


rick callejon December 18, 2015 at 7:38 am

The oceans are rising. No lie.


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