Winnipeg, like myriad other urban centres, has often forced its Black, Indigenous and residents of colour to the margins despite benefiting greatly from their massive contributions to life here; as the city moves forward, planners must hear and heed those voices
By: Sheena Jardine-Olade and Jason Syvixay
Posted: 07/4/2020 4:00 AM
These words were seen on hundreds of thousands of placards when people took to their streets in solidarity of a global movement to make cities safer, inclusive and equitable for Black people. The campaign, #BlackLivesMatter, was founded in 2013 to "eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes."
In Washington, the campaign’s motto transformed an entire block of pavement on 16th Street into a bright yellow mural, and it was renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza.
In Canada, a stirring conversation led by the Canadian Urban Institute’s senior fellow Jay Pitter invited frank perspectives from Black urbanists and city builders. More than 2,000 participants tuned into the broadcast, eager to listen and learn.
Pitter’s final words punctuated the value of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) community members: "Black people and other people from racialized groups and equity-seeking groups; we are indeed excellent. We may actually be double excellent. We come with expertise and lived experience. There is no way you could possibly pay us enough."
Protests around the world have erupted with hundreds of thousands demanding justice, police reform and that corporations and governments be held responsible for upholding discriminatory practices. In Winnipeg, more than 10,000 residents gathered outside the Manitoba Legislative Building calling for provincial action.
The conversation around #BlackLivesMatter has undoubtedly been stoked. Many people are interested in learning more about the issue and are determined to be part of the solution. Some are faltering despite good intentions, failing to create a meaningful impact because of their lack of perspective. And others are still relentless in their assertion that #AllLivesMatter, entrenched in their claims that racism is not a prevalent and insidious issue.
Black Lives Matter. Indigenous people matter. People of colour matter. They are essential to our cities. They built them and they continue to build them. But our cities do not exuberantly welcome them. They exclude them, discriminate against them and continue to suppress them — exacerbating urban inequities.
Silence is collusion
A post on social media has proliferated with the words: "It’s a privilege to educate yourself about racism instead of experiencing it."
For us, privilege has been contextual. In many respects, we are privileged. We are Canadian, educated and employed. At the same time, we experience discrimination. We are asked, "Where are you from?" as if we could not be born in Canada. We are told, "You speak very well," as if our cultural and ancestral backgrounds make us inadequately educated. We are reminded, "You must have gotten this job because of your diversity," not because of the merits that we have worked so hard to earn.
As urban planners though, we are in a privileged position to be able to impose views and desires onto communities. And sometimes, if communities speak up and identify that our plans and policies do not work for them and their neighbourhoods, we may unconsciously view them as difficult or not being able to understand or comprehend.
When city planners say that they are committed to racial and social equity, they must also acknowledge their privilege and inherent biases from being educated in and planning within colonialist structures. It is important, now more than ever, to be critical about the systems that suppress many into the positions they currently occupy. We know that not every individual in our neighbourhoods has the same opportunities to speak up.
No justice, no peace
Take a look at any public space in your city. Who is afforded the privilege to play on our streets? Which neighbourhoods receive government funding for recreational facilities, green space and functional, high-quality infrastructure? Which places can be occupied by BIPOCs without the fear of being harmed or killed?
In the United States, Black people are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans, the Washington Post has reported. Although most of us are quick to point out that we are different from our southern neighbours, the Canadian statistics are just as troubling. As Amina Yasin notes in The Tyee, in Toronto, "Black residents make up 10 per cent of the population, yet account for 61 per cent of all cases where police used force resulting in death, and 70 per cent of police shootings that resulted in death."
The Traffic Stop Race Collection Project by York University showed that despite a 35 per cent decrease in traffic stops, Ottawa police disproportionately targeted young Black men and Middle Eastern men. Over the study’s three-year period, police discriminately stopped the two minority groups at rates two to three times higher than expected based on total population. In contrast, police stopped white males 0.9 times what was expected based on their population size.
These startling statistics are proof that public space and the ability for movement of racialized people within it is neither fair nor equitable. With the knowledge that individuals are guaranteed to feel harassed and unsafe based on race, how much more important is it to plan representatively and with perspective when life and death are based on these decisions?
