Architecture, Design, Action: Diane Davis on Dismantling Systemic Racism in Pedagogy and Practice

Illustration of Diane Davis, Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism, with text

Diane Davis, Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism

Why is it important to understand the history and origins of systemic racism perpetuated through urban planning? 

Planners, by their very nature, focus on the future, and are concerned with how to make things better. Sometimes these commitments make them overly technocratic. Insights from the humanities and social sciences can help push back against these tendencies. They also can reveal the ways that planning actions in the past have actually produced the problems we try to correct today, including systemic racism.

I say this as a sociologist working mostly on similar questions in the developing world. I’m originally from St. Louis, though, a city that’s very divided by race and space. Its endemic racial injustices reflect institutional legacies of the Civil War and historical struggles over sovereignty. So what looks like community-level, routine police abuse of power is actually rooted in the systemic racism that was a product of that time. To properly dismantle racist structures in American cities and elsewhere, we need to know exactly how we built them.

Planners also generally have some degree of social awareness because part of the job is to think about class, inequality, race, and power. You can’t solve problems with just spatial interventions; you need to understand the actors and institutions that keep people apart in space.

As a professor of urban planning, how do you respond to the increasingly popular call for abolishing the police? 

It is not enough to defund the police; we must address why police officers feel empowered or entitled to abuse citizens. We also need to understand the systematic ways police have inherited their power, with what social or political mandates, and with what oversight (or lack thereof). Most societies want institutions that guarantee social order and protect citizens. If that is not happening, and certain populations are suffering disproportionately, then there is something wrong with the police institutions and the social contract upon which they are founded.

I see people pushing for police reform in the United States, but from my studies in Mexico, and also looking at conflicts in Israel and Palestine, where police violence is used to spatially separate people, officials constantly call for reform. But more often than not, reform cannot solve endemic structural problems. It is likely that police are incapable of reforming themselves, because institutionalized norms that govern their behavior are often part of the problem.

This means that others must be involved. Communities on the front lines need to lead security efforts—with an understanding of safety and justice that comes from their own experiences and not from outside interpretations. We must continue to ask how much of any community’s security should really lie in the hands of the police, as opposed to with the communities themselves. What co-policing institutions and practices would guarantee citizen security without sacrificing equity and justice?

What should all students, regardless of department, leave the GSD knowing about?

Our programs should place more emphasis on the history of American cities, and on why they look the way they do. Even though we are an international university, we are located in the US and such knowledge would be a good way to ground a conversation across our varied disciplines. More generally, all planning, urban design, and architecture students should be taught to think about the institutions that create the spatial conditions in which we are designing. When I say “institutions,” I refer to social, political, and economic institutions, ranging from states to markets, and how or why they may impose certain regulations, incentivize certain actions, or normalize certain values.

In the US, most of the institutions we live with—many of which emerged out of the struggle over race—embody some form of political arrangement or compromise. This includes certain zoning or land-use regulations. To understand some of the contemporary problems we are facing with respect to race-based inequality and oppression at the hands of police, students—including architecture students—must understand the history of zoning and when it is used to isolate people of color. All disciplines at the GSD should be asked to study the history of governing and legal institutions relevant to the design world.

What can planners do better? What role do they have in fighting for more just cities?

To create equitable and just cities, we need to think about them both socially and spatially. Planners should be well prepared to keep both these dimensions in mind. While urban designers often think about what constitutes a vibrant or equitable community in spatial terms, planners are inclined to think about the social relationships that create strong and equitable communities. At the GSD, we are in a particularly privileged position to move beyond these dichotomies and work on both fronts simultaneously. If we want to transform cities, we need to improve our pedagogy to generate horizontal conversations and strengthen connections among the various design disciplines, including architecture.

In my own writings, I have been thinking about the need to champion urban sovereignty, or reciprocal governance at the scale of the city, in ways that might enable every resident to feel included or recognized as a member of an urban “imagined’ community of allegiance. With such a commitment, all residents would be asked to become collectively responsible for defending, shaping, and transforming the city they share, but in a more just and equitable way.

Cities are hotbeds of diversity and, precisely because of that, I am hopeful that what might unite people at the scale of the city is going to be more inclusive and humane than what people share at the scale of the nation. We cannot leave identity-formation or repertoires of reciprocity only to state and federal authorities, particularly when they are incapable of understanding the complexities of urbanism and seek to divide urban residents rather than unite them.

We need planning and design strategies that move us beyond the worst excesses of nationalism and militarized exclusion that manifest at the scale of the city. Whether these excesses involve the use of the National Guard to police street protesters, or whether they come in the form of federal policies that distribute funds to states without accounting for differences in their urban populations, we must ask whether these responses show sufficient knowledge of cities, the challenges they face, and how people actually live in them. By focusing attention on urban sovereignty, we may be able to push back against such practices.

I would also hope that any such endeavor might help transcend binaries of difference that are frequently exposed in cities, whether based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, or neighborhood. With socio-spatial practices and sensibilities that foster shared allegiances—both in physical and spatial terms, as well as through resources and recognition—it will be clear that we are all in this together, and that moving forward collectively is the best way to build more just and equitable cities.

Diane E. Davis is the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism and chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design. She is Area Head of the Risk and Resilience MDes area group. Trained as a sociologist, Davis researches the relationship between urbanization and national development, comparative urban governance, socio-spatial practice in conflict cities, urban violence, and new territorial manifestations of sovereignty.