Rachael Baker, York University, Canada

Since the 2012 death of 17-year old Treyvon Martin and the tributary #BlackLivesMatter campaign and social movement that followed, the deaths of black men, women and trans people at the hands of police continues to arouse mass street-level direct action and dialogue throughout the United States. On April 12th, 2015 25-year old Freddie Grey of Baltimore suffered a spinal cord injury and died while in police custody.  His death was preceded by several weeks of marches in the streets of West Baltimore protesting police brutality; like the marches in Ferguson, and Staten Island; and the fires and protests in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago decades ago that continue to inform the social and racial climates of those cities today. During the week of Grey’s murder, Harvard University’s African American Student Union and the Graduate School of Design hosted an urban planning conference with racism as the topic of discussion (El Nessar, 2015). The student-led conference addressed what young scholars see as lacking in their discipline, and called attention to the need for planners to be conscious of how urban planning intersects with common social maladies; racism in particular.

Early contemplations of urban planning envisioned a society free from the constraints of capitalism and bureaucracy that depended, as Hall describes, on the voluntary cooperation of citizens to work and live side by side (Hall, 2014). As the world’s population becomes increasingly urbanized, cities ever more become sites for addressing global concerns about sustainability, a myriad of issues planners often approach through strategies such as growth management, the implementation of green infrastructure and ecological governance, and greater efficiency in urban transportation systems.  The genealogy of urban planning indicates that environmental health and safety have always influenced the design of neighbourhoods and public spaces, which suggests that sustainability in urban design is as much a matter of functionality as it is prevention. However, the recent (and systemic) deaths of people of colour in public and private urban spaces is indicative of, as Harvard’s planning students and #BlackLivesMatter point out, a gap in how policy makers and urban planners consider the social outcomes of urban design and conceptualize sustainability. Given the widespread climate of racial inequality concentrated in cities throughout the United States, is the pursuit of the sustainability model, design strategies that up hold environmental outcomes as the foremost concern of urban redevelopment, truly the most pressing path forward for shaping our future cities?  The antonymous contradiction of sustaining, which means to both suffer as well as strengthen, suggests that a ‘sustainable’ urban future will ensure more of the same; an uneven urban geography that affirms the lives of some while others scrape by. To sustain is either to thrive, or just barely survive.

The need to address racial inequality within North American cities is not new. During the American civil rights movement, the ‘urban crisis’ uprisings were a spatial and often material expression of the movement’s fight to challenge racial segregation and discrimination against black communities (Soja, 1989, 160). In the fight to end the ghettoization of African Americans, the urban crisis was grounded in struggle that sought to reveal racial inequality in cities, and call out the policies and practices that concentrated urban poverty in communities primarily inhabited by people of colour. In effect, the urban crisis serves as an example of the type of socially-driven planning described by Hall, of citizens working with one another cooperatively to shape their surroundings. It was a moment in which the civil rights movement spatially manifested its struggle, and officially claimed urban neighbourhoods as grounds for fighting segregation and systemic racism. By acting against racially motivated police brutality, discriminatory real-estate practices, and the uneven distribution of public services to communities of colour, the urban crisis revealed the injustice of uneven and often racially and economically determined conditions of urban living (Castells, 1983; Sugrue, 1996). In the wake of the 2014 and 2015 police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Grey, the #BlackLivesMatter social media campaign and corresponding ground-level community actions disrupt the idea that the urban crisis ever ended. #BlackLivesMatter and recent corresponding rallies and marches of people of colour and anti-racist allies expose the crisis of urban racism as alive and kicking, and to be sure, the crisis is the very reason the #BlackLivesMatters campaign exists today.

In a 2005 interview, Dr. Angela Davis, a prominent leader in the American civil rights movement was asked to reflect on racial integration law since the civil rights movement and the fifty years plus that has followed Brown vs. Board of Education. Davis replied that “the challenge of the twenty-first century is not to demand equal opportunity to participate in the machinery of oppression. Rather, it is to identify and dismantle those structures in which racism continues to be embedded” (Davis, 2005, 26).  If the civil rights movement won no guarantees, the failure of liberal democracy to ensure racial equality today is indicative of the need for what Davis refers to as ‘abolition democracy’. Abolition democracy is a call to disassemble structures that uphold racism and racial inequality, which “is the only way the promise of freedom can be extended to masses of people” (Davis, 2005, 26). To live in a city where, as Davis imagines, the promise of freedom is experienced by all, is to build a society in which people no longer sustain systemic racism. If the city is a site of co-production between citizens and political systems, as Neil Smith (2008) suggested, #BlackLivesMatters is demanding political action that dares to imagine the realization of cities where white privilege and racial inequality have been dismantled, and these ‘machineries of oppression’ no longer serve as foundations for urban living. This movement of redemption and hope, two prefigurative frameworks for envisioning a different way of living, dares to imagine cities free of racial oppression; an abolition urban future in which the promise of freedom is lived by the masses.


Castells, Manuel. The Urban Question: A Marxist Approach. London: Arnold Publishing, 1997.

Davis, Angela. Abolition Democracy; Beyond Empire, Prison, and Torture. New York, Seven Stories Press, 2005.

El Nasser, Haya. Public Unrest Sends Urban Designers Back to Drawing Board. Al Jazeera, America. May 12, 2015.

Hall, Peter. Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design Since 1880. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2014.

Smith, Neil. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space, 3rd Edition, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008.

Soja, Edward. Seeking Spatial Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race, and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Author Biography

Rachael Baker is an PhD candidate at York University in the Department of Geography, Canada.  Based in Toronto, Ontario and Detriot, Michigan, Rachael’s academic interests include critical race studies, gender and feminist studies, and urban food security.

Contact emails: baker87@yorku.ca or rachaelbaker.research@gmail.com


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Dialogues of sustainable urbanisation: Social science research and transitions to urban contexts Copyright © 2015 by Rachael Baker, York University, Canada is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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