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February 17, 2022

Urban Planning and Anti-Black Racism in Canada: reflections on the past as a way to promote a better future

Urban Planning and Anti-Black Racism in Canada: reflections on the past as a way to promote a better future
Historical events, such as the social hierarchization of racial groups, have not only centrally defined the experiences of many Black people in the last millennium through the justification of slave labor practices in the Western world, but the residual effects of such thought and institutional norms continue to negatively impact contemporary Black populations. The impacts of notable historical events, for instance the transatlantic slave trade, include not only the physical and social destruction of communities in African societies, but also the loss of identity among the enslaved populations.

While systems like the slave trade have long been abolished, the lasting effects of such practices can and have manifested in experiences of personal and group-level hardship and discrimination among descendants. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed and intensified some of these experiences, as Rubin-Miller et al. (2020) point out: despite being at increased risk of exposure to the virus, racialized communities face higher rates of infection, hospitalization, and death.

The concept of “Anti-Black Racism,” which was first expressed by Dr. Akua Benjamin, a Ryerson University social work professor, refers to policies and practices rooted in Canadian institutions such as education, health care, and justice that mirror and reinforce beliefs, prejudice, stereotyping and/or discrimination towards Black people. More pointedly, this concept seeks to highlight the unique nature of systemic racism, history, and experiences of slavery and colonization of Black people in Canada (Black Health Alliance, 2018).

In the past, land-use zoning was adopted by policymakers to perpetuate urban inequality and racism in North American societies. This planning practice, which has been well-documented to have been applied discriminately, facilitated institutional and structural inequalities, and divided different groups in societies. An illustrative example of this systemic inequality in modern urban planning practice may be seen in the issue of environmental racism. Environmental racism refers to environmental policies, practices and/or directives that, intentionally or unintentionally, disproportionately negatively impact disadvantaged groups (Bullard, 2002) typically resulting in their disparate exposure to risky or unsafe environmental conditions (e.g., ambient noxious air pollution, local resource contamination or depletion, etc.).

Such racialized planning practices have been historically noted in several Canadian societies, with perhaps the most infamous being Nova Scotia’s Africville and Lincolnville. In Africville, in addition to the lack of provisions that ensured basic services such as proper sewage management, access to clean water, and garbage disposal, the City of Halifax legislated the construction of undesirable developments in and around the community. Such developments included infectious disease hospitals, a fertilizer plant, a prison, and an open-pit dump (Canadian Museum for Human Rights, 2022). In the years after their construction, the high-density presence and impact of these properties and facilities, as well as the subsequent forced resettlement, significantly contributed to the destruction of the economic and social development of those in the community. The land on which Africville stood remains a site of contestation and commemoration (Nelson, 2000).

More recently, urban renewal projects are an illuminating example of modern urban planning practice that can and has negatively shaped the experiences of Black people and communities. In Toronto, for example, the process of gentrification and the development of the new Crosstown transit line have been identified as leading factors responsible for the loss of several businesses and residents in Little Jamaica, a distinct community for African-Caribbean immigrants on and around Eglinton Avenue West between the Allen Expressway and Keele Street (Vincent, 2021).

The displacement of Black communities raises issues of equity, socio-spatial justice, and the right to the city. The inequities presented through gentrification, as well as the accessibility to these gentrified neighborhoods and spaces, may be better understood through the lens of human rights, and a collective right to the city (Munoz, 2018). Black people’s right to the city, as well as the opportunity to participate and contribute to a broader and collective notion of the city, begins by being able to live in the city (Munoz, 2018). Furthermore, injudicious urban planning practices that perpetuate these forms of socio-environmental fractures can threaten public health, compound existing inequalities and vulnerabilities faced by racialized groups (including poverty, food insecurity and poor access to healthcare), and lead to disinvestment in such communities (Waldron, 2020).

Although systemic racialized urban practices have negatively impacted the experiences of Black lives in the past, the lessons from the examples detailed here can outline positive strategies for the future. In 2020, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) acknowledged its role in funding the forced resettlement of Black communities in Africville, Halifax, and in Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver (CMHC, 2020). Recognition of past wrongdoings is an important step in engaging in critical conversations that facilitate reparations. Additionally, current planning practices in North America should continue to encourage discussions between planning experts and the public, especially those from minority and racialized backgrounds. This offers an opportunity for Black people and communities to tell their stories, experiences, and truths. Such a practice, undertaken meaningfully, enhances the efficacy of planning outcomes and supports equitable policy decisions, thereby potentially impacting the experiences of Black people positively.

While these larger-scale institutional changes are being made to reduce the impacts of systemic racism, it is still important for local Black populations to voice their opinions and concerns in community deliberations and legislative matters so as to avoid planning practices that simply tokenize their inputs. The fight and struggle for equity, justice, and the right to the city is therefore one that continues to push for greater inclusion of all voices and perspectives in formal planning processes.

Black Health Alliance. (2018). “Anti-Black Racism”. Black Health Alliance. Retrieved: (accessed February 10, 2022)

Bullard, R., D. (2002). “Confronting Environmental Racism in the 21st Century.” Global Dialogue: The

Dialogue of Civilization, 4: 34–48.

CMHC. (2020). “Our Commitment: #BlackLivesMatter”. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation Media Newsroom. Retrieved from: https://www.cmhc (accessed February 12, 2022)

McRae, M. (2022). “The Story of Africville”. Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Retrieved from: (accessed February 11, 2022).

Munoz, S. (2018). ‘Urban Precarity and Home: There Is No “Right to the City.”’ Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 108(2), 370–379.

Nelson, J. (2000). The Space of Africville: Creating, Regulating and Remembering the Urban ‘Slum’. Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 15(2), 163-185. doi:10.1017/S0829320100006402

Rubin-Miller, L., Alban, C., Artiga, S., and Sullivan, S. (2020). “COVID-19 Racial Disparities in Testing, Infection, Hospitalization, and Death: Analysis of Epic Patient Data.” Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved from: (accessed February 12, 2022)

Vincent, D. (2021). “Urban renewal has displaced Black communities in Canada in the past. Can getting involved early in the planning stop it from happening again?” Toronto Star. Retrieved from: (accessed February 11, 2022).

Waldron, I. (2020). “Environmental Racism in Canada”. Canada Commission for UNESCO.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Robert Arku

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