Problematic City Planning

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City Planning and Segregation


In this research brief we have compiled several examples in history of how city planners intentionally designed spaces in order to be hostile to the poor and people of color. Examples of racial segregation in city planning and the intentional isolating of low-income populations include redlining, racial zoning, walls and fences between neighborhoods, the neglect and pollution in low income areas, the development of Chinatowns, hostile architecture, lack of public transportation, and highways. We have used some older sources as they are relevant to the historical focus of this article. Below is a deep dive of our findings.


The practice of denying services, either directly or through selectively raising prices, to residents of certain areas based on the racial or ethnic makeup of those areas is called "redlining". It began in the 1930s when the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created for the purpose of insuring mortgages. They relied on maps drawn by a governmental body called the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC). In demand neighborhoods were colored in green (lacking a single foreigner or person of color) while neighborhoods that were ineligible for FHA backing were colored in red (any place inhabited by people of color). If you were white or middle-class it was easier to buy a home thanks to the sizable subsidies offered by the government; meanwhile, for African Americans it was virtually impossible to acquire a mortgage. As a result, the red neighborhoods fell into decline as many owners gave up on investing in their properties. The effects of redlining are still seen and felt today all across New York despite no longer being enforced by the government.


One of the strategies employed by city planners back in the early 1900s which were meant to separate people of color from white people involved zoning of areas; each block in the city was designated based on the predominant race of the area. This zoning forbade black people from moving into primarily white areas. The purpose of this zoning was to prevent association between white and colored people, which they feared resulted in hostility, immorality, and health risks. Back then, the commonly held belief was that colored people should be "quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority."


When black and white neighborhoods had to be in close proximity to each other, one common solution was to erect a wall or fence between the two. In the 1940s, the city of Detroit was expanding and white people were seeking to establish residencies right next to black neighborhoods. However, they initially required financial backing secured through the FHA in order to develop new housing, and locations that were considered to be too near African-American neighborhoods were rejected. That is, until they built 6-foot-high walls that ran for about three long city blocks. Another wall was erected in New Haven when complaints poured in about crime occurring in a wealthy neighborhood after a low income neighborhood was constructed nearby. The wall meant a long detour for the people living in the low income neighborhoods, making it difficult to get to work and to go shopping. The wall was not taken down until 2014. The infamous Hollander Ridge wrought iron fence, still standing today, was constructed in 1998 in order to separate it from the adjacent, predominantly white suburban community of Rosedale.


Another example of city planning used to isolate low-income neighborhoods from wealthier areas are highways. The need to construct highways was a convenient excuse for bulldozing the less desirable areas of a city, including: black commercial districts, Mexican barrios, Chinatowns, and sacred Native American land.


Many urban cities utilize hostile and strategic architecture in order to deter the homeless population and conceal poverty. For example, park benches are built with uncomfortable armrests or dividers and the sheltered undersides of bridges and other structures are inundated with spikes. Such additions make public property more unfavorable for homeless people to sleep and rest on.


The original design of subways, streets, and other transportation routes in large urban cities such as New York City favored the connection of wealthy, white areas. The residents of primarily non-white areas are isolated, such as in the Eastern Rockaways, and there is a lack of direct public transportation options which connect the historically non-white neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Hispanic, Asian, and Black populations still feel the racial divides preserved by these preexisting routes as they have the longest commutes in the city.


According to a study conducted in 2012 by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, race is the most significant predictor of a person living near contaminated air, water, or soil. High housing costs and historical discrimination resulted in clusters of low-income and minority neighborhoods around air pollution hotspots such as industrial sites, truck routes, and ports. Latino people are exposed to the largest numbers of dangerous pollutants while white people experience the lowest rates of toxic exposure.


When Chinese immigrants originally arrived in cities like San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York, they were welcomed with open arms and even praised for their work ethic. However, they were soon seen as a threat to the American workforce because they were paid lower wages and worked just as hard or harder than white Americans. Hatred and racism ensued, spurring attacks and legislation which forbade them from living in certain parts of the city. Thus, they were driven into neighborhoods which are now known as "Chinatowns". Ironically, these neighborhoods became popular tourist attractions.


City planners often took race and class into consideration when designing areas, with a focus on separating undesirable populations from the wealthy, white residents of their cities. We found eight examples of their strategies, which involved using physical obstacles such as walls and fences and hostile architecture, as well as redlining, racial zoning of areas, the construction of Chinatowns, neglect of pollution in low-income areas, highways which replaced slums, and a lack of public transportation.