The City Planners’ Case for Defunding the Police

By Brentin Mock, CityLab August 6, 2020

More than 650 urban planning professionals signed a letter connecting design decisions to criminal justice outcomes.

A group of several hundred urban planners is calling for the largest U.S. planning organization to support defunding the police. 

While this kind of reform may seem in the purview of criminal justice policymakers, the planners lay out in a letter to the American Planning Association how neighborhoods that were racially segregated by a range of planning policies have become further denigrated by police violence and harassment of Black people — and that planners have done little historically to help change this dynamic.

“Historically, planners have been responsible for manifestations of institutional racism including redlining and the construction of freeways and toxic industrial development in poor and Black and Brown neighborhoods, among many others,” reads the letter to the APA dated July 24. “These actions have had reverberating effects, including creating the preconditions for over-policing of communities of color and disinvestment in community health and safety (just as they created the conditions for safety, wellness, prosperity, and limited policing in predominantly white suburbs).”

One example they provide is Vision Zero initiatives, which aim to reduce or eliminate traffic fatalities. Despite their good intentions, the programs “rely on police-led enforcement and may inadvertently direct additional resources to police.” The letter also points to how transit planners have deployed transit police “who notoriously harass riders of color over fee evasion,”  and housing planners who’ve ignored how policing contributes to gentrification despite pledged support for affordable housing. 

Pointing to “striking” disparities in life expectancy by ZIP Code, the planners argue that some funds now allocated to “hyper-militarized police departments” could go to anti-racist planning efforts that advance best practices for “building affordable housing, creating accessible transit systems, promoting environmental justice, and advancing more equitable economic development.” 

Sara Draper-Zivetz, a housing and food planner, and one of the eight authors of the letter, said the planning organization’s failure to substantially address systemic racism is one reason why neither she nor the other seven abolition planners who co-authored the letter are actual APA members.  

“We perceived this moment as an opportunity to pursue a conversation we’ve been needing to have for a long time,” said Draper-Zivetz, who is in talks with other planners about forming an organization called “Planners for Abolition.”

Among the letter’s 650-plus signers are Andrea Roberts, urban planning professor at Texas A&M University, and founder of The Texas Freedom Colonies Project; Willow S. Lung-Amam, urban planning professor at the University of Maryland, College Park; and Destiny Thomas, an anthropologist planner based in Los Angeles who has contributed to Bloomberg CityLab.  

APA CEO Joel Albizo told CityLab that officials “haven’t had an internal conversation yet” to comment on the matters addressed in the letter. 

“We’ve been doing a lot of listening, particularly those of us coming from a place of privilege, and reflecting and thinking about how we should be responding,” said Albizo. “I think you’re going to see in the coming weeks and months more coming out from us that really tries to get at some of the things that we can do to address those issues, specifically as it relates with planners.”

After speaking with CityLab, APA President Kurt Christiansen responded to the letter’s authors, saying, “We’ve been listening thoughtfully to many voices during the past month and every thought shared has enriched our understanding of the nature and scope of the challenge, and informs our evolving thinking on how we can make sustained, constructive impact as a large, complex and diverse association of planners.”

While the APA hasn’t weighed in on defunding police departments specifically, it did address police violence in a May 31 statement, saying the “impact of Mr. Floyd’s death and other recent grave injustices like it must be viewed in light of the historical trauma inflicted on African American communities, including discrimination wrought by the planning profession itself, which led to structural disadvantages in housing, transportation, education and employment that last to this day.”

The police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, illustrates the potential nexus between policing, housing and gentrification. A lawsuit filed on behalf of Taylor’s family accuses the city of engaging in aggressive police tactics in pursuit of a redevelopment project in the neighborhood of Jamarcus Glover — the suspected drug dealer that police were targeting when they barged into Taylor’s home on March 13. The lawsuit claims that police pursuit of Glover was inextricably linked to the “political need” clear the block where he lived for a real estate development project, and notes that eight homes on Glover’s street had been demolished in the months leading up to shooting.

The Louisville police department’s “Place-Based Investigations” unit had been surveilling Glover and arrested him the same night police killed Taylor. In June, the home Glover was renting was sold to the city for $1, with potential plans for it to be turned over to a land trust nonprofit. 

“The origin of Breonna’s home being raided by police starts with a political need to clear out a street for a large real estate development project and finishes with a newly formed, rogue police unit violating all levels of policy, protocol and policing standards,” reads the complaint. “While there is no doubt that gentrification of west Louisville neighborhoods could be a very good thing, the methods employed to do so have been unlawful and unconscionable.”

The city denies that it has any role in Taylor’s death, and also rejects the theory that its community improvement plans were abetted by aggressive or violent policing. 

While calls for defunding the police don’t enjoy great support nationwide, there is growing evidence that people are warming to it in certain cities. In a recent poll in Minneapolis, where the city council said it would disband the police department after the death of George Floyd, 79% of survey respondents agreed that funding should be diverted from police to social and health services; 54% strongly agreed. In response to another question, 69% agreed that “policing as we know it is fundamentally flawed in Minneapolis and we need to take a completely different approach to public safety in our city.”

Meanwhile, the demand for cities to pull funding from, if not completely dismantle, police departments has gained momentum among city officials and been a growing battle cry for activists. These demonstrations have been primarily attributed to the Black Lives Matter movement, but the American Civil Liberties Union has also adopted the “defund the police” banner, arguing that it would actually make cities safer. In 2018, the American Public Health Association made a policy statement that evidence “suggests that funds disproportionately allocated to policing could be more effectively invested in social services to improve health, particularly in communities where historically rooted endemic disinvestment has negatively contributed to health disparities.” Which means the APA would not be standing alone as the only professional network to weigh in on this movement. 

Draper-Zivetz said she hopes the APA won’t dismiss the letter’s concerns even though the primary authors are not actually members of the organization. 

“If APA only feels accountable to their due-paying members, then they aren’t really representing or working on behalf of our profession,” said Draper-Zivetz. “If that’s an identity they are comfortable with, this would be a good moment for all of us as planners — members or not — to understand that.”

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

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