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Planning While Black: How cities can design for all

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LA's bicycle coalition director on how the way we think about cities needs to change

As a civil rights lawyer who is now Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, Tamika Butler has spent years working on transportation equity issues. And much of that work is rooted in her experiences as the “black queer kid” in her mostly white, mostly straight Nebraska high school. “I couldn’t figure out why all the black kids were sitting together in the cafeteria,” she says.

Butler talked about the feeling of “looking around and not seeing anyone else that looks like you” as part of her keynote address “Planning While Black” at last month’s National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) conference in Seattle, where she delivered some incredible, impassioned remarks on race and urbanism.

In the keynote, Butler interweaves her own story with emotional moments from the Black Lives Matter movement, elegantly connecting contemporary conversations about race and public space.

Here’s Butler on the death of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old father of six who was choked to death by police for selling cigarettes on the sidewalk:

The whole point of what everyone in this room does is to make places that people feel happy and healthy and safe. But you can’t even be a black man on a sidewalk and feel those things. Maybe you’re thinking: “But I’m a planner, but I’m an engineer, but I’m an elected official—I'm not a police officer. I don’t have that problem.”

But this is all of our problems. Because the answer to why this happened—if you want me to believe that he was on a sidewalk he wasn’t supposed to be on—then I’m going to ask you about his neighborhood and where there is green space for him, and where there is open space for him to just be in the community. And why, if he was a white man, he would still be breathing.

If designers and planners have not had these experiences, asks Butler, then how will they know how to bring the solutions into their work? If designers and planners have not had these experiences, asks Butler, how will they know how to design the types of places to fix them? It goes beyond hiring and funding practices, to an entirely new way of thinking about cities, she says: “It means that the people who have the least, get the most.”

Butler is a smart, engaging—and very funny—speaker, and the video is well worth the hour of your time. It will change the way you think about how you move through your city—and force you to question if your city is helping everyone move through it the same way.