A 70-unit housing development on a 2.6-acre lot in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, became the site of an acute struggle in 2021 when I.B.I.D. Associates, the multi-million-dollar corporation that owns the property, announced it would sell the property instead of renewing its affordable housing contract with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. The decision meant displacement for the residents of the University City Townhomes, one of the last remaining majority African American–occupied affordable housing developments in the University City neighborhood.
An ad-hoc campaign to save the townhomes brought together a diverse coalition, including the housing justice group Philadelphia Housing Action and local chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, and ACT UP, among others. Thanks to their work, the Philadelphia City Council placed an initial demolition moratorium on the townhomes in March 2022. After a brief legal fight, in April 2023, the property’s owners and developers agreed to transfer 20% of the lot to the City of Philadelphia to be developed as 74 units of affordable housing. Residents forced to leave also received $50,000 each in compensation out of the settlement. Some of those residents have said they plan to return and live in the new affordable units once they are built.
The struggle to save the UC Townhomes revealed to many something marginalized urbanites already know too well—today, cities are being planned and developed to serve the interests of elites and big corporations rather than the communities that call them home.
“Planners are, ideally, meant to serve the public and the public good,” says Anna Kramer, a professor of urban planning at McGill University in Montreal. “But, in reality, planning is incredibly compromised. It’s subject to neoliberal pressures to increase profits and continue capital accumulation, and planners struggle with these contradictions in practice.”
There was nothing in Philadelphia’s zoning ordinance to prevent the transformation of the UC Townhomes from an island haven of affordable housing for Black families into a high-end housing development or a new research complex. Quite the opposite, the move is just the latest in a long series that has remade a historically Black neighborhood once known as Black Bottom into today’s University City—a gentrified zone known for its moneyed academic and medical institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and the University City Science Center.
These institutions spurred the redevelopment of Black Bottom in the mid-20th century as part of a nationwide government-backed process dubbed “urban renewal.” Beginning with the Housing Act of 1949, the federal government provided funds for cities to raze “blighted” or “slum” neighborhoods. While the ostensible goal was improving housing (and the Housing Act provided funds for constructing new low-rent public housing, too), local governments and planning agencies in many cities seized properties through eminent domain, cleared existing homes, and then handed over the lots to private developers to stimulate commercial and industrial growth.
In 1960s Philadelphia, over 800 families were displaced to make way for University City redevelopment projects; about two-thirds of those uprooted were families of color. Officials of the City Planning Council argued redevelopment would create needed jobs and raise living standards. Reporters for The Daily Pennsylvanian captured a different feeling among residents in a January 1967 article: “To … the soon-to-be-displaced families, urban renewal means that giant, impersonal institutions like the University of Pennsylvania are devouring small homeowners, spreading segregation and prolonging social inequities.” During this period, the writer James Baldwin helped popularize the phrase “Negro removal” to describe urban renewal schemes. More recently, ongoing for-profit development in University City has earned itself another telling nickname—“Penn-trification.”
The fact that the adverse outcomes of planning and design decisions are shouldered disproportionately by already marginalized groups, including poor communities and communities of color, is not an unintended side effect, says Álvaro Sevilla-Buitrago, a professor of planning history and theory at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid in Spain. “This is not the dark side of planning,” he says. “This is planning. This is how planning has been practiced for a long, long time.”
When Sevilla-Buitrago says this has been happening for a long time, he means for more than two centuries, which is how far back his book, Against the Commons: A Radical History of Urban Planning, traces the phenomenon of profit-driven planning meant to disrupt marginalized and working-class communities. Sevilla-Buitrago writes that those communities are not just points on a map but also spaces that produce and foster unique cultural practices, knowledge, and social values that help them sustain themselves. When authorities plan in ways that are hostile to the development or maintenance of working-class spaces, they disrupt those powerful grassroots social relations.
