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Toronto planner and placemaker Jay Pitter, seen here in Scarborough, Ont., on May 9, 2016, joined a panel that addressed the following question: How do we respond to anti-Black racism in urbanist practices and conversations?

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

“Anti-Black racism is lodged deep in the foundations of North American cities … and this history continues to follow us today,” the Toronto planner and placemaker Jay Pitter said during an online panel hosted by the Canadian Urban Institute on Wednesday.

Ms. Pitter joined four panelists in addressing a critical issue in city planning and governance. The title of the event asked: How do we respond to anti-Black racism in urbanist practices and conversations?

Ms. Pitter was joined by Orlando Bailey of Detroit, Tamika Butler of Los Angeles, Anthonia Ogundele of Vancouver, and Will Prosper of Montreal. Each of them spoke about their experiences of the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence as intensely personal. “We are facing a dual crisis, as professionals and as people,” Ms. Pitter said.

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The event comes during a public debate around how “urbanism” – the discourse and advocacy around cities, associated with a progressive politics – has been shaped by racism.

For example: Urbanism frames parks as a public good. But Ms. Ogundele, who runs the social enterprise Ethos Lab, recalled experiences on the playground when she was growing up in Mississauga. “Oftentimes, my presence was met with sticks or with names,” she said. “Non-Black youth let me know that … if I went down a slide, they wouldn’t go down it. A playground brings joy to young people; but my early experience was that [my presence] was not welcome.”

Ms. Butler, a transportation planner and lawyer who leads Toole Design’s planning in California and is the company’s director of equity and inclusion, said that conversations about equity are often “pushed to the side. People having technical conversations need to look at the biases they bring; equity has to be integrated into everything they’re planning.”

Ms. Pitter, later in an interview, said that this is true in Canada as much as it is in the United States. For instance: road safety and Vision Zero, the goal of eliminating pedestrian deaths from traffic violence. “This is an important conversation to have,” she said. “But then I have to speak to the fact that some Black people choose to drive because they are hyper-profiled within public space and in our transit system,” she added.

“We need to understand what people’s spatial realities are. Why do people choose to drive? If a Black person has to choose between saving the planet tomorrow or saving their lives today, what is the choice going to be?”

It is this lens, she suggests, that has been missing from many discussions around cities. And she has issued a letter, dubbed Call to Courage, aimed specifically at Canadian urbanists: an invitation for planners and others who work in cities to take action on anti-Black racism.

“Urbanists have been silent," she said. "And that’s concerning, because this uprising is happening against the backdrop of the public realm and the built environment.”

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In the letter, she writes that “anti-Blackness is profoundly spatialized and clearly tethered to land use, amenity use, public-space enforcement, safe streets, mobility and housing.

“The public realm and built environment are not simply a backdrop to the current civil unrest; urbanism has contributed to the racial inequities inciting it.”

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black communities both in the U.S. and Canada. On the panel, Mr. Prosper noted the high infection rate and death rate in his neighbourhood of Montreal North.

“The design of the place was failing us,” said the filmmaker and activist. “A neighbourhood like mine: It’s a food desert. It’s an art desert.” But, he said, it is not a desert for policing. A heavy police presence “has to do with the presence of Black and Indigenous communities.”

Mr. Bailey noted the high death toll among Black people in Detroit – including “a very, very close friend of mine,” he said. Mr. Bailey, who works with a local non-profit and runs The Urban Consulate, is recovering from the virus himself. The spread of the disease has taken a personal toll on people like him who are working to improve conditions in the city. “The level of grief we are feeling is not to be undermined,” he said.

The panelists suggested that city-building conversations need to be informed by such specific experiences. “We are all in this together, but we are in this together differently,” Ms. Pitter said during the panel. “We are all suffering, we’re all uncomfortable, but we are not suffering equally.”

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