America’s struggles with gun violence and police relations with communities of color have burst, again, into the headlines over the last few weeks. Our contributors and editors have some thoughts about these issues and how they relate to the decisions our cities make around housing, transportation, and much more.

Aftermath of the Philando Castile shooting. Photo by Tony Webster on Flickr.

Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. These and so many more incidents have repeatedly underscored how our society still doesn’t truly treat black Americans equally. Americans who don’t experience this injustice personally have had their eyes opened. And then, the occasional person reacts with reprehensible violence against the police and drives further wedges between Americans (most recently in Baton Rouge, previously in Dallas).

Not every social problem is related to the way we build cities and better urban design can’t single-handedly solve some of America’s deepest social ills. Still, our society’s struggles with racial bias, whether from police or others, actually is deeply connected with the way American cities work and the decisions their leaders make. Here are some of our contributors’ thoughts.

Dan Reed said,

This is about who feels safe and who public spaces are created for. We haven’t experienced the worst of this here, but we’ve had a tumultuous demographic shift in recent years. As a person of color who grew up here, I feel unwelcome sometimes in a place that was once familiar.

This isn’t just about police brutality. It’s about the pervasiveness of racial bias, however subtle or unintentional, that appears in all of the policy decisions we make in education, transportation, housing, health care, and so on. It’s about making sure that everyone in our community the ability to live safe, dignified lives with access to the economic and social opportunities that many of us take for granted.

Gray Kimbrough discussed how public policy has explicitly created divisions:

The built environment has long been intertwined with racism in the US. Housing policy is a clear example, with the underlying racism ranging from completely blatant redlining or other policies that excluded non-whites (e.g. the postwar explosion in VA and FHA-backed loans).

And then there’s infrastructure. Growing up in North Carolina, I noticed that things like sidewalks were much less likely to be provided in predominantly black parts of town. Transportation infrastructure and transit networks have often also been used to maintain the status quo rather than to mitigate the impact of institutional racism. Limiting the housing options for people of color and underfunding infrastructure in those areas contribute directly to limiting opportunities for whole classes of people. As a side effect, racial segregation of housing limits people’s experiences with members of other groups. This tends not to be a problem for white people, who generally don’t have to fear police officers unfamiliar with people like them acting in overly aggressive ways. It can absolutely have devastating effects for people of color when police officers are more likely to see them as criminals by default, at least in part because of a lack of basic interaction due to residential segregation.
Nick Keenan added some specific policy examples:
It ties into two things I’ve read about Ferguson [Missouri]. One is that people in Ferguson were reluctant to walk places, even short distances, because they were afraid of being hassled by the police if they did. The other is that the municipal budget in Ferguson was dependent upon fines and fees from motorists, and that a grievance of the residents was that you couldn’t drive anywhere without risking getting pulled over and ticketed for a minor infraction. Many experienced cyclists have stories of interactions with police officers where just the fact of operating a bicycle seemed to set the cops off. There was a blog post last summer that got a lot of coverage about how for many people riding a bicycle is the closest they will ever come to not having white privilege.
Tracy Hadden Loh added,
It’s all about who has access to what planning processes - whose outcomes are measured, voices are heard, values represented, needs prioritized, etc. Planning is all about navigating tradeoffs to maximize access and efficiency of public goods in a world where most of the acreage/square footage is private. … We [all] have our own often unstated assumptions about *how* to achieve planning goals [and] I don’t think [we] ask enough hard questions about who the winners and losers will be.
Let’s try hard to think about who winners and losers will be as we discuss the many choices cities and counties in our region make. How do the events of the last few weeks, and few years, affect how you think about urban spaces and the issues we discuss?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.