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Zoned Out Thoughts

Intro to Systems Change & Visualization

Jhoni-Ada (Ofonime)

As the spirit of spring begins to awaken from her slumber, it is only natural that we experience growing pains and change in our work and in our lives. In many cities, like the city of Bridgeport, that change takes the form of zoning.


 Zoning has been the way that our cities and towns specify the uses of real estate. This has been an instrument primarily used in city planning-- however, its effects are far and wide.  Zoning dictates the sizes and shapes of buildings. In many communities, zoning can protect property values, prevent overcrowding, and invite developers. 


Some good things come out of zoning. For example, it is through this tool, that neighborhoods are able to have protected green spaces, parks, and forests for public use and enjoyment. Unfortunately, happily-ever-afters do not exist in the conversation of zoning, primarily because it was established on some pretty racist ideologies. 


A Lil’ bit of History 

It began with the in-migration of African Americans to the south. Beginning in 1910, southern and border states and cities passed laws that mandated residential segregation in housing. Most Southern supreme courts upheld these regulations until the Buchanan Court “unanimously invalidated a Louisville residential segregation law as a deprivation of liberty and property without due process of law” (Miller). The argument in question was the civil right of a white man to dispose of his property to a white person or a person of color and vice versa. Justice William R. Day wrote that “citizens of the United States had the right to purchase property and enjoy and use the same without laws discriminating against them solely on account of color” (Miller).

Great! Right? The courts ruled that state-backed discrimination policies preventing African Americans from purchasing properties in white neighborhoods were unconstitutional!  Yes, although it was a pretty amazing and historic ruling, happily-ever-afters do not exist in this conversation of zoning.

Following this ruling, cities went harder. They enacted regulations that did nothing but continue perpetuating racial and economic segregation (Kingsella). A government-sponsored organization created from the “New Deal” called Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC ) created “Residential Security” maps (Mitchell). These were the first redlining maps. These federal maps solidified segregation. “Neighborhoods considered high risk or “Hazardous” were often “redlined” by lending institutions, denying them access to capital investment which could improve the housing and economic opportunity of residents” (Mitchell). These practices still continue today. 


My Three Cents

I’ve always been fascinated with American history, but not from a place of nationalistic pride and patriotism. I look at American history from the lens of Sydney J. Harris’s quote: “History repeats itself, but in such cunning disguise that we never detect the resemblance until the damage is done.”


It usually helps to look at America as a system made of infinite complex and intersectional systems. Some systems in our America are sexism, ageism, all the -isms, and -phobias. System change theory tells us that systems resist change. Think about some changes you have tried to make in your life—diet changes, New Year resolutions, etc. And think about our criminal justice system; there have been years of conversation and action; however, we seem to be having the same conversations, and things have relatively plateaued. 


What system is the hardest to change? If you guessed culture, you are correct! Culture is fireproof. This is the primary reason why racist culture is so challenging to change interpersonally and within our society. It is a cultural thing. Unfortunately, racism will not go away in this particular reality. Partially because it is heavily intertwined in our everyday systems (politics, government, education, sports, entertainment, etc.) and by nature, it resists change because it has been embedded over time. Attempts to destroy culture actually reinforce it explicitly and implicitly. 

How does that affect the zoning conversation? 

Well, American culture resists change and it is embedded with a lot of harmful -isms. No matter how much we know and learn about past and present-day redlining and harmful zoning practices, we will continue to have the same conversations. And redlining will continue. 

So what now?

It’s important to be cynical about culture, and sit in the uncomfortable, icky thoughts about culture—especially when it is the source of harm for others. As long as we believe the single story that zoning is a happily-ever-after process or that America’s processes are inherently good with a few bad apples sprinkled in the mix, we will continue to fall into the trap of unlearned lessons of history. 

The good news is that...

Although culture cannot be destroyed, new cultures can be built. It requires complete surrender of past learned and internalized culture and a complete redesign without remixing the old. The creation of new culture allows for an entirely new system that invites possibility. 


All change begins with imagining. This article is an invitation to daydream and to reimagine what city planning can look like if we give up our past harmful practices. 

What do you see? Let me know! 


Jhoni-Ada (Ofonime) is Sierra Club Connecticut’s Community Outreach Coordinator on Save Remington Woods project in Bridgeport, along with other outreach and projects within the city and Fairfield County.


Articles referenced:


Kinsella, 2019


Miller, 2010


Mitchell, 2018

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