Aggies in urban planning working to heal the effects of decades of race-based discrimination


Legal segregation and the unfair practices that followed had devastating effects on black prosperity.

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Race-based discrimination in the built environment has existed for more than a century and its effects persist today, said Shannon Van Zandt, a professor at Texas A&M University.

She teaches her students the history of these practices and how urban planning can be used to help reverse their effects.

One such student, Daisy Montero ’22, a second-year graduate student in urban and regional planning, said one of the reasons she chose her major was to help ensure equitable community planning, safe and healthy for all.

“It starts with acknowledging what happened in the past and approaching planning in communities with an understanding of the trauma they may have,” Montero said. “Historically, these inequalities have harmed communities of color and it becomes a generational issue. These problems displace people, can cause health problems and contribute to the vicious cycle of poverty.

Van Zandt said inequality is the result of more than a century of systematic efforts by public and private sector forces determined to prevent people of color from creating wealth through land and property ownership. These laws and practices have had overwhelmingly negative effects on people of color, often relegating them to less desirable neighborhoods with inadequate infrastructure and making them more vulnerable to hazards such as flooding.

In 2021, Van Zandt wrote about the topic with former Texas A&M Ph.D. student Marccus Hendricks in an article titled “Unequal Protection Revisited: Planning for Environmental Justice, Hazard Vulnerability and Critical Infrastructure in Communities of Color”.

Separate but not equal

Unequal protection began after the Emancipation Proclamation freed black people and the South transitioned from an agrarian economy based on slave labor to industrialized urban development, said Van Zandt, a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture. and Planning and Associate Executive Dean of the College. of Architecture.

“It really begins in 1896 when Plessy v. Ferguson legalized ‘separate but equal’ public facilities,” she said. “During this ‘Jim Crow’ period, they said that black people could have separate places and spaces and access to public services, and that would kind of undo the horrors of slavery, but still allow Whites and blacks to be physically separated from each other. It may have been separate, but it wasn’t equal,” she said.

Public facilities and services such as schools, transportation, swimming pools and parks were segregated, and those in power too often diverted funds to white facilities.

Public amenities like swimming pools were in short supply for people of color, especially after segregation became illegal. Many were privatized in the 1950s, moving to country clubs and members-only communities that barred minorities from joining. The result, according to a 2008 study by USA Swimming, is the “minority swimming gap” where 60% of black children cannot swim – twice the rate of white children – and they drown at three times the rate. global.

Zoning and land use regulations have been a powerful tool to discriminate against people of color, Van Zandt said.

“Zoning emerged in the late 1800s as a way to separate residential areas from polluting industries,” she said. “It was first used exclusively to keep laundromats away from housing. Most of these facilities were owned by Chinese immigrants.

“Later, zoning became a tool to ‘protect property values ​​and exclude the undesirable’, where undesirable meant non-white. Planners have created legally defensible racial zoning plans for many major cities, including Dallas and Austin. Discrimination can also be seen in act restrictions. Before segregation ended, deeds could be written with language to prevent the sale of land to non-white citizens. And it’s not just black people who have been specified, it’s also other races and ethnicities.

Persistent effects of redlining: 74% of neighborhoods classified as

Discrimination in real estate and loans further contributed to inequality, Van Zandt said. When veterans returned from World War II, they faced a housing shortage. The Federal Housing Administration formulated a new policy to help spur construction and make home ownership more accessible, which included federally insured mortgages, created 30-year fixed mortgages, and systematized homeownership methods. property valuation.

The government’s Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) – established in 1933 – has developed a guide to carrying out appraisals which has been widely adopted by private lenders.

“Ratings were based on occupant characteristics, including income, occupation and race/ethnicity,” Van Zandt said. “Homebuyers got the best loans for the white neighborhoods furthest from downtown. You were less likely to get loans for living in ethnically diverse neighborhoods or in urban areas.

Neighborhoods deemed high-risk or “unsafe” have been “marked” by lending institutions, denying them access to capital investments that could improve residents’ housing and economic opportunities, Van Zandt said. Redlining is a discriminatory practice by which lenders and insurers avoid an area, often due to the racial makeup of the community.

Areas outlined in red have been systematically sequestered, neglected and underserved, Van Zandt said.

“Neighborhoods are not inherently vulnerable – planning and development patterns created by powerful people create areas of prosperity and areas of deprivation, and if you look at those demarcated areas today, more often than not they are communities low-income, mostly minority people,” she says.

Other forms of discrimination include predatory lending, which systematically targets communities of color for risky and unfair lending. In the years leading up to the Great Recession of 2008, predatory lending increased and unscrupulous lenders charged exorbitant fees, used high-pressure tactics and had unaffordable repayment terms. Although the damage of the recession was by no means limited to people of color, black people were disproportionately affected.

Discriminatory practices have not only resulted in economic disadvantages for people of color, but also health and safety risks. Van Zandt said low-income communities and communities of color are unequally managed and protected from environmental risks.

When cities choose to divert capital investment to new construction and suburban areas, and away from older urban neighborhoods, this neglect can lead to increased vulnerability to hazards such as flooding. This systematic neglect of critical physical infrastructure, including stormwater, green space, sewage, energy, and roads, among other systems, has caused untold losses for people living in these neighborhoods.

A more equitable built environment

Most of the tools for a fair built environment come from the Fair Housing Act, passed during the Civil Rights era.

“Enforcement of existing fair housing laws is vital,” Van Zandt said. “There’s also ‘affirmatively promoting fair housing’ (AFFH) which is a term in legislation that, at least in theory, allows us to evaluate any action taken by a city that receives federal funding and expects to what it overcomes segregation to affirmatively promote fair housing. .”

a little house

Renting garage apartments and so-called “grandma’s apartments” can help create more affordable housing in otherwise wealthier neighborhoods.

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One of the biggest barriers to building affordable housing is the “NIMBY” – or “not in my backyard” – opposition and this can happen when something more affordable than your home is going to be built near you.

“The perception is that affordable housing will drive down the value of your home, and that’s just not true,” Van Zandt said. “What you hear is a lot of coded language, like they’re worried about traffic or crowds in schools, but it’s really ‘we don’t want poor people.

“I think if you work here, you should be able to afford to live here,” she continued. “If you look at College Station and Bryan, a lot of our workers have to drive from Madisonville, Hearne or Caldwell because they can’t find affordable housing here.”

Planners can develop more mixed-use, mixed-income communities, and landlords can lease accessory living units like garages and “granny’s apartments,” providing more affordable housing opportunities.

The future of urban planning

Van Zandt said many of his students graduate and work for organizations to pursue environmental justice, reduce vulnerability to risk, and improve critical infrastructure for communities of color. After graduating from A&M, her co-author Hendricks now directs the Stormwater Infrastructure Resilience and Justice (SIRJ) Lab at the University of Maryland.

Montero, who is graduating in May, is currently deciding between pursuing a graduate degree in urban planning or taking a job doing community engagement in communities of color.

“Planning can be a powerful tool to put the city back in the hands of the people,” Montero said, adding that she enjoys studying methods of engagement in the planning process. “It is interesting to see how radical urban planners use culture, art and language to unite communities. You can be creative in planning and that creativity often reaps the best products.


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