Enough is enough
A city’s zoning codes (a term that planners use to divide land into uses that are either permitted or prohibited), were born out of racism and continue to contribute to housing disparity and segregation of the BIPOC community. As Richard Rothstein uncovered in The Color of Law, American governments enacted two policies that segregated metropolitan areas.
"One was the first civilian public housing program which frequently demolished integrated neighbourhoods in order to create segregated housing," he wrote in the 2017 National Book Award nominee.
"The second program that the federal government pursued was to subsidize the development of suburbs on a condition that they be only sold to white families and that the homes in those suburbs had deeds that prohibited resale to African-Americans."
Today, single-family homes are permitted uses in Canadian neighbourhoods. At the same time, more affordable housing typologies within the medium-density range (like apartments or row-housing) require development variances, which are often subject to one-sided public consultation processes — in favour of those who can have their voices heard. Multi-family residential housing forms are often contested because of antiquated fears that they bring with them crime and poverty. These beliefs are masked with arguments that these housing types attract renters or are out of character for the neighbourhood. Yet neighbourhoods are evolving, and a fixation on the past is a fixation on housing policies that have oppressed racialized people from finding adequate homes. To some, a renter’s value is associated with their ability to acquire property.
According to a study penned by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. in 2019, immigrants are likely to face more housing challenges than non-immigrants. Reduced housing affordability in urban areas is a reality that often finds marginalized people displaced to the edges of the city, disconnected from meaningful cultural, recreational and social amenities. CMHC argues that socio-economic status further exacerbates inequalities in housing outcomes. Immigrants, as they note, "suffer a larger poverty gap and greater severity than non-immigrants," and borrowing for mortgages and loans potentially come at a higher cost.
In Canada, racialized workers see more significant gaps in income, wealth and employment opportunities in comparison to non-racialized workers, despite being more active (working or looking for work) in the labour market. Black women, who are the most active in the labour market, have the lowest rates of earnings compared to their non-racialized counterparts.
Black workers also have the widest disparities in wages and the highest unemployment rates amongst racialized groups. Despite the research that acknowledges these inequities, a report entitled Canada’s Colour Coded Income Inequality says the inequalities in the labour market persist with little change.
Widening economic disparities and inequitable land distribution affect how BIPOC live, where they live and how they move around cities. These factors are also intrinsically tied to health and well-being. In Canada and around the world, there is a direct correlation between health and economic status with prosperity accounting for an estimated 50 per cent of health outcomes and the built environment factoring in at 10 per cent. Planners have a role to play in nurturing health opportunities through policies and programs.
Invest in Us!
The condition of civic infrastructure can often highlight investment imbalance. Often, public assets in lower-income neighbourhoods are in a state of disrepair. Has the City of Winnipeg forgotten that these public assets (and the people who depend on them) even exist? Unfortunately, many BIPOCs experience place-based discrimination and have less access to resources and opportunities to improve the quality of their lives. In some neighbourhoods, community centres have closed and the buildings and grounds have fallen victim to neglect. Decay and lack of investment in neighbourhoods intersect with perceptions associated with wealth, education and race. When people see dilapidated homes and infrastructure, they might think, "Who could possibly live there?"
People of colour and/or lower income often experience higher levels of obesity, underserved with convenient amenities, attractive public space and safe places to be physically active. According to Active Living Research, sidewalks in African-American neighbourhoods are 38 times more likely to be of low quality and 70 per cent of African-Americans lack access to recreational spaces. Now think about your neighbourhood. Are your sidewalks crumbling? Are you able to connect and play with your neighbours in abundant green spaces? Are your community centres open? Have you ever had to advocate for a swimming pool or spray pad not to be decommissioned or closed, or to ask that fences to a green space be removed? If not, you are in a privileged position.
Many marginalized and vulnerable communities have to ask for help repeatedly. Planners and politicians can perpetuate the trauma of helplessness that at-risk populations face when they create situations of need, as opposed to positions of strength and autonomy. To understand what a community needs, we have to listen and learn and build meaningful relationships. The investment is worth it.
