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.
Habon Ali is an urban planner based in Toronto
My siblings and I grew up spending our long summer days in a tiny backyard in Toronto’s west end. Despite its size, we found a way to carve up the space into unique zones. One summer we set up a make-shift ant hospital in the north end of the yard, an open-air school house for dolls in the south and a high-speed transportation corridor (a rope swing) along the east!
I now realize that this ability to re-imagine space was the precursor to my career in urban planning. In 2009, I was selected to participate in a DiverseCity Fellowship organized by Civic Action. The program brings together 25 city builders and rising leaders from a range of sectors, and provides participants with opportunities to work on personal leadership goals while building a network of civic-minded peers.
During the fellowship I was introduced to a few individuals working in urban planning and development fields who also came from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Like most, I knew very little about urban planning as a profession, but was intrigued by some of the unique challenges these planners faced in their careers. Engaging communities that reflected their own ethnic backgrounds in formal planning processes seemed to be an ongoing issue. Ensuring that their work could also recognize and accommodate the unique cultural differences within these communities, while supporting broader city-building values, was also of great importance, but complex in application. As a Black, visible Muslim I was eager to learn more about their work.
Two years, and a master’s degree later, I found myself working in the industry. I’m motivated by the incredible energy of the people in this city. Toronto is a city of great potential and we are finding new ways of leveraging our city’s assets and talents. As we embrace new opportunities and continue to attract investment, I think we must focus on ensuring that all of our communities have the ability to benefit from this growth, so that we can work to address the gap in physical infrastructure and supports that are needed in underserved neighbourhoods.