Racial justice and the planning system
Jun 01, 2021
Supporting the public planning sector to represent the communities it serves is one of Public Practice’s core values, and we are proud that our cohorts are more diverse and representative than the broader built environment professions. However, these benchmarks are woefully low and our cohorts are still not representative of the population as a whole. Currently, Public Practice recruits built environment practitioners with at least three years’ experience. But this has demonstrated the institutional barriers that marginalised and underrepresented groups face – the reality is this pool of talent is lacking in diversity not just in terms of ethnicity, but also in their abilities, lived experiences and socio-economic backgrounds. Over the longer-term, we intend to work with people at an earlier stage to add to the work we are already doing with higher education institutions to promote careers in the public sector. We hope to open up public planning as a career path for the majority not the minority of society.
This blog discusses the experiences of Public Practice Alumnus Alpa Depani, an architect placed at Waltham Forest as Placemaking Lead in the second cohort, who has consistently pushed for greater diversity within the architectural profession throughout her career. In this blog she describes an intervention into the council’s Planning Directorate in the form of a Diversity Pledge. The Diversity Pledge is available to download below and can be adapted to be used by other Authorities.
RACIAL JUSTICE AND THE PLANNING SYSTEM
What could ever have prepared us for the summer of 2020? Stifled by lockdown, stifled by hot weather, we watched video footage of George Floyd being murdered over and over and over again and understood that though we were living through ‘unprecedented times’ some things had really not changed much at all.
In the immediate aftermath of that horrific event there would be differing opinions about some of the actions taken here and abroad but one point became newly unequivocal and irrefutable: systematic discrimination exists. And while police violence was one awful manifestation of this fact, it was clearly not the only one: banal presentations of racial inequality were all around us, insidious and just as harmful as outright cruelty.
Banal like, why are all the development meetings I go to overwhelmingly populated by one demographic? When I considered that those developments that we were discussing would be creating new communities within a borough – Waltham Forest – that is one of the most diverse in the country, I could no longer accept the meeting situation as being normal.
I am proud to work for Waltham Forest Council, an organisation that is demonstrably mixed in terms of gender, race, age and background and yet I couldn’t escape the realisation that while I might attend pre-app meetings with a diverse group of colleagues, we were, as a matter of course, presented with 100 percent white male applicant teams.
So what could be done? I wanted our Planning Directorate to do more than bask in the progress within its own workforce. I wanted us, Waltham Forest Council to actively use our influence to draw attention to the woeful levels of diversity in the built environment sector and to ask developers, landowners, architects and others to really consider the composition of the teams they bring to meetings with us. And in doing so, to highlight that diversity is something Waltham Forest Council consider consciously and value. So I said exactly this to senior colleagues, and with their backing, I wrote a Diversity Pledge (below) to do just that. The Pledge has now been incorporated into all our Planning Performance Agreements meaning I can refer to it in our development meetings when confronted with the familiar picture, and I do.
Of course, the Council can’t make the organisations that engage with us change their hiring practices, but we can encourage more thought about them, we can create enough unease about the status quo that it can no longer be the status quo. And we can make it clear that we want those practices that champion their diverse workforces on social media to actually involve that diversity in their discussions with us. Because by not doing so they limit representation and experience for so many within the industry, and stymie diverse voices from joining conversations about development, a process that affects every demographic.
The built environment industry has a demonstrable problem with race, gender and representation. A survey in the Architects’ Journal last year indicated that ‘racism in the industry is getting worse’ while RICS have stated ‘we lack diversity throughout our organisations’. This Pledge is not a fix but just one of many practical efforts that will be needed to see change. Progress will take time and will not be a comfortable ride for everyone, but we cannot look at the current levels of diversity, inclusion and equality within the built environment and say we are serving our communities well enough. We have to find ways to do more, and the public sector can lead the way.
THE WALTHAM FOREST DIVERSITY PLEDGE
The London Borough of Waltham Forest values diversity in all its forms. Our borough is one of the most diverse in the country, a feature that is a strength, and we are committed to improving inclusion and representation within our communities and in the work, we undertake as a Local Authority. Our Planning and wider Economic Growth and Housing Service has a key role to play in creating equitable communities and neighbourhoods and in order to achieve this, we believe diversity and representation must be embedded at an early stage and include diversity of opportunity and diversity of voices.
The Service, therefore, commits to achieving diversity in the composition of its teams involved informal discussions about development with external parties, such as feasibility work, pre-application meetings and Design Review. We encourage our Partners to do the same.
By signing this pledge, signatories similarly agree to:
Consider the composition of the teams involved in formal discussions about development that are undertaken with the Service
Actively seek to improve the representation of women, people of Colour, LGBTQ+ people, those with visible or non-visible disabilities and those from varied backgrounds in teams involved in those discussions
Seek to avoid overrepresentation of single demographics in teams involved in those discussions
The Mayor of London’s Supporting Diversity Handbook brings together findings from two decades of research with case studies and recommendations towards a more equitable built environment.
The Architects’ Journal gathered perspectives from across the built environment sector in ‘How can we go beyond box-ticking on diversity in architecture?’ – asking how the industry should confront its problems with race.
By Alpa Depani, Public Practice Alumnus and Placemaking Lead at London Borough of Waltham Forest, May 2021.