Cities have long been seen as symbols of opportunity—yet, historically, Black communities (and other marginalized groups) have been excluded from shaping them.
I began to contemplate this exclusion back when I lived in Toronto’s west end with four generations of women in my family.
On Sundays my grandmother coerced me into the kitchen for cooking lessons and unsolicited advice for “capturing a good man.” I mostly bit my tongue because the food and stories were exceptional. She mapped her personal narrative atop of the city’s grid: Kensington Market was her favourite place for haggling fish mongers into exhaustion; she sang in a small but jubilant Pentecostal church choir located in a strip mall; and she folded bed linens in a mercilessly hot hotel laundry in the city’s core. Although her stories were rooted in specific places, my grandmother didn’t have a sense of how the larger city worked nor the opportunity to shape its processes.
My grandmother did what Black women have historically done within the margins: she used what was available to create place for herself and those around her. From plantations to refugee camps, Black women have taken on a disproportionately large community-building role. This distinction arises from various matriarchal cultures that approach community building outside of Western gender norms. It can also be seen in the high number of single mother-led households, a long-term effect from colonial plantation policies, which prevented enslaved Black people from forming solid family units. These complex geopolitical realties continue to influence the ways in which Black women re-imagine space in cities.
Women planting food gardens instead of rose bushes in their front yards. Women transforming porches and stoops into neighbourhood hair-braiding stations. Women selling aromatic food in empty parking lots at the city’s neglected edges.
The sheer brilliance of these women and the spaces they created are rarely recognized within urbanism fields, which inform the way cities are developed and planned.
In the early part of my career in placemaking—which takes a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces—I remember excitedly referencing these women’s innovative examples of creating place. Time and again, I was dismissed. This seemed curious to me, because Black culture has made and continues to make a tremendous contribution to the character, prosperity and edge of contemporary cities. But I persisted, and over the years, I began to observe a positive shift to the embrace of an approach to urbanism that considers neighbourhood knowledge and social equity.
Today, I’m sitting at more tables with women and people from racialized backgrounds. A small, but growing number of these professionals actually look like me. And like me, they bring with them a deep respect for the ways our elders have created place within cities, as well as the insights they have shared for how to cultivate resilience and joy in the margins. However, we want to play a greater role in shaping our lives and the broader city around us. This isn’t a specific thing that is exclusive to Black women urbanists, rather it signals part of a larger movement of co-creating cities where everyone thrives.
From co-leading major architectural design projects to involving the wider community in shaping public spaces, here are six examples of Black women city-builders doing exceptional work.
Camille Mitchell is an architect based in Toronto
I grew up with a drafting board with a parallel bar and set squares in the house. My father immigrated to Canada from Trinidad as a trained draftsman. My mother maintained a meticulous home and was always aware of the latest trends in interior design. That made me aware of the construction and shaping of the built environment around me from an early age, and I quickly developed an interest in an array of DIY projects. Throughout school, I excelled with the visual arts and was strong in mathematics. I desired a career as an architect to bring all these interests together.
The challenge I continually face as an architect is perception. I do not align with society’s conception of an architect as an old white man in thick glasses. I sense some clients, consultants and contractors are slightly taken aback when I am introduced as the architect on a project. I also observe this reaction from members of the Black community when I tell them what I do for a living. Currently Black women only comprise of 0.3 percent of licensed architects in the United States [comparable figures are not available in Canada]. It’s extremely important to advocate the architecture profession to minority communities as a viable career path to shape perceptions for the next generation.
I have been a part of the design team of KPMB Architects since completing graduate studies at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture. KPMB Architects is one of Canada’s leading design studios with projects receiving national and international praise and recognition. My proudest achievement with the firm is the design of the New Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. It is an incredible feeling to walk through a building following six years of design iterations and construction. It is equally humbling and reaffirming to observe the reaction of first time visitors within the space that you helped shape.