Local View: Creating equitable cities goes beyond police reform

Duluth in position to embrace racial equality through urban planning


The focus on civil rights issues triggered by the death of George Floyd and the subsequent nationwide protests has placed a spotlight on the ways in which many everyday institutions have been influenced by racist histories and how those influences continue to result in discriminatory impacts today.

The incidents happening nationwide are not solely an outcome of policing. Instead, interrelated policy areas influence how our communities function on a day-to-day basis. For example, the decisions made by planning departments, school boards, parks departments, and other urban agencies set forth how programs are designed, where resources are invested, and how landscapes are formed.

Rather than accepting a status-quo past-as-future or attempting to create a less racist history by ignoring the past, it is important to explore the complicated and sometimes explicitly racially motivated policies and outcomes of city planning across the United States — and in Duluth — and to offer better ways to move forward.

Urban planning is the process of designing and developing a city’s built environment. This includes issues that are central for residents’ day-to-day lives: zoning, transportation systems, parks and recreation, economic investment, and infrastructure maintenance and expansion. Issues such as where we live, how we get to work, what our environment looks like, and our access to recreational space are central to the process of urban planning.

How we go about the process of designing our city reflects our values as well as societal changes in technology and lifestyle. This is then implemented in daily decisions about whether to fix older infrastructure or build new infrastructure in developing neighborhoods, whether to build apartment buildings or single-family homes, and where to invest in job creation.


Historically, many of these consequential decisions have been made by individuals and organizations, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally marginalizing people of color, without consultation or consideration of the needs and desires of people of color. The work of designing the urban environment has been done in different ways in previous eras and has included programs like urban renewal. Urban renewal involved clearing areas of privately owned properties for the greater public good to create things like public parks, public buildings like the Duluth Public Library, highways such as Interstate 35, and redevelopment projects that restore economic vitality such as the paper mill project in West Duluth.

Duluth’s first redlining map was produced in 1936 and identified neighborhoods with immigrant residents — labeled as “foreigners” — and people of color as being undesirable for banks to lend money to for home mortgages. One outcome is that residents in those neighborhoods could not gain wealth from homeownership like white homeowners did and could not invest in improvements to their housing. Today, a significantly higher percentage of Duluth’s Black population lives in substandard housing. In the neighborhoods where redlining was prevalent in the 1930s, homes still sell at prices significantly below the median; neighborhoods with a “D” (red) classification in the 1930s had an average sale price in 2016 that was more than $62,000 below the average price in neighborhoods that originally had an “A” classification.

Similar factors affect transportation and infrastructure projects. When transportation and infrastructure projects are based solely on property taxes, neighborhoods with higher property values expect increased amenities and lobby for necessary improvements. On the other hand, when large projects such as freeways are introduced, the “cost effective” routes are usually through neighborhoods with lower property values — those impacted by redlining, where higher percentages of people of color reside.

For infrastructure funded by assessments, neighborhoods with higher incomes and higher property values are better able to afford these additional fees, thereby continuing to widen the neighborhood gap.

Building a city is something that happens continuously, and so all of our work — in our neighborhoods and with developers on projects large and small — rests upon things done in years past. This makes it more difficult and more important to create a city where all residents have access to what they need.

The recently completed Imagine Duluth 2035 comprehensive plan included a new governing principle: “Integrate Fairness Into the Fabric of the Community.” This principle recognizes current and historic disparities and calls on planners, policymakers, and residents to actively promote inclusive and participatory decision-making that addresses systemic barriers to success. Some of the barriers identified include housing discrimination and availability, access to government, lack of transportation, economic barriers, park and trail disparity, and health-outcome disparities.

In Duluth, we’ve started on some of this work through initiatives like the Duluth Workforce Development Department’s community benefits program, which leads the state in actively encouraging developers and contractors to employ people of color and to engage minority and women-owned businesses in new projects.

Duluth can further embrace the process of advancing racial equity in urban planning through projects that expand access to education, job training, and business development for historically disadvantaged residents as well as by establishing inclusive housing policies to address norms established through unfair lending practices and exclusionary zoning standards.


The Minnesota chapter of the American Planning Association’s Equity and Diversity Committee has called for planners to address the racist legacy of planning. This includes the evaluation of existing neighborhood structures and policies that grant deference to residents living in detached single-family housing over residents who live in apartment buildings.

Recent history and scholarship have shown how public spaces can be designed to be open, welcoming, and supportive of public actions — or how they can be designed in a way that perpetuates racism and oppression.

Calls from activists to “defund the police” highlight the need to invest in programs that support community residents alongside the critical support that first responders provide. Through transportation infrastructure, comprehensive plans, community development investments, and HUD funding, planners help allocate millions of dollars for the benefit of Duluth residents. We argue that these investments should be made with the stated goal of alleviating racial disparities and creating a socially just city. With this goal in mind, we will be working with boards, commissions, neighborhood groups, and other interested citizens to identify next steps and actively work to implement them.

We hope you will join us in this discussion.

Adam Pine is an associate professor of geography at the University of Minnesota Duluth. James Gittemeier is a member of the American Planning Association, including the Minnesota chapter, and works as a principal planner with the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council. Adam Fulton is deputy director of the Planning & Economic Development Department with the city of Duluth. And Jenn Reed Moses is a senior planner with the Planning & Development Division with the city of Duluth.

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