The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 27, 2018

Racial segregation is a stubborn feature of our nation’s history, but it doesn’t have to be our future

February 27, 2018

In February, Urban Institute researchers writing on Urban Wire will explore racial disparities in housing and criminal justice and the structural barriers that continue to disadvantage the black population in the United States.

This Black History Month, communities across the country are having conversations about the pervasive and persistent influence of racial segregation on the quality of isolated neighborhoods and the opportunities these places are afforded.

In places like Louisville and Long Island, local media and community organizations are looking at historic and ongoing discrimination in housing. Other places, like Boston, are taking steps toward reversing the legacy of segregation through the release of a race-conscious planning strategy.

As conversations on this topic continue to come up across the country, how do we harness this momentum to plan and implement strategies for neighborhood investment that reverse a history of segregation, disinvestment, and exclusion?

A new paper released by the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty lays out a framework for race-conscious, regional strategies that remove historical and persistent barriers to opportunity in metropolitan regions nationwide. Using the ideas outlined in this paper, communities can make substantive progress toward reversing the legacy of segregation.

A history of separate and unequal regions

The need for race-conscious planning strategies is the result of a history of racist policies, plans, and practices that blocked black families from accessing opportunity-rich neighborhoods.

In the 20th century, redlining practices and racially restrictive covenants denied homeownership and leasing opportunities to black people in certain neighborhoods. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 enabled the construction of physical barriers that often separated black neighborhoods from economic opportunity and downtown areas.

Explicit forms of discrimination in housing are now unconstitutional, but subtle forms continue to create an unequal landscape. Exclusionary zoning policies bar low-income people from accessing opportunity-rich areas. Federal and local subsidized housing assistance is disproportionately built in neighborhoods that lack high-quality services. And as the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Discrimination Study showed, people of color looking for residence are told about fewer options than white people.

These historical and current policies exclude many families of color from high-quality neighborhoods and prevent black families from having the same chance for economic success as their white counterparts. Recent work in Chicago shows segregation stunts per capita income for black families. And high-income black households are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods with limited services compared with high-income white households.

Reversing the legacy of segregation

As our new paper outlines, regional planning solutions to overcoming place-based racial barriers that prevent mobility from poverty are key for reversing this history and the legacy of segregation. Our upcoming webinar will also discuss these solutions.

To increase the share of people of color who have access to opportunity-rich neighborhoods, regions should work across jurisdictional boundaries to revitalize distressed neighborhoods, preserve affordable housing in gentrifying areas, and provide residents mobility-enhancing vouchers. These mechanisms are not novel, but combining them at a regional level will allow stakeholders across jurisdictions to untangle the web of regional policies that created and exacerbate racial barriers.

Our paper outlines the process for a regional planning strategy led by diverse public- and private-sector stakeholders, such as community-based organizations, fair housing organizations, and business and civic leadership.

Once leadership is in place, the first step in understanding how racial barriers in housing and planning have created roadblocks to opportunity is to assess patterns of neighborhood disparities. From there, developing strategies that cut across policy domains and identifying funding programs that can be leveraged will create a foundation for success.

Regional strategies are nascent and daunting in many places, but some jurisdictions, like Boston, Chicago, and Seattle, have begun the table-setting work necessary for implementation.

Planning strategies must adopt an explicit focus on race

Place-conscious strategies to create and expand opportunity neighborhoods must explicitly confront and overcome racism and its pervasive influences. Boston’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s newly released racial equity agenda notes, “Race has been a key, if not the main, bias present in many of the policies that have produced the disparities identified in the Metro Boston region. Facing this history means that we must push forward changes that counteract past biases.”

An essential step toward confronting pervasive racist structures in regional planning strategies is to incorporate resident voices into planning and implementation. Without this, interventions could exacerbate disparities in power and access to resources that perpetuate othering.

Regions nationwide are beginning or continuing to have fruitful conversations about segregation’s effects on communities. But to move the needle on economic mobility and reverse the legacy of segregation in the United States, all regions must address racial barriers to opportunity-rich neighborhoods through coordinated, lasting interventions.

People spend time on a sidewalk in the Roseland neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois in June of 2014. Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images.


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.