Every urbanist has a story that helps shape the passionate person they become over time. A lived experience that impacts their decisions and the path they choose to follow; one to which many in the community can relate. While we’re all working towards the goal of equity on our streets and in our cities, there are those who don't see themselves in the textbooks, editorials, and photographs representing the movement. Simply put: urbanism is pretty damn white.
That lack of representation is exactly what Kristen Jeffers—an urban planner, advocate, and editor-in-chief at The Black Urbanist—is aiming to change through her writing and activism. While her interest in urban design started much earlier, the recognition of a lack of diversity came during her first semester of graduate school. Leafing through her urban politics textbook, she found herself thinking, “This is different from my own experience." It seemed that while many books talk about the triumphs and challenges of city building, very few contain an accurate depiction of what many in the black community experience.
"Every black person in the city wasn’t just relegated to public housing," explains Jeffers. "And when they were, why did that happen? Why did certain cities do certain things? Do enough people understand our federal system in the United States? And that because of our Constitution, cities and states are independent and can do almost anything they want, good or bad, unless they are challenged?” Thus began The Black Urbanist: an opportunity for Jeffers to write the story—her story—better.
“We Have Sidewalks in Cities for a Reason”
Jeffers grew up in a loving home in North Carolina. She remembers accompanying her mom to the grocery store, noticing how strange it was that they had to drive there due to a lack of shops they could walk to in her neighbourhood, not that walking was much of an option with the lack of sidewalks. She also recalls her father bringing home maps from one of his delivery jobs, laying them out of the floor and tracing out routes with toy cars, learning early on how systems of movement are connected to move people through cities.
Her experiences hit a pivotal moment when her father—suffering from bi-polar disorder—was in a car crash that left him temporarily unable to drive. Suddenly his ability to get around his neighbourhood and his city became uncomfortable and at times nearly impossible. The "stroads" Jeffers grew up amongst made it even more difficult for him to walk, and the transit system didn't come close to meeting his needs. “We have sidewalks in cities for a reason. We have these things put in place because they make life easier. My dad had to figure it out for himself; how to make the bus work when it only comes every thirty minutes when he was used to getting places quickly.”
Jeffers does not shy away from speaking about her childhood, and feels it's important for people to understand where she came from and how that informs her actions. Before his crash, Jeffers parents divorced, and her mother bought a home in a modern suburb. Her father kept her childhood home, where he lived until he passed away in 2013. Having the memories of living in both a small urban home near to senior public housing and a dense community, as well as a more spacious, suburban environment, she understands the value of investment in both types of communities.
"Connectivity was harder where my mom lived," Jeffers admits, “But it’s a home, it’s our home, and it was a place I was able to go back to when I graduated and where I started this project.” She is quick to point out that her intention is never to slam the suburbs, and affirms the thinking of Ellen Dunham-Jones, who says we cannot abandon these landscapes. "They've offered homes and an ability to survive. This is still a capitalist society, and in a lot of way, owning property is a way to survive."
"There’s a Lot That We’ve Had to Overcome"
Since graduating, Jeffers has worked in a number of cities, but it was a move to Washington, DC that would start connecting her to many of the urbanists she had only been reading about online. “I need to be here, at least to learn from people how to start policy advocacy groups, and how to shift my brand and work to that,” she explains. “I just really want to be advocating, especially to at least publicize what’s happening, particularly in the black community."
Sharing the stories of people of colour in why she started her blog in 2010, and more recently, her online radio show, and she emphasizes that hers a platform not just for her own experiences but also for her colleagues in the black community, inviting anyone who wishes to write about black urbanism to contribute.
“There are activists in the black community that do want better communities, and we’ve not been given the same advantages and have barriers to fight against," Jeffers points out. "There’s a lot that we’ve had to overcome, and more still yet to overcome, and sometimes it’s just confidence. Because if you’ve been hurt enough, it takes a while to actually trust the system. In this phase of the site, I want people to be able to find a home on my site. I want people to either be able to learn what urbanism is and how it can help them, or learn they can be better allies or even abolitionists of what can be harmful behaviours, like policing, over-jailing, and really think about schooling and housing.”
She clarifies that ultimately she just wants more education around policy issues that can help or hurt people on a daily basis, and feels like there are a lot of people that focus on education, a lot of people who focus on housing, but there’s not as many, especially women and women of colour focusing on the transportation space. That is slowly changing, but she's still met a lot of people that feel uncomfortable speaking out. Those are the people that are happy that Jeffers and The Black Urbanist exist.
“A Lot of Us We Were Not Given the Same Opportunities”
“I want to have deeper conversations with people in the black community who have a deeper connection to the African diaspora,” she expands. On her radio show, while she gives time for many in the black community working to improve cities for people of colour, she aims to host individuals working outside of urban issues: policy writers, architects, artists; essentially anyone who has something to say about how our cities are built. Even those who may not agree with her point of view.
“I’ve got this platform now, and I’m looking forward to strengthening my media skills so I can continue to tell and amplify stories to people." This includes helping neighbours to better understand each other, and to start dispelling many of our preconceived assumptions and move away from NIMBYism to more YIMBYism. “The Black Urbanistis changing the perceptions of people but allowing them to be their authentic selves.”
Despite a lot of her success, which includes prominence in the urbanism community and invitations to speak at high profile events like the Congress for the New Urbanism on the black experience, Jeffers is quick to remind her followers that she does not want to be used as the example of a black person who has made it, so now we can stop talking about black urbanism. “A lot of us we were not given the same opportunities. Slavery and segregation are not that far away in our history, and there’s not a lot of opportunities for people to overcome that.”
For her part, Jeffers is ensuring that the conversation does not stop. She is currently revising her book, A Black Urbanist, and continues to advocate across the United States for better policy making to create equitable cities for all people, regardless of age, race, or gender identity. “This is what the work is, and as long as I’m passionate about it, and it continues to make sense and work for me for a little while longer, this is what I’ll be doing.”