Repositioning Black Urbanists in the History of Planning

The history of planning is dominated by a few iconic figures—all white.

2 minute read

February 2, 2021, 7:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman, with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter

Mrs. Ella Watson, photographed in 1942 Washington, D.C. by Gordon Parks. | Gordon Parks / Wikimedia Commons

Pete Saunders writes to counter the tradition of planning history that favors the contributions of famous white urbanists (Jane Jacobs and Daniel Burnham are mentioned by name).

Building on the work of Daphne Lundi in "Rewriting the Urban Planning Cannon," Saunders recognizes 11 of historical figures and contemporary pioneers as leading Black urbanists. "Some of their work may not fall within the conventional realm of urbanism as it's understood today, but they should be known and celebrated by all in the planning profession," writes Saunders.

Listing the following 11 Black urbanists in chronological order, the original article includes a lot more details about the ideas and accomplishments of most of the following: W.E.B. Du Bois, Horace Clayton Jr., St. Clair Drake, Gordon Parks, John Hope Franklin, Samuel L. Cullers, Dorothy Mae Richardson, Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts, William Julius Wilson, Geoffrey Canada, and Mary Pattillo.

The work of reversing centuries and decades of erasing the contributions of Black Americans to the planning and designing of cities continues to this day, with efforts to reverse the disparate representation of those employed in the field of planning. An article by Lindiwe Rennert, published in December 2020, makes the case for hiring more Black Women planners: "Despite being one of the most civically active demographic groups, representing a disproportionately high proportion of the nation’s urban population (17% compared to their 7% share of the total national population), and being heralded as the ‘pillars’ of their communities, in 2019 black women comprised just 3% of employees in the field of urban planning." 

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