Urban environment and racial segregation

The current protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA have brought forward worldwide the problem of racism, with a strength and clarity that has made it impossible for most of us to ignore the racial issues that are still present in most countries and communities around the world.

We are all somewhat familiar with the concept of racism; when it does not directly affect us, we are exposed to it through school and television, even though the information presented in these contexts can often be very misleading. Thankfully, sensibilisation campaigns and riots lead by the BLM movement in the last decade have greatly helped revitalise the racial issue and forced white majorities across the world to face this too often underplayed problem. However, as much as we are familiar with the topic, there is a big difference between knowing about a problem and being aware that it is a reality.

The protests have brought forward a staggering fact: racial discrimination has been substituted by racial apathy (1). White racial prejudice has shifted from discrimination to apathy, defined as white people not caring about racial equality. This feeling of not caring is perceived as more acceptable today, as it absolves white people from feeling responsible for racism. It ultimately leads to white indifference towards the struggles not only of black people, but of any cultural minority. This apathy shows in white people who support principles of racial equality but are then not willing to support the implementation of the principle of equality (2). Basically, whites appear to be less willing to endorse action to make sure that those principles of equality that they theoretically support come into place. This affects many fields, such as jobs opportunities and career prospects for ethnic minorities, but also housing and public spaces, shaping our urban environment and preventing it from being more inclusive and diverse.

The view that white people have on race inevitably affects the development of cities, as they are shaped to follow the ideology of the majorities of each country. The problem of racial segregation is today considered to be an issue of the past, but we can now see how the urban design of our cities implements more subtle forms of racial separation, which are nowadays mainstream also due to the phenomenon of racial apathy, which ultimately prevents a radical and truthful reorganisation of the urban environment. We can see examples of urban segregation across the world, from America to Europe, making it an issue that cannot be relegated to specific countries. This can be attributed partially to the fact that urban planning processes were not designed to accommodate the needs of our super-diverse population. This has caused patterns of institutionalised discrimination to guide the planning system of many countries, where the needs of ethnic minorities were ignored.

Segregation has changed with time; nowadays, it is not necessarily only a physical divide between people of different origins. Today, it implies a huge disparity in resources in different parts of cities. This causes white areas of many town and cities to benefit from more development and better infrastructures. There are very specific housing patterns in many American states, for example, that tend to avoid blacks and other minorities in a predominantly white area. This is done by using zoning restrictions to avoid rental housing, which mainly attracts minorities (3); these are instead concentrated in areas with more affordable housing projects, such as public housing. Lack of rental choices in specific neighbourhoods mainly affects black residents, who are more than twice likely to rent their homes than whites. To make the issue worse, the white residents in these predominantly white areas often fight to prevent the building of public housing developments near their neighbourhoods.

In the UK, since 1979, “Thatcherite” ideologies have caused economic efficiency rather than racial equality to become the main concern for the central government (4). This has created problems very similar to those found in the USA, which have led to the segregation of ethnic minorities in generally poorer areas of cities. This focus on capital projects has been the top priority for the Conservative government of the 1980s and 1990s, which has simultaneously systematically ignored racial injustices.

However, many other factors come into play when discussing segregation in the urban environment. Public transportation, for one, also causes segregation to be a reality, as there is an intentional scarcity of public transport in certain neighbourhoods, to keep communities isolated. These are also the communities most patrolled by police authorities, which focus on the poorer areas of the cities, the ones most deprived of good jobs, school and public spaces. These areas are often stigmatised as dodgy and dangerous, which builds an unspoken sense of treat and fear over the local population by the other citizens.

While whites move away from the city, in expensive suburbs and extraburs, minorities then tend to concentrate in the metropolitan areas, causing racially integrated neighbourhoods to be almost non-existent. The misconception that segregation by race in metropolitan areas came about due to accidents driving personal choices and prejudice has to be changed, to acknowledge that government planning, income difference and general discrimination from real estate agents and banks, are creating this phenomenon (5).

These factors, all taken together, can partially explain how the racial issue is established in many cities around the world. Racialisation of the urban environment is a reality in most countries and it often goes unnoticed. Most multi-racial societies are built on an underlying racial urban setting, where the minorities interests are sacrificed to those of the general public.

The force with which the current protests have brought forward the racial issue makes it necessary to assess and judge the way our society is built. It is now impossible to ignore how our own cities promote racial separation and the need to finally put into place the solutions that have long been promised. By explicitly addressing discrimination and racism, it will be possible to reduce inequalities in all aspects of urban life. This can be done by engaging minorities in policy formulation and urban implementation. However, so far, little changes have been put into practice to promote these policies (6).

Urban design can practically help with the racial issue, as cities can promote equality for their citizens by creating accessible areas for all. Redistribution of resources could be one of many solutions to the problem, as elites in cities depend on public goods, which are often unequally distributed. Civic spaces, such as public libraries or community centres, can also be innovated, to make them more inviting to different social and income groups. Creating a feeling of inclusiveness is vital to promote a strong public life. By creating equal access to public space to different cultures and ethnicities there will be a possibility for them to meet each other on constructive terms. This can create a more multicultural urban planning movement, viewed as a physiological response to diversity in cities, which is aware of the problems of race and culture and takes a more inclusive and communicative approach to urban design. In this way, the needs of ethnic minorities can be met and reflected in the urban environment, which ultimately will lead to integration and participation of these minorities with the white majorities.

Therefore, urban design needs to be expanded to address the problem of racial segregation, as traditional ideas of designing cities are clearly only exacerbating the problem. This can be done, as designers can choose which commissions to take and the voice they want to have in the community. By ensuring that land use and zoning policies are reformed, racial integration can become a reality, although it will be surely a great issue to address and fight for.

Maria Chiara Mantova

(1) Tony N. Brown, Asia Bento, 2019, “Who cares?”: Investigating Consistency in Expression of Racial Apathy among Whites

(2) https://igpa.uillinois.edu/programs/racial-attitudes

(3) https://www.governing.com/topics/public-justice-safety/gov-segregation-main-feature.html

(4) Thomas, H, 2008, Race equality and planning: a changing agenda, Planning Practice and Research

(5) https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-federal-government-intentionally-racially-segregated-american-cities-180963494/

(6) Social Exclusion Unit, 2001, A New Commitment to Neighbourhood Renewal


Image: Sattelite view of London, Copernicus Sentinel-2, ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0