Structural Racism in the Zoning Code

A pair of articles from the Twin Cities, revealing the racist motivations of exclusionary zoning.

August 2, 2020, 11:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Stone Arch Bridge

Iris van den Broek / Shutterstock

Discussions about neighborhood character, and zoning codes used to protect it, have the same effect as racial covenants, according to an article by Gretchen Brown

While zoning codes often specifically state the desire to protect neighborhood character, such as an example cited from St. Paul, Minnesota, it's often wealthy, white homeowners who decide what neighborhood character means, and how and when to use zoning to protect it, according to Brown.

"While wealthy communities were able to use zoning to their advantage — preserving their property values, and controlling development of schools and businesses, poor communities of color are often burdened by what's called "expulsive zoning," living next to industrial and hazardous waste sites and landfills, and without access to public parks and grocery stores," writes Brown, before citing examples from cities like St. Paul and Charleston, South Carolina. 

Brown is writing in St. Paul, where a majority of residents are renters, and where the neighboring city of Minneapolis recently took the ambitious step to ban restrictive single-family zoning in the entire city to counteract the status quo of zoning that protects wealthy, entrenched, white interests at the expense of other groups. 

Despite Minneapolis' recent actions to overcome its legacy of racism by ending single-family zoning as an exclusionary tool in residential neighborhoods, the city has a long history of racist practices, as detailed in another recent article, this one by Julian Agyeman

The article by Agyeman focuses in particular on the work of the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice project, which is devoted to "shedding new light on the role that racist barriers to home ownership have had on segregation in the city."

But Agyeman also has expertise to bring to the table to supplement the insights offered by Mapping Prejudice about the racist tradition of planning and zoning in the United States: 

As a scholar of urban planning, I know that Minneapolis, far from being an outlier in segregation, represents the norm. Across the U.S., urban planning is still used by some as the spatial toolkit, consisting of a set of policies and practices, for maintaining white supremacy. But urban planners of color, especially, are pointing out ways to reimagine inclusive urban spaces by dismantling the legacy of racist planning, housing and infrastructure policies.

Both of these article were published in the wake of the civil unrest that has responded to the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, so the local situation is obviously informative of the broader discussion happening about how the planning status quo contributes to racism

Both articles were published before, however, a series of tweets by president Trump explicitly stated the worst exclusionary and discriminatory motivations of traditional zoning practice in the United States.

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