Ted Rutland on “Displacing Blackness”

Written by Ted Rutland, Associate Professor, Concordia University
Displacing Blackness was published by University of Toronto Press in 2018

Modern urban planning has long promised to improve the quality of human life. We all know, however, that this promise has not always been fulfilled and that, indeed, planning has inflicted great harm on certain communities. These negative consequences, when they occur, are usually attributed to countervailing planning logics, especially the profit-seeking motives of economic actors and political elites. These motives, it is claimed, deflect planning from its true mission, diminishing its capacity to protect and improve human life. But what if these consequences, rather than a departure from a life-improving mission, are a result of the latter? What if there is something perverse and oppressive about the way that planning, along with modern society in general, has defined the human being?

Displacing Blackness tracks planning’s efforts to create a better life over a century of history in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In doing so, it draws inspiration from the long history of Black struggle against urban planning in Halifax, as well as an expanding line of Black scholarship that interrogates the racial limits of modern/Western conceptions of the “human.” The planning projects the book examines are diverse, each expressing the dominant social and planning logics of its time. A social housing project in the early 1900s sought to improve the moral and physical health of working-class residents. A downtown plan in the 1960s aimed to create greater urban enjoyment and draw educated individuals to live and work in the city. A regional plan in the early 2000s sought to curb the ecological and economic costs of urban sprawl. In all of these cases, planning sought to create a better form of life according to period-specific definitions of human flourishing.

These efforts to improve human life, the book shows, have gone hand-in-hand with various forms of physical displacement, political exclusion, sanctioned exposure to dangerous living conditions, imposed impediments to good health or welfare, and enforced restrictions on people’s movement and daily activities. In some cases, effects like these are traceable to the exemption of certain lives from the sphere of planning’s concerns. Certain lives were simply not included in the conception of the human that planning espoused. In other cases, negative effects are more intimately connected to the operation of modern planning. Here, it is precisely through targeted degradation and subjugation that planning seeks to promote a better form of life, either for the broader population or for the adversely affected residents themselves.

Though many groups have, at one time or another, been evicted from planning’s conception of a viable life, the contours of the human have been written most clearly and indelibly in the font of race. From the late nineteenth century to the present, evolving conceptions of race have shaped the meaning of the “life” that planning has sought to secure and nurture, and have contributed to planning outcomes that are racialized in both self-evident and surreptitious ways. Consistent with the work of Black scholars like Saidiya Hartman, Sylvia Wynter, Rinaldo Walcott, and Katherine McKittrick, dominant conceptions of the human have found their footing on the edges of blackness. Blackness, that is, has been placed outside the domain of the human, forming the edges of the life that modern planning ultimately seeks to nurture.

The result, in Halifax, is that the city’s significant and long-standing Black population – descendants, for the most part, of people enslaved in Nova Scotia or the United States – has experienced modern planning as an unyielding source of imperilment and plunder. The development of a better form of planning, therefore, requires that the racial limits of its seemingly benevolent mission be acknowledged, and that Black lives, rather than being displaced, be planted at the centre of contemporary efforts to create better cities and better urban lives. The long history of Black struggle against planning, partially documented in Displacing Blackness and other Black histories, provides a glimpse of what planning could become to the extent that city dwellers are willing to abandon the false promises of the past and create something entirely different – and better – than what planning has thus far bequeathed.

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