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Girl Gone Planning: Racism & Planning

When most people learn about what I do, the first words that come to their mind (and out of their mouth) are usually one or more of the following: Trails! Parks! Condos! New office towers! I never hear racial inequality or environmental justice. But us planners have had a hand in creating the same problems that we are now trying to fix.


Non-planners need to take notice of something that many planners today already know: Our predecessors were racist. Some outright, some subtle, and some unknowingly. Yet all of them achieved some crazy stuff through bad planning and policy.


The New York Times Magazine has a piece out called "How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam" that lays out the basic premise that planners in the 1950s and 1960s knew exactly what they were doing when they decided where to build highways. To sum up the article in one sentence, those highway planners usually cut through black urban neighborhoods, dividing them from one another and bulldozing homes (many of which were the first homes that a lot of these families had ever owned), used highways as division lines between urban (black) and suburban (white) neighborhoods, and to put a bow on top they set up regional transportation authorities to provide and oversee buses and transit systems. These regional systems had replaced the earlier streetcar systems that were bought out and torn up by the oil and steel companies who then made the buses and cars that replaced them and made billions of dollars in the process. The problem with these regional systems is that they are usually at the mercy of all the voters/residents in the region, even though they typically only serve the needs of urban dwellers.


Take our own region into account when you think about this. I-90 runs along the border of Albany and Colonie. On one side, you have Arbor and West Hill, on the other you have Loudonville. Hell, Arbor Hill and Loudonville even share an exit. The South Mall Expressway (the ramps leading to the Empire State Plaza) were at one time planned to cut right through Center Square and then go under Washington Park to meet up with a highway that was to go from that exit on 90 at Clinton Ave, tear up Henry Johnson, go under the park, and tear through Park South on its way to the Thruway. Thankfully, the neighborhoods saw how damaging the Empire State Plaza construction was to that neighborhood and organized and fought back. But the scars are still abundant: I-90 cuts Albany from Colonie, 787 cuts Albany's South End and Arbor Hill off from the river and continues up through other poorer cities like Watervliet and Cohoes.


When it comes to transit, we have the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA), which owns the Rensselaer, Saratoga, and Schenectady Amtrak stations, and provides bus service throughout the four counties of Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga, and Schenectady counties. CDTA collects fares, but most of its revenue comes from the state and Federal governments. It also collects $11 million a year in a mortgage tax. Every new or refinanced mortgage in the four counties it serves pays a tax at closing time that goes to the CDTA. This money is only there because the four counties agree to it, if they didn't, CDTA would have to cut back service and most of its customers are poorer people, many of color who don't own cars. Even if you never use a bus or go to the train stations, you are paying for CDTA one way or another. And thank Zeus, because if our area, and every other metropolitan area in the country didn't have transit, traffic would be way worse. But as evident in the quote below, some cities like Atlanta, live at the whim of their wealthier white suburbs where people don't see the value in providing transit for 'those people downtown'.


We like to think that we are progressive and woke, so next time you drive along 90 to go to Crossgates, or use 787 to go to a concert at the TU, just remember that the road you're driving on, and most likely the house you're living in was the result of nefarious planning on the national and local level decades ago and that we planners are now trying to do better for our communities.


The following is a bit from the NYT Mag story:


"This intertwined history of infrastructure and racial inequality extended into the 1950s and 1960s with the creation of the Interstate highway system. The federal government shouldered nine-tenths of the cost of the new Interstate highways, but local officials often had a say in selecting the path. As in most American cities in the decades after the Second World War, the new highways in Atlanta — local expressways at first, then Interstates — were steered along routes that bulldozed “blighted” neighborhoods that housed its poorest residents, almost always racial minorities. This was a common practice not just in Southern cities like Jacksonville, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Richmond and Tampa, but in countless metropolises across the country, including Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Syracuse and Washington.


While Interstates were regularly used to destroy black neighborhoods, they were also used to keep black and white neighborhoods apart. Today, major roads and highways serve as stark dividing lines between black and white sections in cities like Buffalo, Hartford, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. In Atlanta, the intent to segregate was crystal clear. Interstate 20, the east-west corridor that connects with I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta’s center, was deliberately plotted along a winding route in the late 1950s to serve, in the words of Mayor Bill Hartsfield, as “the boundary between the white and Negro communities” on the west side of town. Black neighborhoods, he hoped, would be hemmed in on one side of the new expressway, while white neighborhoods on the other side of it would be protected. Racial residential patterns have long since changed, of course, but the awkward path of I-20 remains in place.

As the new suburbs ballooned in size, traffic along the poorly placed highways became worse and worse. The obvious solution was mass transit — buses, light rail and trains that would more efficiently link the suburbs and the city — but that, too, faced opposition, largely for racial reasons. The white suburbanites had purposefully left the problems of the central city behind and worried that mass transit would bring them back.


Accordingly, suburbanites waged a sustained campaign against the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) from its inception. Residents of the nearly all-white Cobb County resoundingly rejected the system in a 1965 vote. In 1971, Gwinnett and Clayton Counties, which were then also overwhelmingly white, followed suit, voting down a proposal to join MARTA by nearly 4-1 margins, and keeping MARTA out became the default position of many local politicians."