[Essay originally written for CRP 2000, “The Promise and Pitfalls of Contemporary Planning” at Cornell University, taught by Professor Jennifer Minner, November 2019.]

In the modern-day profession, planners are in general agreement that the city should strive to meet the needs of all of its users, despite their backgrounds, experiences, or identities. Several bases of understanding are helpful in beginning work towards this goal of an inclusive, equitable city. First, as argued by Hou (2010), public space, and the use of public space, is a political issue — especially for those minority or marginalized populations who have had to fight for their right to the city. Second, understanding the harmful histories of planning and other historical policy processes is essential in the development of present and future practices. Third, Sandercock (1997) explains that, rather than shying away from “difference,” planners and the planning profession should actively seek out engagement with difference and with actors of difference, or, in other words, with minorities and marginalized communities.

The use of public space concerns the entire public — people of every race, gender, class, background, homeownership status, etc. However, the availability and use of public space is an especially important issue for those traditionally mistreated within private society, including the homeless and other marginalized groups. For these individuals, public space is not only important as a site of use for a number of essential activities, but it is also a political ground. A clear example is the urban progression of women’s liberation movements, in which women fought to escape the confines of private, domestic life and claim their “right to be actors in the public domain.” Once women broke their way into the urban public sphere, they announced their presence with the construction of women’s health centers, credit unions, feminist community centers, and other such additions to the built environment. Similarly, Spain (2014) explains the importance of public space within LGBTQ+ issues by asserting that “spatial concentration is fundamental to the development of gay identity,” evidenced in such historical public spaces as the Hudson pier in New York City. Indeed, the use of public space for cultural clustering and political development is another important theme within the literature. In Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla urbanism and the remaking of contemporary cities, for example, the author asserts that public space is “a vital resource for cultural survival and resiliency” within the Latino communities under study (Hou). Further, the piece discusses how the use and production of public space by marginalized communities makes possible “common understandings and collective action” within and between groups and communities (Hou). The piece mentions that the perception of public space is defined by the dichotomy of use value of the space versus the exchange value of the space — a conflict which is at the forefront of Ehrenfeucht and Louikatou-Sideris’ “The Irreconcilable Tension between Dwelling in Public and the Regulatory State”. Here, the authors consider public space as a site “where housed urban residents and visitors come into contact with homelessness,” encounters which have, over time, resulted in a suite of regulations that diminish the use value of public space (Ehrenfeucht and Louikatou-Sideris). The authors argue that public space should “function as a commons that allows urbanites to engage in activities consistent with their needs” (Ehrenfeucht and Louikatou-Sideris). An inclusive and equitable city would understand the political tension within public space and public space use, and would aim to ensure that every individual feels comfortable using public space and feels their needs are met within this “inclusive urban commons” (Ehrenfeucht and Louikatou-Sideris).

A second important lesson towards a more inclusive city is that such a city can only be effectively planned with mindfulness of past planning and governmental policies that have been harmful in effect, even if these policies are no longer practiced. Thomas (1998) argues that without this approach, modern planning and policy decisions function as a “double-edged sword,” in that they not only “oppress in the first instance, when events take place,” but they also “oppress in hindsight, when historians recall events” or when mistakes or malpractices are repeated. In the United States, these negative acts date back all the way to colonialism, in which Indigenous communities were viewed as “impediments to the goal of Western expansion” and faced harsh removal and acts of genocide, as well as destruction of knowledge systems and ties to the land “in the name of conquest and domination” (Jojola). Moving forward, planners and their tools such as zoning ordinances and land use laws functioned as “manifestations of antagonisms” that ultimately harmed marginalized groups in a number of ways (Hou). For example, in his discussion about segregation in St. Louis and Ferguson, Rothstein (2014) covers a chain of mutually reinforcing policies that collectively worked to the disadvantage of black citizens in the area. He describes zoning that “defined ghetto boundaries,” segregated public housing construction, restrictive covenants, suburban developments that were intended for white citizens only, “real estate and financial regulatory policy that promoted segregation,” denial of basic municipal services in black neighborhoods, urban renewal programs that displaced black residents from their communities, and other processes that manifest in negative multigenerational economic and social impacts for these black individuals and their families (Rothstein). Aside from racial segregation, planners have played a role in restricting women in the public sphere with “policies that attract industries with gender-segmented work forces to enterprise zones,” and have dictated heteronormative cities by creating “zoning policies that restrict cohabitation to only related individuals” (Sandercock and Forsyth). Understanding the historical mistreatment of certain communities and groups through planning practices can help planners better avoid such harmful systems in the future.

The struggle towards a city that “works” for everyone has increasingly necessitated recognition that different users have different needs within the city. This warrants the need to acknowledge “difference” as a general concept — perhaps even to bring this “difference” to the forefront of planning discourse and practice. Sandercock (1997) argues for the connection of planning theory with “debates around marginality, identity and difference, and social justice in the city — because these are debates which empower groups whose voices are not often heard by planners.” She asserts that only when planners begin to hear these voices will it become possible to “acknowledge our multiple identities,” take risks, embrace difference, and plan for difference in a manner which manifests itself in the multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, inclusive and equitable city (Sandercock).


Ehrenfeucht, R. and Anastasia Louikatou-Sideris (2014). The irreconcilable tension between dwelling in public and the regulatory state. In The informal American city. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jojola, T. (2013). Indigenous planning: towards a seven generations model.” In Natcher, D.C. et al. Reclaiming Indigenous Planning (pp. 457–472). McGill-Queens University Press.

Rios, M (2010). Claiming Latino space: cultural insurgency in the public realm. In Hou, J. (ed.)

Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla urbanism and the remaking of contemporary cities (pp. 99–110). Routledge.

Rothstein, R. (2014). The making of Ferguson. American Prospect.

Sandercock, L., & Forsyth, A. (1992). A gender agenda: New directions for planning theory. Journal of the American Planning Association, 58(1), 49–59.

Sandercock, L. (1997). Towards cosmopolis: Planning for multicultural cities. Academy Press. Chapter 5

Spain, D. (2014). Gender and Urban Space. Annual Review of Sociology, 40, 581–598.

Thomas, J.M. (1998). Racial inequality and empowerment: Necessary theoretical constructs for understanding US planning history. In Sandercock, L. (ed.) Making the invisible visible: A multicultural planning history (pp. 198–208). University of California Press.

Student at Cornell University — Urban and Regional Studies, Music, Policy Analysis and Management. Writer and violinist. Albuquerque, NM.