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How thoughtful design can reduce racial inequity

A growing sense of urgency about inequities in Minnesota was reflected in the 5th annual Placemaking Residency, where “Design for Equity” was the focus at 13 public events.

At first glance, the Minneapolis-St. Paul region looks well prepared for continued economic and cultural vitality. That’s been our story since World War II — a steady climb in the direction of greater prosperity, quality-of-life and international prominence. 

But a significant roadblock stands in our path toward this bright future: the stark facts of racial inequity. We rank embarrassingly low in educational performance, income and job opportunities for people of color. If present trends prevail, the percentage of disadvantaged people living here will rise drastically by 2040, when an estimated 40 percent of all metro residents will be nonwhite. This shatters our proud self-image as a generous, progressive place dedicated to giving every kid the chance to get ahead.

A growing sense of urgency about this problem was reflected in the fifth annual Placemaking Residency, where “Design for Equity” was the focus at 13 public events held May 9-12 in St. Paul, Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park. Six national and local authorities (primarily people of color spanning fields from the arts to real estate) joined with local community members to explore strategies about fostering resilient neighborhoods where everyone thrives together. Previous Placemaking Residencies — a unique convening of ideas for community development produced by Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation with dozens of local partners — tackled the issue but not in such a multidimensional way.

A hallmark of the residency over the past five years is bringing participants into the heart of diverse places to learn how social progress percolates at the grassroots level. This year’s venues ranged from the Creative Enterprise Zone and the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul to Downtown East and the North Side in Minneapolis to the Starlite Shopping Center and North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park. This year’s event was funded by the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.

The redlining of America

Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove set the tone for the residency with an expansive definition of placemaking.

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“I’m a psychiatrist, not an urban planner,” she noted at a workshop in St. Paul’s City Hall. “So when I think of placemaking, I think of people getting together having a good time and getting things done.”

The world works best when we can all exchange information, Fullilove explained, and it stops working when “the exchange of information is broken down.” 

This is not a lesson she learned in medical school, but on the streets of Orange, New Jersey— a lower-income, largely African-American city near Newark. In addition to her psychiatric practice, she is president of the board at the University of Orange — a free college organized around the idea that urban neighborhoods make great classrooms for learning about the issues of our time.

Fullilove outlined the sobering history of injustice that still affects America today. Explicitly racist policies existed in northern cities through the practice of redlining, having much the same effect as Jim Crow laws in the South. Red lines were literally drawn on maps of 239 cities during the 1930s, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, designating areas where bankers should not loan money for home purchases or repairs.

Three related factors singled out these neighborhoods for crippling disinvestment: African-Americans and other nonwhites were allowed to live there; older housing stock, and high poverty rates. Other urban neighborhoods effectively banned people of color through restrictions written into housing deeds. These maps, Fullilove says, “are essential documents for understanding race and place” in America. 

Redlining in the Twin Cities continued into the 1970s, according to a participant at the meeting in City Hall.

“We are still kept apart by redlining,” Fullilove said, noting that many redlined neighborhoods were ripped apart by freeway construction, including her home back in New Jersey and Rondo, St. Paul’s African-American hub that was sacrificed to build I-94. Other redlined areas were leveled by urban renewal schemes in the 1960s. Deindustrialization took a toll on these lower income neighborhoods in the 1970s and ‘80s when factories closed and decent-paying jobs moved abroad. Many people living in historically redlined neighborhoods have also been battered by the recent foreclosure crisis, or forced to move due to gentrification. 

Many of these neighborhoods are still off limits to usual economic development, such as supermarket chains.

“We hear about food deserts,” Fullilove observed. “They are also bank deserts. Doctor deserts. Tree deserts. Disinvestment is present in every American city.”

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Even in the face of this bitter history, Fullilove sees signs of hope if we can learn to view our metropolitan areas as single connected places. Likening a cluster of suburbs and city to a natural environment, she said, “the point of urban restoration is that we are all one ecosystem. It’s not like my lily pad will be fine while yours gets fungus.”

