What is the Color of Planning and Design?

This is the question that a new course, “Race, Equity, and the City,” in the Department of City and Regional Planning (DCRP), College of Environmental Design (CED) at UC Berkeley takes seriously and challenges graduate students to consider.

In the spring of 2012, a set of difficult interactions transpired between students in city planning and architecture about representations of race and ethnicity. An infamous flyer introduced Pepe, the Donkey, to the CED. Pepe was a jenny (female donkey) from Oaxaca that was photoshopped into our world to cordially invite CED students for a placid Thursday afternoon happy hour. What followed brought confusion and astonishment to many of us at the CED, as Pepe’s racialized blunder became the source of further racial faux pas between students.

The impropriety of using an animal to represent a national and cultural group became even more poignant for two specific reasons that specifically concern our intellectual community at the CED.

First, the representation ignored the history of racial stereotyping that defined racist anti-immigration discourses in California and the US before the civil rights era. Racism once filled the American public imagination. Its echoes reverberated in urban policy through urban renewal and the displacement of minorities, as well as racial covenants and zoning which continue to affect people of color in our cities. Second, the image arose from an international studio where pedagogy is fraught with concerns pertinent to professional ethics and positionality beyond the development of formal design solutions. How is the privilege of entering and leaving the site, the evidence gathered in a temporary international visit, and the products of the studio managed to ensure concrete benefit for residents long after our departure?

The representation didn’t answer these questions. Rather, it aimed to symbolize a friendly pet in need for translation in the walls of Wurster.The translation didn’t work and many students across the DCRP found it reductive. The image reified and silenced rather than provided agency and voice to the people it sought to represent and were absent from the conversation: people of color and immigrants who are our “others” not just in Oaxaca, but also closer to home in our classrooms.

In the aftermath students and faculty realized the need for a reflection on how we talk about race in our department and in the CED in general. What does it mean to incorporate questions of race and ethnicity, equity and justice, power and privilege, and broadly defined “cultural competency” into the masters curriculum?

Motivated to see immediate change, a group of masters students from the College of Environmental Design Students of Color (CED-SOC) committee along with us--Ariel Bierbaum and Fernando Burga--began meeting to create a student-led reading course on these topics. Our simple goal was to educate ourselves on how to talk about race beyond Pepe and its reductive stereotype. We aimed to engage the debates, categories and concepts from other intellectual fields where the subject of race holds traditions of inquiry. In the middle of the fall semester, we were asked to develop this ad-hoc reading group into a full-fledged class and co-teach it in the spring of 2013.

We began the hard work of designing a syllabus based on precedents. We scanned and reviewed up to 20 syllabi that included a wide range of topics: Critical Race Theory, ethnic studies, multiculturalism, segregation, urban design, urban renewal, and sociology of race. We focused on pieces that would offer both clear theoretical frameworks as well as empirical grounding. We also considered cases that placed primacy on urban space, urbanism, and planning practice in their discussions. As planners and designers we considered this an essential aspect of how we constructed this space in our community. The design of this syllabus allowed us to conceive of “Race, Equity and the City” as more than just a class.

Based on the in-depth analysis of readings, the in-class discussions provided us with a set of interrogations about identity, memory, history, and place and on the ways in which planning and urban design practices are implicated in the spatialization of racism. In class, we actively dug deep into particular issues in urban places that intersect in various ways with planning practice, including segregation, environmental justice, transportation and regional planning, education, criminal justice, and labor. Through all of these discussions, we grappled with the historical, ethical, and political trajectories of planning practice and specifically the technologies of our field of practice. How do the forms of data analysis and representation open up or foreclose certain outcomes that further racial justice? How do our processes privilege some over others? What is our own positionality and privilege – as people of color, as white people, and as planning professionals? How can we harness action from this space of interrogation to confront these tensions and make them productive?

