Making a Difference: Reshaping the Past, Present, and Future Toward Greater Equity

By Special Contributor posted 11-19-2019 16:42


By Justin Garrett Moore

Editor's Note:  This is an excerpt from Justin Garrett Moore's article "Making a Difference: Reshaping the Past, Present, and Future Toward Greater Equity" which was featured in Forum Journal: ReUrbanism: Past Meets Future in American Cities. Moore presented portions of this article as part of a talk at PastForward 2019 in Denver, Colorado. In order to share his thoughts you can read the introduction to his piece below, and then read the full article at the link below. 

It is often quipped that history is written by the victors. That same notion is easily translated to urban policy and the development of neighborhoods and cities. Our communities have not necessarily been planned, designed, or built to benefit everyone; and today there are still discrepancies in why and how places develop or redevelop based on race, income, and other factors. Along with urban policy, planning, architecture, urban design, and other fields, historic preservation is a tool for the complex and sometimes messy work of continually remaking our built environment to meet present and future demands and desires.

To do this work, urbanists and preservationists need to understand the complete histories and current contexts of a structure or a place, including its people and uses. Places with multiple legacies and contexts also have multiple meanings and values attached to them, and all of these must be taken into account when shaping the built environment. For example, in a recent Next City article, Oscar Perry Abello explores a new mapping tool created by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition using data from the University of Richmond. The tool allows users to identify the impact of redlining policies in the demographic and economic patterns that we find in urban communities today. Basic elements of a city’s construction—housing, transportation, educational facilities, public spaces and services, and environmental health and protection—are often marked by differences dating back to the formative periods of its development. Those differences were frequently shaped by de jure and de facto discriminatory practices against people based on race, class, and ethnicity.

Many communities have been subject to—and even formed under—these difficult circumstances. Nonetheless, a wide range of people have valued these places across generations as homes and communities; for their cultural roots; and because of their investments of work, money, time, and energy. Some of the zones created by unjust policies and practices—redlining, unfair taxation, highway construction, the siting of polluting land uses, undesirable or substandard public facilities and infrastructure, and other factors—have shifted and blurred across generations of change. But the framework remains: our environment has been designed, built, and regulated based on race and class. The system is not broken, it is operating as intended toward an engineered inequality.

As a part of the Greenpoint Hospital redevelopment study in Brooklyn, the city’s housing, development, and urban planning agencies held a series of community workshops based on the Neighborhood Planning Playbook. | Credit: Justin Moore

So what can be done about these daunting circumstances, which are nearly ubiquitous in America’s urban environments? In a recent conversation focused on creating opportunity and equity, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, said to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, “inequality has been constructed—and the question is, how can it be deconstructed?” Developing tools and strategies for this deconstruction is now a focus for many leaders and institutions, communities and grassroots organizations, academics and practitioners. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has brought issues of social equity into ReUrbanism, its platform committing to the revitalization of cities.  Three of the 10 ReUrbanism principles point to strategies for connecting the built environment to larger human needs:

  • Cities are only successful when they work for everyone;
  • Preservation is about managing change; and
  • Every community has stories and places that matter.
People working in the urban fields can take certain steps to move toward building more equitable and thriving communities: “redesign” the designers, change how business is done, and affirm through their work that people and places matter. A project manager in a private planning or design firm, a local government administrator or elected official, principals at a real estate development firm, a researcher or professor, a local community advocate, and many others can all use their work and influence to promote meaningful changes in thinking and process.

Read the full article in the Forum Library.