Mayors' Institute on City Design

Undesigning racism

Friends of MICD,

We believe unequivocally that Black Lives Matter. That the murder of George Floyd was the match in a powder keg of centuries of systemic racism, violence, and oppression. That protests do not have to be peaceful to be legitimate: that anger and rage are more than warranted. That the chaos that erupted in our cities over the last week happened at the hands of varied actors — there is no single narrative that tells the story, like the fabric of our cities themselves.

If you are reading this, you are already part of the MICD family. And our family includes those who have been aching for justice their whole lives. It includes those who may be new to this conversation. It includes seasoned mayors and those newly elected, all leading their cities through one crisis that was unfathomable six months ago, and one that was brewing all along. The glue that binds us together is being public servants trying to make the world a better place.

At MICD, we often say that the design of our cities reflects how we feel about the people we serve. But what do we mean by that, exactly, and how do we put it into action? You do not need for me to recount the many failings of the design, development, and planning professions over the decades, where time and time again, the violent impact of failure is most often worn by communities of color. We know these stories. We are taught them. We live them. And yet, after the Great Recession, when it seemed we had every tool at our disposal to get it right: we didn’t. We came out more unequal than ever. Virtually every mayor we’ve worked with over the last half decade has talked to us about their version of a “tale of two cities.” How do we get it right this time? How do we have an equitable recovery? How do we lift up and rebuild the communities of the underserved, the disenfranchised, the left behind? What does it mean to rethink it all?

Many, many people and organizations have been working on answers to these questions for a long time. We are honored to be associated with many of you, and we are grateful for the foundations that have been laid. We are thinking long and hard about how we challenge the inherent biases in urban design practices and in governance, and about how we center the voices and viewpoints fighting for true equality and justice. We are fortunate to stand on the shoulders of predecessors and our founding organizations, the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Conference of Mayors, that have shared deep commitments for decades in lifting up voices that are often underrepresented, especially those in the design and development professions. We do this not as a token or because it’s the “right thing to do.” We do it because it’s central to city building and to equipping mayors with the skills they need to make critical design and planning decisions that accurately reflect their love for the people they serve. How can we talk about economic development without new tools outside of mainstream lending? How can we talk about safety when what makes one community feel safe can make another feel decidedly less so? How can we talk about multi-modal transportation when the needs of the car-free and car-less are very different? Those discussions (and so many others) require a multitude of voices in the room in order to reach solutions that truly benefit our communities.

We have a lot of work to do in exploring how we center all of our conversations at MICD around achieving equity and justice. We know many of you are doing the same. You’re our family and our brain-trust, and I’d love to hear from you. What ideas are you formulating? How can we help? This is going to be a long road ahead. We commit to walking with you.

Trinity Simons
Executive Director
Mayors’ Institute on City Design



Anti-racist resources from our network

A small snapshot of resources to help you think through dismantling racist biases, actions, and systems in yourself and your cities/work:

Calls for why, and how, we must design cities for racial justice:

NOMA’s public statement regarding racial injustice
National Organization of Minority Architects
America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress
Bryan Lee, Jr. via CityLab
Architects Leading the Way to Racial Justice
The Just City Essays: 26 Visions for Urban Equity, Inclusion and Opportunity
Just City Lab @ Harvard Graduate School of Design

Highlighting a number of Black MICD alumni and partners we recommend following on Twitter:

Bryan Lee, Jr.
Tamika Butler
Justin Garrett Moore
De Nichols
Kimberly Driggins
Veronica Davis
Designing Justice
A growing list of 200+ more Urbanist Leaders of Color from Lynn Ross

Actions mayors and designers can take right now:

#8CantWait (Campaign Zero)
Anguish and Action (Obama Foundation)
Design Justice for Black Lives (Colloqate Design)
Black People Have Been Building a Better World. Who will Join Them? (Next City)
Anti-Racism Design Resources (collaborative document)

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