Today, some of those same streets have been littered with shattered plate glass and burned garbage. We are confronting an uncomfortable reality we knew all along, had conveniently ignored for decades.
Building just, healthy and inclusive cities requires far more than protected bike lanes and alfresco dining. We cannot fulfill plans for safer, cleaner, more sustainable cities without addressing the racialized history of redlining and the modern segregation that allows inequality to thrive. We must understand our past and commit to fix it systemically. We can no longer perpetuate wrongs through inaction.
In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, racist city policies date back over a century. A research group called Mapping Prejudice discovered racially restrictive housing covenants in Minneapolis from 1910, and city policy forbidding the occupancy of a property by “people of any race other than the Aryan race” with an exception for domestic servants. Redlining “hazardous” neighborhoods based on the race of occupants made it impossible for residents in these areas to get mortgages or become homeowners; the city still has one of the lowest rates of African American homeownership in the United States.
Discriminatory housing practices are hardly unique to Minneapolis, and their racist legacy endures. Today, low-income communities across the United States are found nearer to high-speed, high-traffic roads — largely a result of highway planning decisions made in the 1950s and 1960s. Interstates were placed alongside “blighted” neighborhoods that housed cities’ poorest residents (who tended to be racial minorities), segregating black neighborhoods away from white ones. As nearby suburbs grew, the traffic near black communities worsened. To this day, many communities of color in cities such as Atlanta find themselves in proximity to car-clogged streets.
Poorer communities also have poorer pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, despite the fact that people who make under $25,000 per year walk and bike to work more frequently than higher-income earners. Nearly 90 percent of high-income areas have sidewalks on one or both sides of the street, but in low-income communities that percentage drops to 49 percent. The result is African Americans and Latinos, who have been segregated into these communities, have higher fatality rates while walking and bicycling than whites.
Air quality also varies dramatically by neighborhood in U.S. cities. A 2017 joint report from the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force found that more than 1 million African Americans live within a half mile of an oil and gas facility. African Americans are exposed to 61 percent more of the tiny pollution particles that come from burning gasoline, often from motor vehicles, than their white counterparts. That means that in addition to the hazards of driving and jogging while black, walking, bicycling and breathing are also disproportionately dangerous for people of color.
Even good-faith urban planning doesn’t always come without bias: when covid-19 “open streets” plans were enacted, they more often showed up in affluent, white-dominant neighborhoods that already had far more public amenities and open space than their poorer counterparts because of their historic economic advantages.
When people in cities are free from discriminatory housing policies in their neighborhoods and have more local access to services, they can walk, bike, scooter and engage in other kinds of transportation besides driving. And when people can engage in active mobility, they are at lower risk of the underlying medical conditions that increase vulnerability to diseases such as covid-19. When commuting time is shortened by efficient transit, it increases people’s odds of escaping poverty. When neighborhoods become more integrated, schools gain a more secure property tax base and their infrastructure improves in quality. Increasing rates of homeownership in minority communities builds intergenerational wealth and stability, just as it did in white communities after World War II.
But instead, over a century of redlining and housing segregation has given poor communities fewer open spaces for exercise and active mobility, less access to clean air and limited opportunities to grow wealth through property ownership.
We need to commit to a new paradigm that links land-use, housing and transportation policy in ways that we had not been willing to consider before. These policies and investments must map to a set of metrics that are centered around the long-term economic, sustainability, health and yes, equity outcomes that should be basic human rights for Americans, rather than a privilege for a few. As Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey put it, “We need to make sure that the precision of our solutions match the precision of the harm initially inflicted. And that harm was precise.”