Friday, October 23, 2009

Planning and the White City

As many city planners and urban historians know, the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago greatly influenced how city officials at the time could envision cities. See the fair included a futuristic expo about cities, which included human scale models of grand institutional buildings set alongside broad tree-lined boulevards and intricately laid out parks that incorporated the best of the city and nature. The expo laid the foundation for creating this nation’s first city Master Plan. The expo would forever change how America looked at its cities, which at the time were crowded, dreary places that lacked open space, clean air and parks for recreational activities. The very progressive and socially liberal expo of the 1893 World’s Fair was dubbed the White City after the color of all the monumental buildings that were constructed. Planners and cityophile geeks are probably familiar with the book and documentary, Magic and the White City, which covered the creation and influence of the 1893 expo.

Over one hundred years later, we have a knew version of the White City which is just as progressive and liberal as the 1893 expo was at it’s time. These meticulously planned cities are also very progressive and liberal and have a heavy emphasis on connecting the urban form with nature. These cities, which pride themselves on creating cities with a human scale, have been dubbed White Cities not because of the color of their buildings but because of the lack of color in their city’s population. Newsgeography.com recently ran an article called
The White City, lamenting the fact that many of the cities that have been dubbed as progressive or even cool among national planning pundits and observers are almost entirely white. The article states:

Among the media, academia and within planning circles, there’s a generally standing answer to the question of what cities are the best, the most progressive and best role models for small and mid-sized cities. The standard list includes Portland, Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis, and Denver. In particular, Portland is held up as a paradigm, with its urban growth boundary, extensive transit system, excellent cycling culture, and a pro-density policy. These cities are frequently contrasted with those of the Rust Belt and South, which are found wanting, often even by locals, as 'cool' urban places.

But look closely at these exemplars and a curious fact emerges. If you take away the dominant Tier One cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles you will find that the “progressive” cities aren’t red or blue, but another color entirely: white.”

The article continues on to question how can cities be labeled as hip and progressive if they lack a diversity of cultures. The author wonders out loud whether there is a correlation between what is labeled a progressive city and a lack of diversity within that city. And if that is so, what does that really say about those who consider themselves liberal? The author does acknowledge that having a homogeneous population allows cities to pass major government planning expenditures like transit with much more considerable ease because there are no competing interests, threatened communities or communities that would receive more benefits then others. While, without a doubt, planning for the diverse needs of multiple incomes, cultures and beliefs definitely makes planning for the whole a lot more difficult, the author does not let “progressive” cities off the hook for not reaching out to their small but present black communities. The article goes on to state:

I believe that cities that start taking their African American and other minority communities seriously, seeing them as a pillar of civic growth, will reap big dividends and distinguish themselves in the marketplace.

This trail has been blazed not by the 'progressive' paragons but by places like Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. Atlanta, long known as one of America's premier African American cities, has boomed to become the capital of the New South. It should come as no surprise that good for African Americans has meant good for whites too.”

To that specific point, social commentator and essayist
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote on his blog that:

“...leaving aside the blinding whiteness of dubbing Atlanta "un-progressive," leaving aside that most of these "progressive" cities have more black people than their surrounding states, I think the implicit argument that these cities should be "doing more" to assure that their black population meets the national average is odious.

Man listen--Negroes like Atlanta. Negroes like Chicago. Negroes like Houston. Negroes like Raleigh-Durham (another area that doesn't make the cut, for some reason.) Negroes like Oakland. Negroes have the right to like where they live, independent of Massa, for their own particular, native, independent reasons (family? great barbecue? housing stock?) Just like Jewish-Americans have the right to like New York--or not. Just like Japanese-Americans have the right to like Cali--or not.”

I think Ta-Nehisi makes a great point. There are going to be cities that certain cities gravitate too for many reasons. Just because a city lacks diversity does not mean that they should pump up the city’s community of color just for the sake of being more diverse. True diversity will come to a city naturally and most importantly, internally as long as that city is open to everyone and is not discriminatory. Now if we find out that these “progressive” cities are really inhospitable to certain cultures or they try to minimize the size of a different culture (the old planning text adage is that when the minority population increases over 10% of the population, white flight starts to occur). If these cities are truly progressive and they still lack diversity then it may just not be those communities cup of tea.

As a city planner, I do find it interesting that the cities and places with the largest black populations such as Atlanta, Houston, Charlotte and the D.C. suburbs are some of the most sprawling cities and locales in the country. We all know that obesity is a national problem and near epidemic levels in portions of the black community. While having a preeminent large upper and middle class community in these major cities is great sign of progress, are the locations of where of the large black middle class lives really doing more harm than good? And while the author of The White City is asking why are progressively planned cities so white, the question I would like to know is why the locations of the black middle class are planned so horribly?

What is your take on progressive white cities and their lack of diversity? Also what is your opinion on why cities with a large black population have so much sprawl? Do you see any correlations? I would like to hear your thoughts, please leave a comment.

1 comment:

BC Planning said...

Another observation:

In many of these black middle class locales you will find auto dependent communities, strip shopping centers, junk retail and businesses unbecoming of a community with a high socio-economic status. Meaning that the same economic conditions that you would find in working class black communities such as, the lack of super markets, restaurants, banks and the overabundance of convenience stores, fast food and cash checking stores can also be found in middle and upper middle class black communities. In fact cities such as Atlanta, Houston and Charlotte have become regional magnets that attract large number of new black migrants from small southern towns that are walkable and not car dependent.