In other words, we all do better when we all do better. And as our communities enter an era of rapid disruption caused by climate change, “We’ll need each other more in the future.”

Jelani Cobb —director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine — reinforced Fullilove’s long-view perspective on racial inequity.

“As an historian, I know that we cannot understand this country unless we understand race,” he said at the Facing Race Ambassador Awards dinner May 9 in St. Paul. Cobb disputes “this idea that we can just be done with race,” and that America became a “postracial society” after Obama was elected president in 2008.

Minnesota is changing faster than we think

Eleven national and local artists addressed issues of race and place the next day at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in a program curated by the California-based organization Arts in a Changing America. The organization’s director Roberta Uno spelled out how swiftly we are changing and how art can be a catalyst and convener to explore this change. So called “minorities” are now a majority in California, Texas and Florida — the nation’s largest states by population. Minnesota is changing even faster, she said. People of color comprised around one percent of the state’s population in 1960, now it’s 19 percent.

 Four years from now, people of color will outnumber whites among children under 18 nationally, according to current trends, and among all Americans by 2042.

“This is a chance for us to look at ourselves,” Uno declared, and to learn how to create a culture “where everyone participates.”

Minnesota photographer Wing Young Huie talked about his childhood as one of very few nonwhites in Duluth, explaining how the experience left him with a drive to ask questions: “Who sticks out? Who fits in? Who decides?” Huie, who has won national acclaim for photographs that powerfully portray people in the context of the places they live, launched Third Place Gallery to break down barriers in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Occupying a storefront at 38th & Chicago in Minneapolis that sat empty for 47 years, the gallery hosts exhibits and events to ease people out of their “racial, economic and technological bubbles,” often with karaoke and ping pong. He brought his homegrown placemaking perspective to events throughout the week.

Next exit: Brooklyn Park

The Placemaking Residency rolled into Brooklyn Park (which is more diverse than either Minneapolis or St. Paul) on Wednesday for sessions focused on how equity figures in decisions about economic development, government practices and the extension of light rail through north Minneapolis into northern suburbs. 

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“How do we build a 21st century city that reflects today’s racial realities?” asked Deepa Iyer, senior fellow at the New York-based Center for Social Inclusion, noting that the U.S. passed a milestone in 2014, when a majority of children entering school were nonwhite. 

“But numerical strength does not equal power in culture, economics and politics,” she observed. “We [people of color] get a message that this is not our country. We have to be prepared for the backlash to changing demographics.”

Placemaking questions are often at the center of these controversies, noted Iyer, recounting how construction of an Islamic Center in Mufreesboro, Tennessee, was blocked for four years by opponents who strategically raised objections about zoning, traffic and overdevelopment.

“I’m very hopeful about the future,” Iyer stressed, despite continuing racial tensions. “I think the process of being American is about relating to each other…. It’s about finding our shared values.”

Success step-by-step

The final round of this conversation about how smarter urban design could help reduce the damage of racial and economic injustice took place at The Great River Gathering, Saint Paul Riverfront Corporations’ annual celebration that brings together an influential and diverse group of civic leaders and community members, all of whom share a commitment to creating a world-class MSP region.

Majora Carter — a strategy consultant, entrepreneur and grassroots real estate developer who played a pivotal role in bringing back New York’s South Bronx — gave the audience of 900 a step-by-step guide about how she helped her community turn a waterfront trash dump into a popular park. Start by identifying the need, she advised, then design an attractive solution, find an angel investor, launch a beta version, study similar projects elsewhere, refine your solutions and keep reiterating and expanding until you’ve got what you want.

Just as important as the actual accomplishment of creating a new asset for the community is the message sent to people living there: Good things can happen in this place. One of the biggest problems for poor communities, Carter noted, is that “we teach young people to measure success by how far they can get away from these neighborhoods.”

It’s absolutely crucial to let people know, “you don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to have a better one.”