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How Urban Planners Can Ditch Racist Practices and Support the Health of Black Neighborhoods

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How Urban Planners Can Ditch Racist Practices and Support the Health of Black Neighborhoods

Thrivance Group, a Black women-led group of urban planners, seeks to dismantle racism in urban planning and community development.

By Alexa Spencer

So often the Black community’s health is considered last by urban planners when making changes to their neighborhoods—but one group of Black women are working to put an end to this. 

While racist planning has caused Black people to suffer disproportionately from environmental hazards and have less access to health resources, Thrivance Group is seeking to bring justice into public policy, urban planning, and community development. 

The for-profit socially responsible planning firm recently hosted its third annual Unurbanist Assembly to imagine “spacial reparations,” or “what it would look like to prioritize joy, healing, and atonement” when building or further developing communities.

“In general, we recognize the harm of poverty and the disenfranchisement and how cities and municipalities and our federal government, in addition to corporate interest, have continued to actively disinvest, actively disenfranchise, actively exclude us—our communities—from their plans and that there health consequences to that,” speaker Kelli McIntyre said during a session on public health and spacial reparations. 

McIntyre, a planner at Thrivance, started the session by pointing to examples of built environmental harms in local communities. She used her current town of Philadelphia as an example.

In 2017, the city’s public transportation agency, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), made a plan to build a natural gas plant facility in Nicetown, a predominatly-Black neighborhood. While residents protested, they lost the legal battle and SEPTA went forward with its plan.

“From the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, we understand that Nicetown in Philadelphia has the second highest childhood asthma hospitalization rate in the city and also in terms of neighborhood communities, has the second highest rate of cancer mortality. Probably not a surprise, given that it’s zoned industrial two. It’s third in the city for mental health challenges and preventable cardiovascular disease. There’s some real health challenges that are connected to the use of the land,” McIntyre said in the virtual conversation.

Nicetown looks like countless Black neighborhoods around the nation. Over 1 million Black people live in counties within a half mile of oil and gas facilities, which puts us at risk for several health issues, including asthma and cancer. 

“The health impacts of that are on the shoulders of Black and brown children, elders, and a community that is already fighting for its life,” McIntyre said.

We are going to be doing a rollout of a public health focus later this year.


Thrivance, who’s vocal about its anti-racist approach to biking policy, also explored how bicycle codes, traffic policing, and inequitable transportation contribute to excessive fees, fines, and incarceration. 

In a previous project, the organization worked with a resident in Oakland, Calif. to preserve its biking culture through community-informed planning. Instead of placing bike lanes on the outside of the streets, together, they got them placed in the middle, where youth traditionally ride. 

Thrivance is currently partnering with the University of Texas at Austin and Transform to research and document “the extent of the damage that has been done to Black communities as a result of transportation decisions and actions.” 

Folks can expect more reparations-focused projects from the group very soon. 

“We are going to be doing a rollout of a public health focus later this year, and that will be what guides us through our work in 2023,” CEO Destiny Thomas, Ph.D., announced at the end of the assembly. 

In addition, “Thrivance Group, this fall, will be launching its 501c3 arm focused entirely on youth and young adults, and that will be called ‘Thrivance Legacy.’ So please keep an eye out for all of those updates and many more.”

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