As an innovation in critical pedagogy, our course brings together readings and seminar discussion about these issues with personal reflection and studio production. The course has drawn graduate students from City and Regional Planning, Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, Public Health, Environmental Science Policy and Management and the School of Information, who all maintain a commitment to using our scholarship and professional practice as a tool to alleviate racial inequity in our places. All represent a cross section of minority groups that make up our national social landscape. Together they also represent a self-selected group of students who joined our class not only to learn about race and equity in the city, but also be active in the transformation the curriculum in the CED.

We challenge students to understand, problematize and challenge, but then also deploy the tools of planning in ways that support goals of racial justice. We have challenged students to enhance their critical analysis by visually representing readings, and by understanding representations as texts calling for critical analysis.

To carry out this mission, the course is organized around two assignments: the Racial-Spatial Autobiography and the Cartographic Thesis.

The Racial Spatial Autobiography challenges students with the question: How can you visually represent your racial identity, sense of place, spatial practices, and locational experiences?

Personal perspective, experiences, and identities influence professionals’ and scholars’ motivations, understanding, and commitment to their practice. Despite this, we are often told to check ourselves at the proverbial door of the academy or the office. The Racial-Spatial Autobiography disrupts this paradigm of professional and intellectual practice, and specifically invites all of our multiple selves to become visible in a graphic essay.  The Racial-Spatial Autobiography was the first exercise of the semester and set the reflexive tone of the class. Students shared their personal reflections through space and identity using diverse media--painting, collage, mappings, websites, photographic essays, bookmaking. Through each of these unique creations, students articulated their own racial and spatial identities, and the ways in which these identities have shaped personal and professional trajectories.

The second assignment, the Cartographic Thesis, is a synthesis of students’ prior experiences with knowledge from the semester. Students make compelling arguments about a particular site and its attendant urban policy issues. Each thesis investigates, interprets, and illustrates urban phenomena, challenges, and potential planning interventions that reinvigorate a conversation about race and equity in planning. Students have selected topics that relate to their own coursework or research. By “plugging” into work outside the class, we aim to expand the conversation about race and equity in the city beyond the walls of our weekly seminar. The centerpiece of the Cartographic Thesis is the Racially Just Criteria, which are metrics or frames used to develop context-sensitive, practical outcomes that address past and present racial inequities in the city.  Drawing on texts from the seminar, students developed original criteria that ground abstract concepts in the specific context in which students work.

We have captured the work of the semester--the “dirty design” process–on our blog. Like all visual representations, these images are more than just a record. They are a statement of commitment to design as a tool in analyzing, deconstructing, and reimagining ourselves and our work through a lens of racial justice.

Our conversations over the semester and our students’ culminating projects have demonstrated that we can have a conversation about race – one that is personal and intellectual and that engenders compelling products, cases, and research questions. We have taken a moment of conflict and turned it into a positive outcome.

With this blog piece, we would like to announce “Race, Equity, and the City” to our department, college, and the world beyond through the virtual pathways of the web. We would also like to invite those of you that are local to our Final Review on May 3rd from 9 – 12pm on the first floor of Wurster Hall, where the final projects will be presented and displayed before an audience.

This final act of the semester will provide the platform for future endeavors that develop from the pedagogy and questions that defined this class, and the original tensions brought forth by Pepe. We are considering teaching the class again in the Spring 2014 and seeking funding  to turn some aspects of the class into a working group/incubator model where issues of race and equity can encompass a wider umbrella of practice and theory. In following posts we will reflect on the experience of the class and consider concrete steps in moving forward.

Ariel Bierbaum is a PhD student in the Department of City and Regional Planning. She studies the relationship between gentrification processes and public education. Ariel’s professional background includes experience in city government, community development, community engagement, strategic planning and organizational development, and university-community relations. She can be reached at arielb@berkeley.edu.

Fernando Burga is a PhD candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning. He studies ethnic politics, immigrant empowerment and gentrification in Miami, Florida. Before coming to Berkeley Fernando worked as an architect and urban designer in Washington DC, in projects ranging from affordable housing to community master-planning. Hi is currently a fellow at the Center for the Research of Social Change at UC Berkeley and can be contacted at hfburga@berkeley.edu.