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Diversity as if It Mattered.

by Emily Talen

For those of us concerned with the planning and protection of the environment, there is much in the world that needs our attention. Now, recent events have reminded us that on at least one major front, we have failed drastically: the problem of residential segregation. Uniting the environmentalist and the urban planner in the wake of Hurricane Katrina should be an unambiguous commitment to creating human settlements that are socially diverse—the human parallel of the biological diversity seen as necessary for the sustenance of the natural environment.

For the moment, everyone is focused on the injustice of concentrated poverty—the lack of diversity—that the destruction of New Orleans laid bare. Mark Naison, director of the urban studies program at Fordham University, implored, “Is this what the pioneers of the civil rights movement fought to achieve, a society where many black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by legal segregation laws?”

Colorful city, rain, person painting.In the weeks and months ahead, we need to make sure that the planner’s role in this does not get swept under the table. All of us concerned with the “metropolitan mosaic” need to embrace a united commitment to planning for social diversity.

New Orleans is not the first catastrophe to reveal the gross injustices of residential segregation. The 1995 heat wave that killed so many black residents in Chicago was in part a result of their social isolation. Planners—including New Urbanists and environmentalists—need to get serious about actively supporting an urban framework that does not foster segregation. That should be seen as fundamental, the cornerstone of our prescriptions for urban reform. The events of the weeks following Katrina have emphasized what we already know—that a lack of social diversity creates neighborhoods that experience concentrated poverty, disinvestment in the built environment, and the perpetuation of an “American Apartheid.”

Yet in discussions about how to address segregation—in many ways the antithesis of social diversity—planners and environmentalists have been relatively withdrawn. Unlike in many other countries, planners have not been called upon to address the problems of inner city disinvestment, white flight, and segregation. City design and the social pathology it can produce have been kept separate, as if not related. Plans are conceived of as singular intentions, regarded as incongruous within a diverse society.

It is true that “diversity” is an overused term that has become cliché and ill-defined, described recently in The New York Times as “a trendy code word.” And there is no set definition. Diversity can be defined in various ways, using different types of variables like race or income. There may be deeper meanings involving moral commitment, positive social contact, and solidarity. It may be rejected as something impossible to define altogether, or impossible to achieve given the “American preference” for homogeneity. Yet none of these reasons should shelter planners from their need to address the fundamental injustice of the segregated city.

Colorful household objects, money, in portfolio with man holding it, painting.On a numbers of indicators (poverty, employment, income), sorting and separation in the American pattern of settlement is not improving. While racial diversity in the suburbs has increased, and more immigrants now live in the suburbs than in central cities, the gaps between city and suburb, or between one suburb and another, or between one neighborhood and another have widened in the past half-century. For Hispanics and Asians, segregation appears to be increasing. Between 1970 and 2000, there was a 30% net increase in class dissimilarity, an increase, especially, in the concentration of affluence at the neighborhood level. And while downtown neighborhoods are gentrifying, they are not necessarily on their way to becoming mixed-income and multiracial; they are instead on their way to becoming middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods, and in the process simply shifting concentrated poverty from one location to another.

There is also evidence that suburbs are differentiating themselves along race and class lines. We may now have more poor and minorities in the suburbs, but that does not necessarily mean we are integrating people in meaningful ways. Neither does an increase in aggregate diversity mean an increase in neighborhood integration. In the South, levels of black suburbanization are relatively high, but they tend to be in the form of clustered housing at the periphery, separate from new white suburbs.

The pattern of separation is both well-studied and widely critiqued. A wealth of scholarship has focused on the effect of planning policy and regulation on the isolation of poor and minority groups, notably Anderson’s The Federal Bulldozer (1964), Frieden & Kaplan’s The Politics of Neglect (1975), Kushner’s Apartheid in America (1982), Keating’s The Suburban Racial Dilemma (1994), or Thomas & Ritzdorf’s Urban Planning and the African American Community (1997). These studies and many others document the unfortunate separation that is often only reinforced by the planning response.

Colorful city, rain, person painting.Using the physical environment to promote racial justice was a stated goal in post-World War II planning. Books like Charles Abrams’ Forbidden Neighbors (1955) were about racial justice through integration, arguing the case for residential social mix in unequivocal terms. Urban renewal programs in the 1950s were actually based on the presumption that social mix could make communities more stable. Famous examples of new town development in the 1960s, like Columbia, Maryland and Reston, Virginia, were planned for racial and economic mixing.

Now, as we contemplate the incalculable effort that will be required to rebuild a large swath of the Gulf coast, we should revive this commitment to social mix, and the use of planning, design, and all the programs and processes we can muster to achieve it. Environmentalists, planners, and all those concerned with the task should focus on the fact that diversity in residential areas is not something to back away from.

New Orleans has reminded us that social divisions are manifested and reinforced in spaces and landscapes that reflect separation. Planners will need to develop a better understanding of the difference between redevelopment that contributes to loss of diversity and redevelopment that genuinely brings increased diversity. To work toward stability and discourage displacement, to simultaneously support homeownership and rental housing, to successfully integrate a range of housing types and densities, levels of affordability, a mix of uses, and neighborhood and social services—all of this together requires holistic attention that includes the physical form of communities and the characteristics that may help to retain diversity. Planners need to be on the front line of these efforts.


Emily Talen is associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and recently published New Urbanism and American Planning: The Conflict of Cultures (Routledge, 2005). Her research focuses on exploring the spatial patterns of American cities. Prior to earning her Ph.D. and teaching, she worked for six years as a professional planner in Santa Barbara, California, and Columbus, Ohio.
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