Harvard Planners Talk Race, Design, and St. Louis

In our recent interview with long-time urban planner and racial equity advocate Chester Hartman, he told us he thought that urban planning programs were not “taking race and poverty into consideration in the essential way that planning ought to be doing.” 

He recommended that these programs be moved out of design schools, where they so often reside, and instead locate them where they would have more interaction with politics and public policy programs, getting insight on their work from sociologists, historians, and others.

Chester might have been surprised, but also pleased, by the conference put on by the Harvard Graduate School of Design (whose urban planning masters program he chose to leave decades ago for a degree housed instead in the School of Arts & Sciences) on March 31.

Entitled “Voices & Visions of St. Louis,”  the conference used St. Louis as a focal point to do some of what Chester hoped for: along with planners and urban designers, the conference brought in historians, law professors, public health specialists, journalists, and politicians to discuss St. Louis, and the issues of race and segregation were front and center. (More community development practitioners would have been really helpful in a number of the conversations that came up, however.)

That event was followed by a half-day symposium called “Race, Space, and Design: Evolving Activities at the GSD,” organized by Designing Justice, a student-led initiative.

And indeed, the students have been out ahead on this issue, creating syllabi and their own symposium last year on the topic.

And the GSD seems to be trying to come to the table. Urban planner Toni Griffin, who led the Detroit Future City planning process, joined the faculty in January, and is teaching a class called Design for a Just City, and running a “Just City” design lab, whose goal she described at the St. Louis event as making “planning practice more values based.” Griffin moderated the event's closing panel, raising challenging questions such as why the scale of intervention tends to be small in isolated “black spaces” (tactical urbanism, urban agriculture) and larger (transit investments) are more often in “white spaces.”

Though the historians (somewhat oddly all white; happily none of the other panels were) painted us a picture of St. Louis race relations that had some quite distinctive twists to it, overall the story was one that would be familiar to most folks who have studied how our regions got to be the way they are—redlining, steering, discrimination, official or unofficial “benign neglect,” wholsesale displacement, municipal fragmentation, and exclusionary zoning. Still, as GSD professor Daniel D'Oca said in describing design students he had taught  in Baltimore, they had to be told to wonder about why there were differences between the neighborhood their school was located in and disinvested community nearby.

Any urban designer, planner, or architect should wonder about that a whole lot, and I'm glad Voices & Visions of St. Louis likely prompted many to do so.

(Photo credit: Olaf Eichler via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


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