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Decolonial planning in North America

An intersection in Kenora, Ontario Canada. From the documentary Colonization Road directed by Michelle St. John

Decolonizing planning requires that we take a long look at how planning’s project of making things better is and has always been subjective and rooted in exploitation. Our concepts of the public good and collective improvement are anchored in the history of colonial dispossession.

In North America, European ideas about property and land rights allowed for the expulsion of indigenous peoples in the name of progress — with enclosure and privatization going hand in hand with public investment. Founding mythologies such as Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman farmer and the sturdy pioneer turning wilderness into productive farms valorized “improvement” as defined by colonial frameworks of capitalism and justified the displacement of those who had not properly utilized land by these imported standards. Fences and wheat signified “worthy” improvement, while relational knowledge of place, season, and kinship were invisible. Although disavowed today, urban renewal and the wholescale demolition of working class communities of color in the name of progress relied on the same disregard for social value. In present day discussions about the importance of activating “underutilized” public parks, planning yet again fails to see what already exists there in the rush to make spaces attractive to outside interests.

The ease with which planners toss around terms such as “destination” and “world class” [fill in the blank] suggests we prioritize the tourist’s gaze and filling the investor’s pockets. This inability to recognize local meanings of place occurs even when there are no language barriers or cultural divides. Randolph Hester’s insightful study of the seaside town of Manteo, North Carolina revealed how townspeople knew that visitors would see the their “sacred places” only as ugly and ripe for redevelopment — a homely park, a gravel lot[1]. Most of these beloved places generated little economic profit, held no attraction for tourists, and no official “historic” value to be preserved. Not every park needs to be upgraded into an Instagram-worthy location. If we focus on making places appealing to outsiders, we run the risk of disregarding everyday needs and existing uses. The native peoples of North America did not benefit when the New World became a “destination” for entrepreneurial types.

Decolonizing planning requires radical restructuring of finance, government, and our relationship with for-profit ventures. The 2016 documentary film Colonization Road is named for the historical and still existing physical infrastructure that Canadian governments built to deliberately facilitate colonization of the interior by white settlers. American boosters for the 19th century speculative real estate boom relied on the publicly subsidized construction of the transcontinental railroads and the dispossession of indigenous peoples from their lands through sanctioned wars and federal laws such as the Homestead Act. Transportation infrastructure was built to speed the exploitation of resources and make land into subdivisions to be advertised and sold. Urban highway construction in the 20th century, now the object of planning disdain, accomplished the rise in property values that Transit Oriented Development advocates now offer as a sure benefit. Today, planners grumble about NIMBYs who reject every rail line and every bike lane. But residents who ask “who is this for?” are asking an essential question, especially when new infrastructure is touted as a spur to economic development.

Understanding planning through a historical and decolonial critique makes it evident that even if the designs have changed from car-centric sprawl to walkable New Urbanism, the logic remains the same. The logic of urban planning claims both the public good and private profit. Tools such as tax increment financing and density bonuses are intended to stitch together private property with public benefit. Whether it is antebellum era speculators vying for rail routes or 21st century cities scrambling for Amazon’s second headquarters, the definitions of public good are promoting financial schemes that profit a few.

If we confront the ways that colonization persists in planning’s conceptual frames, we stand a better chance of disentangling our field from the harms we have done in the name of progress. In order to escape from business as usual, we need to ground our matrix of value outside of extractive frames. In an article I wrote with Dr. Konia Freitas, an urban planner and director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, we wrote that the “dominant Western spatial imaginary defines control over land primarily as the power to exclude.”[2] A decolonial spatial imaginary would reject exclusion as the organizing principle. Decolonizing planning is essential for spatial justice — for public spaces open to all and housing accessible to the poorest.

I began to learn about Native Hawaiian relationships to aina (usually translated as “land”) in my studies in Honolulu. In Hawaii, a complex worldview and set of governing practices placed primacy on mutuality and livelihoods. It is far from my place to attempt to define aina , but for some insights we can look at works such as Dana Naone Hall’s Life of the Land or Jonathan Osorio’s I Ulu i Ka ʻāina [3]. As a newcomer to Hawai‘i, I found myself trying to merge planning systems with indigenous concepts, to see how I might fit into a web of relationships rather than a system of codes and finance. I learned a whole different approach to time and the rigid separation of past, present and future that is part of planning orthodoxy. “ I ka wā ma mua, i ka wā ma hope ” is a Native Hawaiian proverb that can be translated as “The future is in the past.” I’ve learned from the Ngāi Tūhoe’s insistence that treaty settlement with the government of New Zealand restores their stewardship of the Te Urewera region, but that Māori stewardship of land is much different from ownership of property and should not be described as ownership.

Decolonizing planning is not just a critical lens or a pointed metaphor. It is a project with practical aims. Decolonizing planning would reconstruct legal and regulatory regimes, redefine what we mean by “highest and best use.” It would make stewardship rather than ownership the most valuable relationship to land. It would foreground use rights and livelihoods, rather than enforce trespassing laws. I admit that I am not entirely sure how one goes about decolonizing a county planning department, but the head of Hawai‘i County’s planning department came to our Decolonizing Cities symposium in November 2018 and asked that very question. Planners at the Department of Hawaiian Homelands and in other community organizations are also figuring out how to sustain people’s connection to the ‘aina' by making operating expenses a self-generating fund that reinvests in local needs.

There is no need for the jet-setting urbanist flying from symposium to symposium to offer a list of ten things to decolonize your city. The process is necessarily site-specific. Who are the native peoples? What are their philosophies of land? What enabling laws or governing bodies must be created or changed to make that worldview part of planning? It might be something like the Te Aranga Design Principles adopted in Aotearoa/New Zealand, in which Māori cultural values set the parameters, process, and outcomes for urban design. This goes far beyond aesthetic elements to encompass relational obligations, physical access and cultural norms. Who has been harmed by Western conceptions of improvement and progress, and how can we make restitution to them today? If planning has blotted out native meanings in the past, then planners today need to make space for living and evolving native presence. Decolonization is a reckoning with past injustices, but it must go beyond “truth and reconciliation” apologia and should not fix indigenous cultures in stone, frozen in the past.

Decolonial planning is a path forward into reconfiguring planning institutions and logics so as to escape our field’s compulsion to prioritize property values over people’s needs. Decolonizing planning is both a desired outcome and a process for addressing planning’s dangerous tendency to impose a singular vision on the world around us.

Annette Koh is a lecturer in the department of urban and regional planning at Cal Poly Pomona. She co-organized the 2017 and 2018 Decolonizing Cities symposia at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

[1] Hester, R. T. Sacred Structures and Everyday Life: A Return to Manteo, South Carolina. In Dwelling, Seeing, and Designing: Toward a Phenomenological Ecology. SUNY Press, 1993.
[2] Koh, A., & Freitas, K. Is Honolulu a Hawaiian Place? Decolonizing Cities and the Redefinition of Spatial Legitimacy. Planning Theory & Practice, 19(2), 2018, 254–288.
[3] Hall, D. N. (2017). Life of the Land: Articulations of a Native Writer. Ai Pohaku Press. Osorio, J. K., 2013. I Ulu i Ka ʻāina. Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge.

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