Since the era of slum clearance and urban renewal schemes, urban planning and design have developed subtler tactics to disrupt communities and the relationships fostered in shared spaces. One example is “defensive urban design,” a practice that uses elements of the built environment to guide the behavior of people using the space. Cara Chellew, a researcher at McGill University, founded #defensiveTO to map defensive design elements across Toronto. Typical examples include benches with armrests in the middle that make lying on them impossible and ledges with embedded spikes to prevent loitering or skateboarding. Other times, defensive design means eliminating amenities, like removing greenery, shade structures, or picnic tables from a park to prevent people from gathering.
Defensive design, part of what’s known as the “crime prevention through environmental design” philosophy, is supposed to make cities safer. But as with earlier planning interventions, it has a hard time shaking accusations of anti-Blackness or other discrimination. “It targets people who use public space the most … and anyone who is a nonconsuming member of the public,” says Chellew. This includes unhoused folks, young people, and those with disabilities—or gig workers, like rideshare drivers, who are more likely to need access to amenities like seating or bathrooms when in public. Ultimately, Chellew says, “making spaces more hostile or more unpleasant for some groups makes public space more hostile for all.”
While urban design and planning have long histories of targeting vulnerable groups and exacerbating social inequalities to serve the interests of those at the top, Sevilla-Buitrago argues there’s another way forward for the planning profession and the people it is meant to serve. “We should not think of planning as an institution that is petrified and not going to change,” he says. “It is a battlefield, urbanization is a battlefield—it’s a crucial site of struggle because a lot of important resources for the organization of everyday life revolve around space.”
Campaigns like the one to save the UC Townhomes in West Philadelphia are hard-fought but offer a glimpse into an alternative world where cities are planned to serve those who inhabit them. An earlier campaign of self-organized housing takeovers and encampment protests in Philadelphia also resulted in a 2020 agreement that the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) would relinquish dozens of vacant homes to the Philadelphia Community Land Trust (PCLT), founded for the purpose. Jennifer Bennetch, who led the Occupy PHA campaign and founded PCLT, framed it as a tool to “stabilize our communities and combat the displacement caused by market rate development and gentrification.” Families moved into the first PCLT homes in December 2021.
Organizers in Oakland had a similar win in 2020 when a campaign led by Moms 4 Housing succeeded in forcing a real estate firm to sell an empty home to the Oakland Community Land Trust after four moms and their kids illegally occupied it and deputies from the county sheriff’s office violently evicted them. The real estate firm also agreed to give the land trust first right to purchase future Oakland properties the firm buys, creating a pipeline to new homes for the trust, whose mission is to expand and preserve housing and economic development opportunities for communities of color.
In Philadelphia, Sterling Johnson, an organizer with Philadelphia Housing Action, says the PLCT will be led in part by “people who have experienced housing insecurity and homelessness or have experienced violence.” Both Johnson and Sevilla-Buitrago emphasize these communities have intrinsic knowledge needed to plan their cities. “They are planners,” says Sevilla-Buitrago. “They may lack the technical knowledge, but they have the most important knowledge and the capacity to make their communities flourish.”
“Especially when it comes to mothers and children,” says Johnson, “they are constantly thinking about things like ‘How far away are we from the nearest places to get food or meet with other families? Where is a cool place for hot days, and where is a warm place for cool days? Where is the school, and is everybody getting along at school? Where are kids supposed to play together so they stay out of trouble?’ These things are all theories around public space—they’re urban planning decisions.”
Professional planners still have a vital role to play in reorienting urban space to better serve the people. “There is a lot of scope within the job to connect to populations that are marginalized, bring their voices into planning, bring their demands, keep pressing the city to be accountable to everyone, and resist the pressure of developers, landowners, and homeowners who are trying to control how cities are planned,” says Kramer.
Johnson says these are the connections and momentum they are building in Philadelphia. “With disruptions like ours, we always hope that they are inspirational for others to start their own,” they say. “Thinking long-term, it’s about building infrastructure.”
Marianne Dhenin is a YES! Media contributing writer. She covers social and environmental justice and politics.