How Jay Pitter is amplifying Black voices in city-building
Black culture, Pitter says, played an integral role in shaping the "character, prosperity and swag" of cities. But it's often forgotten.
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The word "urbanism" often conjures up images of bike lanes or public transit. While those are very important, says Jay Pitter, this focus on shaping space overlooks a key dimension: people.
"What’s missing is very particular histories," she said.
Pitter, an author, placemaker and public engagement professional, has devoted much of her time lately to unearthing those histories — from the erasure of Indigenous Peoples in cities to the often-overlooked role of class, gender, age and ability.
Her most recent project, an episode of Spacing Radio called Pride and Place, focuses on Black urbanism. It's a topic she's been raising for decades. And though early in her career she felt alone in her calls, now she feels plenty of support.
"There is a growing movement and a growing desire for urbanists across lived experiences to embrace new approaches and to tell more nuanced and diverse stories about how we live in cities," she said.
Black culture, Pitter said, played an integral role in shaping the "character, prosperity and swag" of cities. But it's often forgotten, she said, pointing to Halifax, where enslaved African Canadians dug out the roads and built infrastructure. There's also Hogan's Alley in Vancouver, where a thriving Black community and Chinatown were bulldozed to make way for a highway.
Introducing the country, and the field of urbanism, to these stories can make for more inclusive cities in the future, Pitter said, adding it's important to understand how social issues are tied to place.
She points to housing vulnerability in Black communities, for example. Though racial inequalities are acknowledged in the present, the influence of the past is not. Government programs to develop land or build housing equity across generations were not available to many Black Canadians, she said.
That's partly why she wanted to highlight the voices of Black urbanists.
"We tend to come to this work with an additional insight, and also an additional dedication to making sure that the contemporary city and the future city are as inclusive as possible," she said.
This is "a new day" for urbanism, Pitter said, crediting her colleagues from all racial backgrounds for supporting her on this project and others.
In that spirit, the Council for Canadian Urbanism is launching a caucus devoted to inclusive urbanism, headed by Pitter and the organization's vice-president Kalen Anderson.
"If ideas about building our communities are only informed by select perspectives, the outcome will not be to build cities that serve all people well," Anderson said by email.
"Building inclusive and accessible places for people should be the goal, so all people need the ability to be authentically engaged and involved.”
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