I am not an architect. Nor am I an engineer, a planner, a UX designer, or a draughtsman of any merit. I am good with words, and food, and rudimentary power tools; I can build a table, and a sturdy one at that, with clean lines and everything. But notably absent within my academic and vocational toolkit is anything tangibly related to the building industry. So what business did someone like me have teaching a course on urban planning?
No business whatsoever. But prior to my career as a communications professional in the architecture and engineering fields, for a brief stint in my mid-20s I worked as a teacher at a youth detention center in Boston, which we dubbed “Treatment.” The student body at Treatment was male, aged 14–18, and predominantly young men of color whose own lots in life were hardscrabble. Many spent years getting batted around like pinballs within the foster system. Schools routinely failed them. Society had cast them aside, contented by their likely trajectory toward recidivism and, eventually, prison. As a young and inexperienced teacher, my mandate was little more than to keep the kids on pace at their recorded learning levels (which varied wildly) en route to the next duly scheduled standardized test.
During the regular school year we followed the state-sanctioned curriculum, or at least as best we could with outdated textbooks (and too few of them at that). But when summer arrived, the teachers were given free rein. And one summer I elected to teach a class on urban planning. Pedagogically speaking, this was a disaster of my own making. On the first day of class I stood before a blank dry erase board and posed the question: “What does a city need?” My presumption being, anyone with a basic familiarity of cities would recognize everyday human needs and start spinning off a list of stuff: transit, food, retail, housing, schools, all manner of municipal services and critical infrastructure. I was sure the class would have whole neighborhoods laid out before lunch, and that our end result might be an intricate homage to those early versions of SimCity. Instead, the usual teenage boy inclinations prevailed, and my students lobbied hard for things like strip clubs and personal mansions. In fact, we never got around to planning much of anything, either on the first day or the next or the one after that.
Still, I held out hope in those early days of summer. Like all teachers, I had favored pupils, the students I often called on to field easy prompts and break awkward silences. One in particular was a whip-smart 17-year-old named Henry. (His name has been changed.) Although Henry hadn’t spent more than three consecutive days in a formal classroom setting since the eighth grade, he never failed to express genuine interest in almost any topic that was presented to him. Henry and I happened to live in the same neighborhood. In between his semi-usual three- to nine-month stints at Treatment, we would bump into one another on the street, share a quick back-and-forth. He’d graciously endure another “Stay out of trouble” from me, and we carried on. While taking care not to betray our social history in front of the class, I was hopeful that Henry could at least be relied upon to rattle off the various business and building types that lined Tremont Street in Mission Hill. But with each prompt, Henry only demurred.
There is no twist ending here. The teacher did not become the student. The unpolished wisdom of youth did not ascend to greatness. And if memory serves, I never finished the course, eventually morphing it into my usual American History fare. Make no mistake, it was naive of me to think I could wave my Socratic wand and summon a democratic metropolis. But my real hubris was in even attempting to teach this class. And yet, to this day, some two decades on, I am haunted by what could have been, and more so by what I did simply not know at the time.
Currently there are heated debates occurring in a number of statehouses over what role Critical Race Theory (CRT) should play in our public schools. Six states and counting—Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas—have passed legislation that restricts, often in cryptic terms, how teachers can discuss matters tied to racism, sexism and related social issues. Clearly, the notion that all or most facets of American history have been shaped in some manner by racist policies is anathema to a sizable portion of the country. But the inconvenient truth is that they have, and they continue to be. And America’s legacy of urban planning is certainly one such facet that has borne the brunt of institutionalized racism. We are past due for a reckoning, especially when it comes to how we educate our young people on the history of our cities.
If America’s teachers can be afforded the chance to employ curricula such as The 1619 Project in their lessons, they would do well to consider our built environment. The ways by which neighborhoods rise and fall, as well as the inner workings of things like zoning, transit planning, and school funding, are inextricably linked to America’s original sin. Now, this is a lot for grade-school teachers to take on. Not to mention the fact that adolescents aren’t exactly the savviest vessels for nuance. So let’s ensure that our discourse, particularly with young, impressionable minds, adopts a somewhat more optimistic tone. The city as a perpetual work in progress.
CRT is ultimately about reframing the narrative—and to that end, consider that the issues touched on by urban planning are, at the end of the day, associated with positive rights, like access to food, shelter, clean air, reliable transit, healthcare, education, and public space. In that regard, CRT is a uniting force, and one that might even spark a new age of enlightenment. But in the short term, it could motivate an entire generation of new social justice–minded thinkers to redesign our cities.
Those who reject CRT as pedagogy tend to consider racism as a binary issue. If a particular white person hears “Black Lives Matter,” they might infer that their racial identity is being de-emphasized, or worse, rendered less-than. On the contrary, what they get wrong is assuming that they are somehow being faulted for their conscious decisions, construing such lessons as finger wagging and wokeness run amok. The premise is not to shame individual behaviors, but rather to emphasize the relationship between certain state-sanctioned policies—redlining, gerrymandering, poll taxes, and so on—and the resulting outcomes that clearly disadvantage people and whole communities of color. Institutional racism transcends the actions of any one person. It’s not a few bricks in the building, it is the building. Which then prompts the immediate question: Can the building be repaired, or is it beyond saving?
The work of architecture and urban planning is public interest work. What it traditionally has not been is social justice work. But that tide is shifting. “Architects could be at the forefront of creating a more equitable and more just built world—and by extension society,” wrote William Bates in his inspired AIA Perspective from 2019, “but only if we have the innovation, ingenuity, and leadership of everyone who shares our vision.” Practically speaking, it shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of architects and engineers and city planners to single-handedly undo hundreds of years of institutionalized racism. It’s a nice thought (like stopping climate change with electric cars and a handful of net-zero buildings), but those folks need clients, and that’s where visionary leadership at the municipal and state level can come into play.
As more cities proscribe single-family zoning and minimum parking requirements, or finally decide to deal with the economic and social impacts of placing multiple lanes of highway through their downtown, or begin the real work of redirecting funds away from a militarized police force, then some architects and planners will be more empowered, to borrow a tagline, to build back better. Granted, most viable architecture practices are still in the (very) early phases of self-diagnosing and adopting EDI policies, figuring out, in other words, how to become a little less white, a little less patriarchal. But it’s those types of internal shakeups that can pave the way for progressive leadership to begin doing the work of social justice by way of design.
At the same time, it’s not enough to hope that established practitioners will enlighten themselves and, in so doing, design a more equitable future. For that we should really be starting in the classroom. CRT should have a prominent place in our country’s education system, particularly at the K–12 level. Not as some simplistic form of race-shaming or philosophical reparations, but for the sake of its palpable relevance to our modern day realities. Innumerable facets of our built environment have been planned, designed, constructed, razed, and then rebuilt countless times over, based on institutionalized practices of racism and other exclusionary policies. Case in point: The history of Central Park should never be taught without also including the history of Seneca Village, just like the year 2020 cannot enter the annals of history without including whole chapters devoted to George Floyd and the BLM movement. Context is everything, right? So let us act (and teach) accordingly.
Henry would eventually earn his GED while at Treatment. What became of him in the ensuing years, and what he’s up to today, I cannot say. If I relied solely on recidivism rates for juvenile offenders, Henry’s prospects seem grim by any measure. Still, recalling what I do about this young man’s wits and curiosity, I am hopeful that my misguided attempt at teaching urban planning that one summer may well have been set an example for him. Just not the kind one should follow. No doubt he could teach all of us a thing or two.
Featured image: George Floyd Square, Minneapolis. All images via Wikipedia unless otherwise noted.