Byron Nicholas, founder of Black + Urban blog, reflects on the power of urban planning to combat racism

Byron Nicholas.

A forward-thinking urban planner who is highly engaged with the field both professionally and outside the workplace, Byron Nicholas is committed to creating just, equitable communities.

Published February 23, 2021

Urban planning alumnus Byron Nicholas created Black + Urban as a safe space for Black urban planners, designers and forward thinkers to document practical and visionary solutions for the issues that plague Black urban spaces through the lens of research, experiences and case studies. In addition Nicholas works as the Supervising Transportation Planner with the Hudson County, New Jersey Office of Engineering.

Nicholas holds a Professional Planners License for the State of New Jersey (PP) and is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). He is currently the principal transportation planner for Hudson County, NJ, and works on federal and state funded transportation projects and studies. He also serves on his regional MPO’s Transportation Advisory Committee. Prior to this role, Byron worked in the Geometric Design unit of New York City Department of Transportation.

Here he shares his thoughts on the role of urban planning and design professionals in advancing racial justice, and how his pathway into the field and UB's MUP program has influenced his work.

First, tell us why you founded Black + Urban. What needs in the community are you hoping to address?

I launched Black + Urban in September 2018 to provide a space for people who don't usually have a platform to express their opinions, ideas, and solutions - particularly young and emerging planners hoping to inspire others to change their behavior and the physical places where they live.

Through Black + Urban, I also hope to change the perception of Black spaces. Some spaces are perceived as destitute and hopeless without understanding how they came to be. Black + Urban attempts to shed light on the creative techniques people in these spaces use to reshape and change them for the better.

Byron Nicholas on the founding of Black + Urban

I launched Black + Urban in September 2018 to provide a space for people who don't usually have a platform to express their opinions, ideas, and solutions - particularly young and emerging planners hoping to inspire others to change their behavior and the physical places where they live.

How do you view the role of designers, planners and architects in advancing racial justice in our communities?

First, designers, planners and architects have a responsibility to create and design spaces to advance racial justice by focusing on equity and inclusion. I do believe part of that emphasis should be placed on diversifying the grade school and higher education curricula. This early introduction to educate students about ethnically diverse historic and contemporary leaders in the design and planning profession would have profound effects on the planning and design profession.

The design and planning profession also need to be intentional about hiring non-white professionals to add greater cultural perspectives to their firms that would translate into greater quality work products and greater quality assurance from a cultural perspective.

Planning and design agencies and firms should also be intentional in their outreach to communicate with non-white communities and socially vulnerable communities before a project and during a project’s kickoff. Hard-to-reach populations tend to have limited access to broadband internet and limited time due to job obligations. The efforts to reach these populations are invaluable as their input would add a stronger positive outcome to your project.

How can the design and planning professions do a better job of centering the heterogeneous experiences of Black families in their work?

Design and planning professionals need to learn how to intentionally listen to people in the community, from community leaders to residents with everyday problems and provide solutions in their work products that shows consideration to those problems. You can only intentionally listen if you do intentional and effective outreach.

If you don’t have ties to the Black community in which your latest project is being done, hire a local liaison of color. This person can assist in the storytelling and placemaking of a community for qualitative and contextual data. The idea is to reward people for their time and to build trust and a greater understanding for the community they intend to serve.

For their edification, design and planning professionals are encouraged to read books and watch documentaries about racist and segregationist policies in the housing and transportation industries promulgated by federal U.S government and its affiliates and their adverse impacts to black communities and the built environment. But don’t stop there, I would encourage design and planning professionals to inform themselves about solutions that can change the outcome of these adverse impacts on communities of color, and implement equitable practices in their projects and workplace that would correct the wrongs of decades of racial and social injustice. 

When it comes to social justice reform, the Black community comes together to rightfully rally for change. We see and do this every time a Black person is killed and is broadcast on television. Sadly, we share this pain, on a psychological level just as we have shared a lot of pain in our history due to the unfair treatment simply based on our skin complexion. On a positive note, we share a lot of cultural values through mediums such as music, art and how we utilize public spaces. Design professionals should consider these mediums and other individual family nuclei and communal customs when planning and designing in and for cultural enclaves. It would provide greater positive impacts.

The African diaspora is widely diverse, and that can be seen in the ethnography of Black communities throughout the United States which also translates into the different cultural neighborhood enclaves within the Black community.  Therefore, placemaking in Black communities should take a context sensitive approach to customs and cultural values and their effects on the Black family nuclei. Black communities, in different regions of the U.S, have their own unique way of life which is reflective of our family values. An immigrant Ethiopian community in Washington D.C may culturally be different from a Caribbean community in Brooklyn, NY, which may be different from a southern Black community in Georgia.

As an Afro-Caribbean-American, I’m aware that open markets are used as social gathering spaces and they are vital to the success of Caribbean communities in the African diaspora. Art, music and dance are other means that can be utilized to design successful spaces for families. Design and planning professionals need to go deeper than the socio-economic demographics of a community and truly understand their cultural assets and bring that front and center to the design and planning of a project. 

What inspired you to become an urban planner - and now a writer?

The physical landscape of New York City was my first inspiration for planning. Growing up in southeastern Queens, NY, I grasped an early understanding of land use and transportation simply by commuting from the suburban section of Queens to the hyper-urban areas of Manhattan. I was fascinated by the complexities of express and local trains’ ability to transport people from one place to the next. Then I started to understand the history behind each neighborhood's demographics and the problems with racial inequity through transportation and housing. After obtaining my bachelor degree in Environmental Design at UB, I decided to pursue my Masters at UB and specialize in physical planning and urban design.

In 2017, I heard former APA president and current NYC parks commissioner Mitchell Silver speak at the New York City APA Diversity Workshop. He spoke of his challenges in the profession and advised us to write down our ideas as a first step to getting things done. There is no doubt that Mr. Silver inspired me to start writing my own ideas. In fact, Black + Urban is a product of his advice.

How has your experience at UB and in Buffalo shaped your work today?

As a professional transportation planner, I am always conscious of the disparities many Black and low-income communities face due to transportation inequality. My experience with the City of Buffalo as a real-life studio gave me the opportunity to think about cities multi-dimensionally. Buffalo has a unique history with so many different factors contributing to its social and physical design. Buffalo, however, is not unique to the transportation- and race-related dilemmas that once plagued cities all across the country. For example, the destruction of Humboldt Parkway is synonymous to the devastation that communities in the Bronx and Miami endured after federal transportation projects built highways through low-income African-American and Latino neighborhoods.