The ongoing First Amendment demonstrations and calls for racial justice have caused OP to reflect on our longstanding work around equity and racial justice, which goes back well over a decade. Our more recent efforts include the Comprehensive Plan equity crosswalk, Mayor Bowser’s housing equity work, health and food equity, internal racial equity training, hiring a nationally-recognized equity expert, and applying an equity lens to each of our planning efforts. But we also know that we have more to do, and to be successful, we need to work differently.
Working differently means grappling honestly with the past. We recognize our city and the practice of planning have inherited approaches that were built around systems of racism. Not only was our city run by segregationists through the mid-twentieth century, but the planning profession itself is implicated in furthering racism, often even by “enlightened professionals.” Assumptions, “best practices,” inherited wisdom, and laws or regulations come from a default white (heterosexual, cisgender, upper/middle class, male, able-bodied) perspective.
While DC has made a lot of progress, our residents continue to experience the effects of this historic segregation. Today, Wards 7 and 8 are over 90% Black, while the District average is 47%. This segregation has been a root cause for many of the disparate outcomes residents continue to experience. White households in DC have a net worth 81 times greater than Black households. 55% of Ward 8 residents are housing cost-burdened, paying more than 30% of their monthly income toward housing costs, compared to 31% of residents in Ward 3. And the gaps are more than economic, there is one grocery store per nearly 40,000 residents in Ward 7, compared to 5 grocery stores per 40,000 residents in nearby Ward 6. These various inequities lead to significant health disparities, where Ward 8 residents have a life expectancy that is 15 years less than Ward 3 residents.
An example of grappling with the past and how it affects our outcomes today is the Mayor’s Housing for Equity and Growth report examined the explicit and implicit racism that underlined many past housing policies, which continue to play out in disparities we see in the District today. This work and the ongoing conversations speak to ways that we can begin to address these systems and right historic wrongs.
Working differently means ensuring our engagement overcomes decades of exclusion to public processes. When we began updating the Comprehensive Plan, we made this a top priority. We heard feedback from over 10,000 residents across the District through all sorts of channels as we had the intention of “better meeting residents where they are.” This outreach helped ensure that the Comp Plan update was broadly reflective of issues faced by various DC residents and communities.
Working differently means grappling with how our public and shared spaces must be designed and operated to be spaces for everyone. The planning profession has lots of shared wisdom about public spaces and the public realm but very little is from the experience of a person of color or a person experiencing homelessness or a person with mental or physical limitations. We must probe inherited assumptions and ask whether our designs and signage are intentionally or unintentionally exclusionary.
Working differently means we will consider not only the intentions, but the implications, of our inherited wisdom and work to ensure we dismantle the implicit and multi-generational barriers based on race, gender, sexual identity, class, and physical abilities and mental abilities, among others. We will continue to interrogate our past and present practices, surface where they are problematic, and determine how to change them across many systems and issues.
Director, DC Office of Planning