Whose streets? Our streets
Planning theorists contend that people have a role and responsibility in challenging current governance systems so that cities can become more just and equitable. A person’s "right to the city" can only be established when communities are encouraged to have a say in how their communities are developed, and how their neighbourhoods can support them.
Unfortunately, BIPOC community members often do not have access to the civic machinery that runs, operates and decides on programs, amenities and investment in their neighbourhoods. A recent survey of the planning profession showed that only nine per cent of planners identified as racialized. These statistics punctuate how BIPOCs are underrepresented in the planning, design and development of cities.
As visible minorities in the profession, we have had our work attributed to others, we have had our perspectives and expertise excluded and we have been overlooked in promotions and management opportunities. It raises questions about who cities are planned for and belong to. A lack of seniority creates a lack of agency in important matters for many BIPOC people and their communities, and often advocacy, or working within a system, is not enough to get timely results. So, what is left when there is a refusal to acknowledge systemic subjugation?
Never again will we relent. Never again will we be silent
As Christopher Smith has argued in Whose Streets? Urban Social Movements and the Politicization of Space, places are political and marketplaces for ideas, deliberation, values, and opportunities for change. BIPOCs have had to turn their attention to the reclamation of streets and public spaces as activists to bring forward positive change. The many procedural inequalities in the planning systems creates fewer opportunities for racialized groups to participate in policy development and land use. Engagement sessions are often difficult to access, attend or to understand. Historically, they favour those that are middle class, educated and white, according to Environmental Justice and Racism in Canada.
Often referred to as the voice of the unheard, protest is working outside a system that repeatedly fails to achieve any meaningful change. Actively working outside the system seems to be the way to achieve significant results. Urban space, then, should be viewed as a tool in shaping political, economic and social processes. Instead of maintaining a critical distance from these types of demonstrations, we challenge planners who have agency and a platform to view these actions as offering opportunities for feedback, dialogue and change.
We created racism. We need to destroy it too
Planners and decision-makers must embrace the rallies, words and demands shared by BIPOC community members who risk their livelihoods and, in some cases, their lives to step forward. Serve as allies who can bridge divides and strengthen partnerships.
We have a significant role to play in building communities that are for everyone.
Improvements to housing, public space, transit equity, neighbourhood investment and public participation start with listening and learning, then acting to remove barriers for those underrepresented.
Planning needs a radical makeover. We need to become better advocates of the community and stewards of expertise, lived experiences and potential contributions. Quoting Jay Pitter’s Call to Courage, "An unnamed issue cannot be reconciled. Transformation cannot occur without radical truth-telling followed up with courageous action."
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Sheena Jardine-Olade is an urbanist and cultural thinker whose love for night activities has driven her to advocate for the recognition of cities as 24-hour places. After a master’s in urban planning, she continues to explore the city and its people through the arts, writing, research and engagement. When she isn’t championing interdisciplinary collaborations and nighttime economy studies through her consultancy, Night Lab, you can find her proudly exploring her Trinidadian/Nigerian heritage and what it means to be a Black Canadian, by DJing music, reading books by her favourite Black authors and speaking with those ready to listen.
Jason Syvixay is an urban planner currently completing his PhD in urban and regional planning at the University of Alberta. He has worked as the managing director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, a planner with HTFC Planning & Design, and more recently, has joined the City of Edmonton to lead and support the implementation of its Infill Roadmap. As a queer person of colour, Jason engages in city building that listens to and prioritizes underrepresented and marginalized people, builds knowledge and capacity, and works towards equity in urban places.
Canadian urban issues are complex yet rarely experienced in isolation. The challenges that different cities face are often shared and present opportunities to find common ground. In this occasional series, City of Edmonton planner Jason Syvixay, a former Winnipegger, and collaborators, look at how different cities approach similar issues and develop their urban landscapes. Like neighbours on a street, good things happen when cities talk to one another.
This is a time to listen, learn and reflect — to pass the microphone to the silenced, ignored, and underrepresented. Posting a black square on social media or attending a protest is not enough. As past collaborators, Sheena and Jason approached this piece as a continuation of their personal and professional conversations around social and racial equity. This space and their words are part of an authentic partnership, with both authors committed to uplifting one another in their profession and in illuminating hidden and seen divides in urban planning.