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.
5 of 6
Nike Onile is an interior design firm principal based in Toronto
At heart I’ve always been artistically inclined, although I grew up in a traditional African family where the arts were looked upon as more of a hobby than a career option. When I was just a little girl, I remember having early-morning family time where my father would share scriptures and stories with us—and while he did, I would always translate his words in to drawings. As I grew up and saw the beauty in living art forms, like the home and how we live, my medium changed from pencil, paint and paper to fabrics, furniture and lighting.
Within the design world, I’m often the only women of colour in the room. When I first started out, it was assumed that I was an assistant. I’ve trained myself to fight that awkward feeling of assuming that the stares meant others thought I had wandered into the room accidentally. Sometimes I also feel pressure (mostly from myself) to be exceptional. This is a heavy weight for anyone to carry, so I remain focused on the design process. I focus on inspiration and creativity because—irrespective of race—we are all moved by the same things: humanity, a sense of freedom and deep love. I try to find that with every client I work with, and translate that into their home.
One way that I do that is through The APT by 800 SQ FT—Canada’s first shoppable apartment, which I founded. It’s a pop-up of sorts where everything—from the furniture to the art on the walls to the clothes in the closet—are available to purchase. We were named one of Toronto’s top five shops to visit by BlogTO. You can also find me as a contributing design expert on CityTV’s Cityline.