Dismantling the White Definition of Walkability

Dismantling the White Definition of Walkability

In 2020, many White Americans are awakening to the enduring reality of structural, anti-Black racism in the United States. Some are seeking to become “allies”—a call for White people to display racial solidarity—by educating themselves and engaging in the fight for racial justice. Others are unsure of where or even how to begin. One mistake many new allies can make is putting “racial justice work” in a box, separating it from the other facets of their lives. A White-centric perspective has embedded itself in every component of American daily life. Walkability advocacy is no different.

This is evident in the very definition of walkability. Ask any White transportation planner, researcher, or advocate what makes a city walkable, and it’s more than likely you’ll get a similar answer: the built  environment. Research supports the idea that the built environment can strongly affect our perceptions of a  place, and thus our behavior. But walking is also deeply personal, political, social, and cultural. Our experience of walking through public space is determined just as much by our identities as by a space itself. Black people walking are twice as likely to be hit by a car (Streetsblog 2017). They are more likely to be stopped, ticketed, and searched by police (U.S. DOJ 2018). They face frequent harassment by White road users, who sometimes deem them “not to belong,” even in their own neighborhoods (Elijah Anderson, The Guardian, 2018).

One can build the “perfect” street, but failing to address the deeply unjust social systems that design, implement, and govern those streets, renders walking a luxury enjoyed by some; not the deeply human right it must be for all. These entrenched systems cannot be toppled overnight. The first step that advocates can take in the long journey of walkability reform is to abandon the internalized bias that there is only one true form of walkability, and that it is some version of, for example, Copenhagen. The obvious flaw in that definition is that Denmark is a majority-White homogeneous society. Broadening the idea of walkability requires recognizing that no two people experience public space in the exact same way. It also means that approaches to promoting walkability must center on diversity, equity, and inclusion, just as much as they center on wider sidewalks and lower speed limits. If you’re a White walkability advocate, and all of your ideas about walkability come from other White walkability advocates, consider who will feel safe and comfortable in the public realm you design and who might not.

In my own work as a White walkability advocate, I am taking all of my cues from people of color, in particular Black women. In practice, this sometimes requires that I abandon solutions that make sense for me and my experience, and take a step back when I think I might have the answer. Undertaking the internal work of uprooting White supremacy from my own neural wiring means constantly questioning my own judgment. The truth is that I will never be able to devise solutions that incorporate all perspectives. As part of that commitment, I am recognizing when my perspective is valuable, and when it is not, never assuming I have all the answers; that Black voices should be at the center of each and every transportation policy decision; that I will intentionally be aware of who I am drawing inspiration from and who I am listening to. With these commitments top of mind, I’m going to get to work and be a better advocate.

Lily Linke just completed her Master’s in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. Her thesis, a podcast on walkability and race, will be released on September 8. footnotespod.com

This article was featured in WalkBoston’s August/September 2020 newsletter.
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