Race-based discrimination in the built environment has been happening for more than a century, and its effects linger today, said Texas A&M University Professor Shannon Van Zandt.
She teaches her students the history of these practices and how urban planning can be used to help reverse their effects.
One such student, Daisy Montero ’22, a second-year graduate student in urban and regional planning, said one of the reasons she chose her major was to help ensure the planning of equitable, safe and healthy communities for everyone.
“It starts with acknowledging what has happened in the past and approaching planning in communities with an understanding of the traumas they may have,” Montero said. “Historically, these inequities have hurt communities of color and it becomes a generational issue. These issues displace people, can cause health problems and contribute to the vicious cycle of poverty.”
Van Zandt said inequities are the result of more than a century of systematic efforts by both public and private sector forces, bent on excluding people of color from building wealth through land and home ownership. These laws and practices have had vastly negative effects on people of color, often relegating them to the least desirable neighborhoods with inadequate infrastructure, and making them more vulnerable to hazards like flooding.
In 2021 Van Zandt wrote about the topic with former Texas A&M Ph.D. student Marccus Hendricks in an article titled “Unequal Protection Revisited: Planning for Environmental Justice, Hazard Vulnerability and Critical Infrastructure in Communities of Color.”
Separate But Not Equal
Unequal protection began after the Emancipation Proclamation freed Black people and the South was progressing from an agrarian economy based on slave labor to industrialized urban development, said Van Zandt, a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning and executive associate dean of the College of Architecture.
“It really starts in 1896 when Plessy v. Ferguson legalized ‘separate but equal’ public facilities,” she said. “During this ‘Jim Crow‘ period, they said Black people could have separate places and spaces and access to public services, and that would somehow undo the horrors of slavery but still allow whites and Blacks to be separated physically from one another. It may have been separate, but it was not equal,” she said.
Public facilities and services such as schools, transportation, swimming pools and parks were segregated, and the people in power all too often diverted funds to benefit the white facilities.
Public amenities like swimming pools were scarce for people of color, especially after segregation became illegal. Many became privatized in the 1950s, moving to country clubs and membership-only communities that prohibited minorities from joining. The result, according to a 2008 study by USA Swimming, is the “minority swimming gap” whereby 60 percent of Black children can’t swim – twice the rate of white children – and they drown at three times the overall rate.
Zoning and land use regulations have been a powerful tool to discriminate against people of color, Van Zandt said.
“Zoning emerged in the late 1800s as a way to separate residential areas from polluting industries,” she said. “It was first used in an exclusionary way to keep laundry facilities away from housing. Most of those facilities were owned by Chinese immigrants.
“Later, zoning became a tool for ‘protecting property values and excluding the undesirables,’ where undesirable meant non-white. Planners created legally-defensible racial zoning plans for many major cities, including Dallas and Austin. Discrimination can also be seen in deed restrictions. Before segregation ended, deeds could be written with language to prevent the selling of the land to non-white citizens. And it’s not just Black people who were specified, it was other races and ethnicities as well.”
Discrimination in real estate and lending further contributed to inequities, Van Zandt said. When veterans returned from World War II, they were met with a housing shortage. The Federal Housing Administration formulated a new policy to help spur construction and make homeownership more accessible that included federally insured mortgages, created 30-year fixed mortgages and systematized real estate appraisal methods.
The government’s Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) – established in 1933 – developed a guide for conducting appraisals which was widely adopted by private lenders.
“Appraisals were based on occupant characteristics including income, occupation and race/ethnicity,” Van Zandt said. “Home buyers were awarded the best loans for white neighborhoods that were farther from the city’s center. You were less likely to get loans to live in neighborhoods having diverse ethnic composition or were in urban areas.”
Neighborhoods considered high risk or “hazardous” were “redlined” by lending institutions, denying them access to capital investment which could improve the housing and economic opportunity of residents, Van Zandt said. Redlining is a discriminatory practice whereby lenders and insurance providers would avoid an area, often because of the racial makeup of the community.
Redlined areas were systematically sequestered, neglected and underserved, Van Zandt said.
“Neighborhoods are not inherently vulnerable – planning and development patterns created by powerful people create areas of prosperity and areas of disadvantage, and if you look at those redlined areas today, more often than not, they’re low-income, predominantly minority communities,” she said.
Other forms of discrimination include predatory lending, which systematically targets communities of color for risky and unfair loans. During the years leading up to the Great Recession of 2008, predatory lending grew and unscrupulous lenders charged outrageous fees, used high-pressure tactics, and had unaffordable repayment terms. While the recession’s damage was by no means limited to people of color, Blacks were disproportionally affected.
Discriminatory practices have not only brought economic disadvantages for people of color, but health and safety risks, too. Van Zandt said low income communities and communities of color are unequally managed and protected from environmental hazards.
When cities choose to divert capital investment to new construction and suburban areas, and away from older, urban neighborhoods, this neglect can lead to increased vulnerability to hazards such as flooding. This systematic neglect in critical physical infrastructure including stormwater, green space, sewage, energy and roads, among other systems, has caused untold losses for the people living in those neighborhoods.
A More Equitable Built Environment
Most of the tools for an equitable built environment come from the Fair Housing Act, passed during the Civil Rights era.
“Enforcement of existing fair housing laws is vital,” Van Zandt said. “There is also ‘affirmatively furthering fair housing’ (AFFH) which is a term from the legislation that at least in theory allows us to assess any action taken by a city that receives federal funding and expect it to overcome segregation to affirmatively further fair housing.”
One of the biggest obstacles to the construction of affordable housing is “NIMBY” – or “not in my backyard” – opposition, and it can happen when anything more affordable than your home is going to be built near you.
“The perception is affordable housing will bring your home value down, and that’s just not true,” Van Zandt said. “What you hear is a lot of coded language like they’re worried about traffic or crowding in schools, but it’s really ‘we don’t want poor people around.’
“I think if you work here, you should be able to afford to live here,” she continued. “If you look at College Station and Bryan, many of our workers have to drive in from Madisonville, Hearne or Caldwell because they can’t find affordable housing here.”
Planners can develop more mixed-use and mixed-income communities and homeowners can rent out accessory dwelling units like garage apartments and “granny flats,” offering increased affordable housing opportunities.
The Future Of Urban Planning
Van Zandt said many of her students are graduating and working for organizations to pursue environmental justice, reduce hazard vulnerability and improve critical infrastructure for communities of color. After graduating from A&M, her co-author Hendricks now runs the Stormwater Infrastructure Resilience and Justice (SIRJ) Lab at the University of Maryland.
Montero, who is graduating this May, is currently deciding between pursuing a post-graduate education in urban planning or taking a job in community engagement in communities of color.
“Planning can be a powerful tool to get the city back into the hands of the people,” Montero said, adding she’s been enjoying studying engagement methods in the planning process. “It’s interesting to see how radical planners are using culture, art and language to unite communities. You can be creative in planning and that creativity often reaps the best products.”