Planners’ Responsibility? A personal exploration of Race and Ethnicity in Kenya and the United States

Growing up in Kenya, I did not engage with race or ethnicity through academic research rather than through social, economic and political affairs. But it only took a few classes and interactions at UC Berkeley for me to appreciate the amount of research that has gone into race in relation to professional practice in the United States. I have found that race in the United States is an academic research issue and that it also affects every other aspect of life and determines how people interpret the environment around them, sometimes unconsciously. During my short stay here, there is not a single public place I have gone to that did not remind me of race. One day, for example, I was in church and the pastor mentioned that Michelle Obama is an inspiration to women. From the congregation, someone asked: “What about for white women?” Was Michelle a woman or black first? Another day, I invited a friend to the same church. When I asked him what he thought of the church, he said it was a great church, that there was a sense of community but that he was not used to the style of a white preacher. Again, I thought “Mmmm?!!”

At school, race has been central to most class debates. It’s not unusual to find scholars whose research interests and career goals are shaped by their experience with race. To me, it seems that racial equity is a common denominator for scholars interested in social justice in the United States, at least according to my experience at the Department of City and Regional Planning.

Race and ethnicity is not just an issue here in the States. Back in Kenya, where I come from, ethnicity defines our political and social ideologies, resource allocation and interpretation of law and marriage patterns--love alone no longer defines whom you marry. Ethnicity also shapes the conversations and jokes people can make in public. Despite carrying out its first general elections under the dispensation of a new constitution that is based on equity and respect for diversity, the determination of Kenya’s fourth President in the just concluded elections, majorly depended on ethnic alignments.

But what do race and ethnicity have to do with city planning? The above scenarios have prompted me to reflect on the role of planning education in shaping the decisions planners make. Does or can racially sensitive planning education affect how professional planners make decisions? Do planners need to study race issues in order to understand how their planning actions or race-based decisions impact different ethnic communities?

Planners have the power to control resource allocation and distribution. Planners’ decisions may determine where people live, shop, go to school, what services they can access. Planners determine people’s quality of life. Knowing the role of planners, the decisions they have made in the past and the consequences of such decisions, could planning schools have played a role in shaping planners’ decisions? In other words, can planning schools contribute to racial justice and social inclusion? Is there a course that can adequately equip planners with skills necessarily to address racial discrimination or “negative ethnicity” in city planning?

Spring 2013 saw the Department of City and Regional Planning in UC Berkeley launch an optional course on “Race, Equity and the City” which seeks to “explore the connections between race, racial justice, and equity and the scholarly and professional practices of city planning and how to conceptualize a "racially just" set of criteria to apply to planning practice and processes.”

I think such a course is needed in a context where race is central to almost everything. Moreover, based on U.S. planning history, it seems necessary to include racial issues as an integral part of a planner’s school curriculum. But a question that arises for me is whether racial discrimination and negative ethnicity in city planning is a result of ignorance, inadequate planning tools to address racial justice or simply prejudice? Is it something that can be dealt with through planning education and equipping planners with “racially just” planning tools?

These questions might not have straight answers. I, however, believe that racial and ethnically unjust decisions in planning or elsewhere are manifestations of deeper issues: insecurities, power struggles, contest over limited resources/opportunities, fear of the unknown, prejudice and mistrust. So, while planning schools should institute race and ethnic studies, there is also a need for the adoption of other tools besides planning education to equip planners and the society at large with mechanisms to achieving racial justice. Therefore, there is need for planning schools to go beyond awareness creation and problem identification to devise innovative ways of engaging with racial injustices. Besides training and requiring planners to be culturally and racially sensitive, another strategy is to restore the trust of marginalized communities by encouraging planners to work within their own community as well as in other racially and culturally different communities.

A planner is supposed to be a generalist, but are race and ethnicity in the realm of a planner’s responsibility? Levitt Williams, whose developments during the 1960s are believed to have fueled white middle class suburbanization and inner cities blight, once said: ”We can solve a housing problem, or we can try solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two.” I believe as planning schools, students and practitioners, we need to challenge ourselves to do both.

Declaration: In this blog piece race is used in the context of the US while ethnicity is used in the context of Africa. 

Keziah Mwelu is a first year master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, UC Berkeley. She is an urban planner from Kenya interested in urban development policy, governance and equity. She can be reached at