From LA Riots to #Trayvon: Urban Planning Did It

From LA Riots to #Trayvon: Urban Planning Did It


I can tell you exactly what I was doing twenty years ago on the day the streets of my city erupted in flames.  Twenty years from today, I will now also remember when I learned about Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenage boy, who was shot to death by George Zimmerman.

And I can also tell you that the linkage between these two tragedies, twenty years apart, is not solely race – it is the failure of urban planning.

The root causes of the riots in South Los Angeles and surrounding neighborhoods stem from poor urban planning.  A survey conducted by the McKinsey Company in 1992 found an oversupply of “gun shops, liquor stores, and funeral shops.” This was then exacerbated by an unemployment rate of 21% for the communities of Florence and Graham as reported by the Los Angeles Times.  Few would argue that these types of businesses lead to job creation; they instead are visual reminders of economic depression.

For Christina Sanchez, a longtime resident of South Los Angeles, she found this to be normal until she attended schools outside of her home and was then confronted with “a kaleidoscope of contradictions.”  This prompted her to study urban planning at the Kennedy School.  Maidel Luevano, currently with LA Commons, remembers going off to college in 1998 and wondering “why there were still visible remnants of the riots” in her community in the form of  “an inordinate amount of vacant lots from the 1992 unrest.”  In the case of Sanford, Florida, the failures of urban planning may not be as visually assaulting as in Los Angeles, but they are certainly present.

An editorial by Zach Youngerman of the Boston Globe points out that at the time Trayvon Martin was killed, he was walking in an area that is designed for driving.  Mr. Youngerman’s editorial also highlights the fact that less than 1.2 percent of the population in Sanford walks to work – thus, making walking seem “suspicious.”

Even in spaces where walking is common, the presence of males of color is rashly connected to crime.  Angelo Sandoval, who will be attending Princeton as a graduate student in August, recalls a tazering incident at UCLA in 2006 involving a student named Mostafa Tabatabainejad.  It reminded him “even within the bubble of higher education, males of color are still the fear inducing other.”

The presence of a male of color in an unfriendly pedestrian space is only one factor in urban planning’s failure.  The underlying subconscious behind the rise of gated-communities is also a culprit.  According to the Census Bureau, the United States saw a 53% growth in housing units created within gated communities between the years 2001-2009.  In an Op-Ed for the New York Times, Rich Benjamin, uses his research on predominantly White-occupied gated communities between 2007-2009 as evidence that the fear of the “other” is prevalent but unfounded, when juxtaposed with police department statistics.

Mr. Benjamin also finds that gated communities “churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders.”

Therein lies the problem: when residents are isolated from one another and instead influenced by fear and despair you end up with two tragedies … twenty years apart.

Are there reasons to believe that we can prevent these tragedies in the future? Lisette Covarrubias from the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment in Los Angeles remains hopeful while she acknowledges the challenges that continue to exist in her community of South Los Angeles.  She grew up near Florence and Normandie, the intersection in which the riots erupted, and today lives within close proximity. She remains hopeful because she sees “so much potential for community-centric, economic development.” But, she is also motivated by learning a common linkage between herself and other residents that came of age during the LA uprising. As a result, many are graduates of Masters degrees in Urban Planning.


  1. It's really sad that those who support Zimmerman need to result to trashing the reputation of not only a child but a dead child who's not here to defend himself..I guess these are the same people who believe everything that comes out in the media as long as it works in the favor of their opinion..These people who try and run Trayvon in the ground don't know anymore about him then they do Zimmerman on a personal level..They only know what they hear and take it as the truth..You people did not live or go to school with this boy so therefore you know nothing about what kind of kid he truly was.You simply take the tid bits from the media and run with them.I know absolutely nothing about Zimmerman beyond what we here then anyone else..I don't live with man..Therefore I can't attest to his character as some people think they can with both GZ and Trayvon.The only true and actual fact anyone knows about this situation is that an armed adult killed an unarmed kid..Just as it's very possible Trayvon swung first it's very possible he didn't.None Of you GZ supporters were there so all the things you say about Trayvon and how he started it are simply speculation..The only people who truly know what happened is GZ and Trayvon and he's not alive to tell his story..It amazes me that people in this country are still so gullible that they'll believe everything the media says..The very same media that uses things like this to boost the ratings..It saddens me that people would believe what they here from the very people who are trying to profit off a tragic situation and the grief of two familys!!



  2. Wow! REALLY? To assign blame for these two tragedies on the failures of urban planning is totally irresponsible. First of all, these tragedies are completely different in their very nature. One was the act of an individual. The other, the behavior of a community. Second, urban planning cannot serve to engineer society as the author presumes. The whole country is caulk full of poorly designed cities. By the author’s logic, we would have race riots every day throughout the US. Ridiculous!

  3. I've only watched Democracy Now for a couple of years, and used to live within the electronic hallucinations of corporate television. When Juan Gonzalez reported on a book illustrating the racist nature of our media, and that even the very first news-letter printed in America was racist in nature, I did not get it, not really…until after a couple of years of being exposed to the narratives of The Left – then things that were knocked loose started to settle in together, and I could see quite clearly – Charlie Manson isn't a psychotic killer to be feared, instead he is mentally ill, and needs help (which nobody will give him as long as they are scared of him).
    Another analogy, from the Vegan's out there, goes: Put an apple and a rabbit in a crib with a small child, if the child eats the rabbit and plays with the apple that will prove we are meat eaters. We all know we have been taught to eat animal products, it's not our "natural" food.
    We have all been taught to see people of color as something they are not.
    That we cannot see the injustice of the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina as their city leaders sought to grab the land from the poor to improve the property values of the adjacent properties, or that something we take for granted like Urban Planning has racist intent, just because we only see the good in business, is our failing.

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