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.
Anthonia Ogundele is a facility and environmental sustainability manager based in Vancouver
I work in sustainability and emergency planning. There’s a misconception that sustainability and urban resilience is only of interest to white people. This idea is also reinforced in the Black community. It renders me, and people like me, invisible in professional spaces. At conferences, I’m always mistaken for an international student.
Aside from this common misunderstanding, I enjoy my work. I thrive off of collaboration and creativity. If any of the work or projects that I am doing does not build the capacity of others, my joy is lost.
A project that exemplifies these values involves work I’m doing with the Black community here in Vancouver to honour the legacy of the displaced community of Hogan’s Alley. I’m working with a group encouraging the city to develop a framework of community land stewardship and a cultural centre.
Another project I’ve worked on that is really underpinned by collaboration and capacity building is taking an abandoned storefront/closet and repurposing it to be a community art space called The Cheeky Proletariat with my husband and partner. We have committed to use the space to daylight Blackness and provide access to affordable space for new artists.
Through these and other projects, I hope to foster the creation of spaces that allow everyone to be their true authentic selves without reproach. I want to be able to laugh as loud as I want, cry as much as I want and artistically express myself without bounds.