Our Industry Needs to Move Forward on Racial Equity Now

Written by Eric Rothman
Our firm and our collaborators in sister disciplines have a shared responsibility to interrogate our roles in perpetuating racist systems in urban development. The Urban Land Institute (ULI), the oldest and largest network of cross-disciplinary real estate and land use experts in the world, should be a leader and collaborator in this effort – acknowledging our history and providing guidance for moving forward. This is especially true given the organization’s:

  • Reach – Founded in 1936, the most prestigious membership organization in the industry, today with 45,000 members, many active locally in District Councils and nationally in Product Councils;
  • Mission – “provid[ing] leadership in … sustaining thriving communities worldwide;” and
  • Influence – hired every year by scores of governments and land owners as consultants who, organized into Technical Advisory Panels (Urban Plan and Advisory Services), tackle local development problems and whose recommendations are frequently adopted.

Regrettably, ULI has not yet exercised any leadership on the issue of systemic racism in urban development or even turned the mirror on itself.
A case in point: ULI’s inadequate and disturbing message of last week entitled “Time for Change.” In contrast to the thoughtful notes of partner firms in fields that have long been White-led, struggling with their part to become anti-racist, ULI’s disappointing communication failed to name racial injustice as a specific plague, acknowledge our industry’s racist history, or commit to any concrete actions. Likewise, ULI’s most prestigious individual award, the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, is named for a developer and philanthropist who perfected the use of restrictive covenants. His tool was adopted by our federal government and financial institutions to establish and enforce redlining throughout the United States. Despite pressures, ULI has to date resisted renaming the prize, an obvious first step toward healing and redress in the industry.
HR&A and its employees have been members of ULI for at least 25 years. Along with several of my partners, I serve in leadership roles in ULI. We are building a coalition of allied firms that are committed not only to institutional change within our organizations but also to promoting anti-racism in the industry. Our coalition is starting with a call for change at ULI, which is both necessary for our industry and can secure a more sustainable future for ULI.
Our agenda for change at the Urban Land Institute includes:

  • First Steps Needed for Structural Change to Take Hold: Rename the J.C. Nichols Prize immediately, starting with the 2020 honoree. Prohibit programming that features panels comprised only of white men. Appoint a senior executive to lead a team responsible for racial equity, diversity and inclusion within ULI and its work.
  • Acknowledgment of the Role that ULI and its Members Have Played in Racial Injustice: Commit to meaningful self-examination, including requiring all District Council and Product Council leaders to attend Diversity & Inclusion / Racial Equity training. Expand the racial diversity of members and commit to increased diversity in the industry through targeted recruitment and scholarships.
  • Commitment to Concrete Actions to Achieve Systemic Change and a Timeline to Which ULI Will Hold Itself Accountable: Launch a Racial Equity initiative for research and best practices, funded at least on par with ULI’s Building Healthy Places, Urban Resilience, and Housing Centers initiatives. Strengthen outreach and assistance to communities of color through Urban Plan and Advisory Services, with the specific aim of redressing racial discrimination in urban development. Expand Urban Plan to be more than a primarily a volunteer-driven effort, for example by hiring Urban Plan fellows who can provide sustained outreach to schools in communities of color. Showcase more projects in Spring/Fall Meetings and Awards that are community-based and incorporate anti-displacement efforts.

Consistent with our A Just & Resilient Recovery Framework, our firm, our country and its cities remain in emergency response mode, but we must see this moment through to institutionalization of structural change. Indeed, if HR&A had institutionalized an approach to anti-racism earlier – had done more than have a vision for diversity; establish Employee Resource Groups for our Asian-American/Pacific Islander, Black, Queer and Women employees; and conduct Diversity, Equity & Inclusion training – the past few weeks could have been more healing and less traumatic for our firm. This is the very definition of resilience.
We recognize that our late embrace of anti-racism has implications beyond our firm doors; it extends to the cities that we have worked in. On this, our partner firms and ULI share responsibility. We need real leadership from ULI in this “time for change.” Without it, either the industry will remain stuck, fragile, and lacking in resilience; or we will move forward and leave ULI behind with its J.C. Nichols Prize, a monument to another time.