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Ted Rutland explores links between anti-blackness and urban planning in new book

Creating better Canadian cities begins with anti-racist developments
May 23, 2018
By Cristina Sanza

What would our cities look like if they were planned according to the needs and desires of everyone within them?

A new book by Ted Rutland, associate professor in the department of Geography, Planning, and Environment sheds light on the racist conceptions behind urban planning projects in Canada, and how they’ve defined what constitutes a viable life, and what does not.

Displacing Blackness: Power, Planning, and Race in Twentieth-Century Halifax analyzes the connections between urban planning and blackness, particularly in Halifax, Nova Scotia in the twentieth century. In his critique, Rutland shows that throughout history, projects have consistently benefitted white people, while having serious consequences to the city’s Black residents, despite urban planning promising to improve citizens’ lives.

The book will launch on June 7 on the rooftop terrace of the EV building (1515 Saint-Catherine Street W). Wine and light snacks will be served. Music will be provided by DJ skin tone, who will play a variety of trans-national folk and African-American classical music.

What inspired you to write Displacing Blackness?

Ted Rutland: The book began from a sense that there was something I could learn and needed to learn from the long history of Black resistance to urban planning in the Halifax region. The Black community in Halifax dates back to the eighteenth century, when a series of migrations began in which enslaved Black people from elsewhere in the Americas came to Nova Scotia and settled in segregated communities outside white cities and towns. The fact that Black Nova Scotians had land gave them a material basis for communal, religious, and socio-economic development from the get-go and ever since. It also put them in conflict with urban planning (broadly conceived). The initial goal of Displacing Blackness was to examine what this history of struggle indicated about the nature of urban planning, both in Halifax and elsewhere.

What makes your particular critique unique?

TR: Most critiques of urban planning focus on its subservience to economic interests and political elites – and these critiques are valid. My critique, in contrast, takes urban planning seriously when it says that it aims to improve the quality of human life. It then asks, how is human life defined? What characteristics is it assumed to have, presently or ideally? What happens to people whose lives do not seem to exhibit these characteristics, presently or ideally? We quickly find that white life has been taken as the ideal or proper form of life and that Black life has been defined as the extreme non-ideal, pathological form. As a result, planning's efforts to improve the quality of human life have unerringly improved white life, harmed Black life, and have quite often achieved the former through the latter.

Can you provide a few examples of urban planning projects that have relied on racist conceptions?

TR: Racism was central to the founding of professional planning in Canada, though this is almost never acknowledged. Professional planning was born in the 1910s, right at the height of scientific racism in the Western world – a form of racism that saw people of colour not just as inferior, but as a polluting presence in the overall population. Racism can be seen, then, in all of the projects that professional planning undertook. Its efforts to improve public health involved moving polluting, harmful industries from white neighbourhoods to Black neighbourhoods. Its efforts to create contentedness and convenience involved paving white streets and sidewalks, installing street lights on white streets, creating parks in white neighbourhoods – and denying all of this to Black neighbourhoods. Professional planning was structured like this at the beginning, and it has never seriously sought to detect and remove its racist foundations.

Why is it important to spark a dialogue on this topic, given our world today?

TR: A dialogue on this topic is already happening in Black communities, as well Indigenous communities and other communities of colour. As a white scholar, my modest contribution to this process is to use the privileges that come with whiteness and scholarly expertise to affirm what these communities are saying and demanding. My message is therefore a somewhat contradictory one. I'm saying "listen to these communities" and also, paradoxically, "listen to me when I say this." My hope is that this message will lead more people to support Black-led struggles for anti-racist urban planning, and that they'll come to see these struggles as a vehicle or mechanism for the creation of better cities for everyone.

What’s next for you after the launch?

TR: I'm planning a series of events across Canada, as well as the United States, Britain, and France. My hope is to link discussions of the book to Black struggles in these cities around planning and displacement. One of the wonderful things about the publication of the book, so far, is that it has put me in touch with a bunch of amazing Black individuals and groups who are analyzing and struggling against planning in ways that resonate with the arguments of my book, but also push my thinking further and deeply inspire me.

Note: The answers have been cut/edited for length and clarity.

Book excerpt:

Modern planning’s attention to human flourishing has gone hand-in-hand with various forms of physical displacement, political exclusion, sanctioned exposure to dangerous living conditions, imposed impediments to good health or welfare, and enforced restrictions on people’s movement and daily activities. In some cases, effects like these are traceable to the exemption of certain lives from the sphere of planning’s concerns ... In other cases, adverse effects are more intimately connected to the operation of modern planning. Here, it is precisely through targeted degradation and subjugation that planning seeks to promote a better form of life, either for the broader population or for the adversely affected residents themselves. In all cases, the line between lives improved and lives degraded is written most clearly and indelibly in the font of race. From the late nineteenth century to the present, evolving conceptions of race have shaped the meaning of the “life” that planning has sought to secure and nurture, and have contributed to planning outcomes that are racialized in both self-evident and surreptitious ways. While Halifax planners’ horrific overt war against the Mi’kmaq has ceased, the city’s significant and long-standing Black population – descendants, for the most part, of people enslaved in Nova Scotia or the United States – has experienced modern planning as an unyielding source of imperilment and plunder.

Attend the launch for Displacing Blackness on June 7. Learn more about the book.

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