Communities warped by design

Last updated
July 22, 2020

The size, shape, and texture of our communities slowly change over time. It’s as if they naturally made up their minds how to evolve. People move in and out; development happens here and there. It’s subtle in a way that we hardly recognize it’s constantly morphing.

When I head back to visit my hometown in Minneapolis, I need to do a double-take to recognize my street. We still have that quarter acre of land near a dozen other houses built in the ’60s, but now it’s surrounded by thousands of new homes using the same design frosting.

The design of communities is not just about the physical, but also the social fabric that ties us all together.

Design starts with a simple idea. It manifests in posters, laws, urban planning, and even government. And at times, our government can feel like it’s held together by Elmer’s glue by people with many conflicting design ideas.

Starting in the late 1930s, racially motivated design decisions affected where African Americans could live, how they obtained loans—and in many cases—how urban planners tore through slums with highways and walls.

Stick with me, and I’ll walk you through examples of how intentional urban planning design negatively impacted African Americans for generations. 


In the aftermath of The Great Depression, there was massive unemployment and a housing crisis. A goal of The New Deal signed into law by then-President, Franklin D Roosevelt, was to address the housing crisis. 

By giving significant and unregulated power to banks and lenders, they determined whose hands that money ended up in. Put simply, if you were black, you commonly got the middle finger.

Design can come in many forms. In the form of, “Redlining,” lenders outlined large areas with red ink on city maps to indicate where they wouldn’t loan to African Americans, forcing them to concentrate in certain regions. These racist property clauses established long-lasting patterns.

An original HOLC map of New Orleans
Credit: An original HOLC map of New Orleans - Mapping Inequality

As Segregated by Design describes in this video, the basis for many of these decisions clearly state in The Underwriting Manual of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA):

“Incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.”—FHA

The FHA extended this practice for over 30 years until 1968 when it was banned. The opportunity cost for not being allowed to own a home where you wanted for that period has affected generations of African Americans to this day. 

View a nation-wide interactive map of redlining >

Racial housing covenants 

In my hometown of Minneapolis, I grew up thinking that I lived in a progressive city, without understanding the full history. But Minneapolis has the lowest rate of homeownership among African American households of any U.S. city. 

Racial housing covenants
Predominantly white areas of the city used racial covenants. Mapping Prejudice / City of Minneapolis, Division of Long Range PlanningType image caption here (optional)

“All that civic rhetoric about [Minneapolis] being a model metropolis at the cutting edge of great urban planning obscures some darker truths about the city,” said Kirsten Delegard, a Minneapolis historian and Mapping Prejudice co-founder.

A large part of this was due to racial covenants. These were designed to include explicit clauses in the property deeds that determined who could and could not buy. 

Lake Nokomis racial covenants
One of the first racial covenants happened near Lake Nokomis, Minneapolis

From the Minneapolis Star in 1923, “Premises shall not be sold, mortgaged, or leased to or occupied by any person or persons other than members of the Caucasian race.”

Highway design 

Just across the river is Minneapolis’ twin, the city of St. Paul. Connecting the two is Interstate 94, which many people would use to ping-pong back and forth between the cities.

As you drive I-94 along its east/west route, there’s an extreme economic divide along much of the cement strip. Without questioning this peculiar oddity, it’s easy to just accept this at it is. 

But, over 25 years starting in the 40’s, the U.S. designed over 48,000 miles of highways. 

Author Joseph DiMento, of Changing Lanes said, “There was also a racially motivated desire to eliminate what people called 'urban blight.' The funds were seen as a way to fix the urban core by replacing blight with freeways.”

Around 1956, Minnesota legislators started to plan routes for its new highway, I-94. In St.Paul, a historic neighborhood named Rondo was thriving. More than 80% of St. Paul’s African American population lived there. 

As construction of the highway escalated, residents and city planner voices were lost in the shuffle as I-94 tore directly through Rondo. It displaced over 600 families, and 300 businesses, while the city bought properties at a fraction of market value. 

While devastating, it compounded the other racist policies that came before it.

Choose to listen

As I look back to where I’m from, I now view it through a much different lens than the one I used growing up.

One of the fascinating aspects of the craft of design is that you can create something from nothing. As designers, we have a choice to listen to feedback, or not. 

It’s evident that at the level of urban planning, history has many lessons for us when we haven’t taken into consideration the needs of others.


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