To truly reclaim streets for people and make them safe and accessible for all, we need to address what that means in terms of culture, class, race, identity, and community.
On November 13, 2016, more than 130 leaders gathered in Atlanta for The Untokening: A Convening for Just and Accessible Streets and Communities.
For too long, dominant narratives in mobility advocacy have drawn from the experiences of the most privileged. In advocacy spaces, questions of equity are often treated as an afterthought or sidebar. Advocates “from diverse backgrounds” are often invited to the table to speak on behalf of an “underserved” population. While our own personal experiences or those of the people we represent are generally welcomed as anecdotal insight or emotional touchstones, that input is often set aside if it challenges the mainstream agenda.
The first Untokening gathering brought together leaders of color and advocates whose voices have been marginalized to create new visions for mobility advocacy.
Held immediately following the Facing Race conference in Atlanta, the Untokening centered intersectionality and, through collaboration that embraces our expertise and the expertise of our communities, took the first step in creating a series of equity statements on critical issues, like gentrification and community engagement.
At a moment when city populations are swelling and communities of color in cities are treated as final frontiers to be conquered, we need to be asking ourselves what constitutes a genuine "improvement." Who benefits and who loses when communities are "re-imagined" and "re-vitalized" through efforts to “place-make?” How do the current approaches to livability and mobility, focused largely on physical infrastructure, potentially facilitate the social, cultural, and, eventual, physical displacement of already marginalized residents?
Unfortunately, in existing mobility spaces — including biking and walking advocacy — there is little room to have these conversations.
Too often the language of livability and mobility is unsettlingly sterilized (devoid of any reference to race, class, gender identity, historical context), optimistic (punctuated with exclamation points and implemented with polka dots), and based in the assumption that everyone already has equal access to the streets. Instead of explicitly acknowledging the historic reasons for existing social injustices and racial disparities in American communities, “streets for all” or “livability for all” statements are used, which fail to create space for critical analysis that yields solutions to the systemic problems we face today.
Encouraging biking and walking through investments in better infrastructure has become a vital part of the process of "building community" and "reclaiming" a neighborhood and its streets "for people." But which people?
We need space to dialogue on how to dismantle the barriers to mobility created by decades of disinvestment, suppressive policing, and discriminatory planning policies in lower-income and communities of color.
We need space to discuss the extent to which access to education, opportunity, affordable housing, and supportive services can impact mobility.
We need space to map out the extent to which the socio-economic and cultural landscapes of our communities are inextricably intertwined with the physical ones, to explore the impact of context and identity on a person’s ability to move through space safely, securely, and unhindered, and to generate more comprehensive solutions that address these more complex realities.
The stories we tell about how we move around our cities and the policies we create to facilitate our ability to do so must reflect a wider range of experiences and realities as well as a more diverse set of visions for the future. The Untokening aims to create this space and construct new narratives about just and accessible streets and communities.
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Photos by Argenis Apolinario