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Skin In The Game: The Case For A Planning Mosaic.

By Keith E. Hernandez
September 8, 2010

The pursuit of a planning ideal in urban centers is often sought without the guiding hand of people with a real knowledge of what it means to be a resident in those communities. The coupling of a planning education along with the understanding of what makes a city livable for minority populations is vital for sustaining the practice of planning as a viable tool for change.

Oftentimes, planning outreach to minority populations serve as a means to get buy-in to established conventional wisdom on what makes a neighborhood great. Concerns raised by residents about the appropriateness of a project or land use designation or potential functional drawbacks are often regarded as minor issues attributed to a communities’ inability to embrace a newer, bolder vision. We as planners love the ideal of density and walkable neighborhoods, where 20-somethings can live in an apartment above a funky, independently owned coffee house. What about those people who actually have to live in very close proximity to one another, to which living well means a plethora of elbow room, to whom the idea of living over someone’s store is all types of awful and reeks of failure? What does good urban design look like to them? What’s the highest and best use for their neighborhoods?

I think a great first step in reaching these populations and capturing their vision of what good land use looks like is to recruit to our profession from their ranks. As a professional planner for the past 15 years, being of Afro-Cuban descent, and raised on the East side of Detroit, I’ve been able to witness first hand how minority communities are encouraged to embrace “good” planning with little regard to the way they actually want to live. I’ve had the good fortune to work in predominately Black, White, Latino, and Hmong neighborhoods and see that, while no community is homogenous, different standards pass as conventional wisdom throughout each culture. It is our responsibility to reach out to as many diverse communities as we can, and to train planners so that we have the best available knowledge to make our cities more livable and to make our profession more relevant. Without tangible examples in our workplace and in our outreach, we will never move past monolithic, paternalistic ideals we place upon entire segments of our constituency.

Our second step should be to no longer try to define a cultural standard for “good design”. There are practical needs for every neighborhood circumstance that might be terrible for one section of the city but perfect for another. To have a more transient notion of the best design would serve our profession well. Perhaps we would find a champion for this point of view from amongst our underrepresented ranks.