The 2021 Unurbanist Assembly

by Kiran Herbert, Communications Manager

Now in its second year, this virtual convening will focus on healing and atonement while confronting the legacy of racism in urban planning.

On February 23, 2020, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was jogging near Brunswick, Georgia, when he was hunted down and fatally shot by three white supremacists. The execution-style killing didn’t make the mainstream news for months—video footage wouldn’t emerge until early May, at which point the country was well in the midst of the pandemic. 

In the urban planning space, the event prompted Black and brown planners to plead with colleagues to address the legacy of racism and the ongoing place-based trauma BIPOC experience outside. In response, they were often gaslit, met with insults, criticism, invalidation, and alienation. Called to action, Thrivance Group Founder Dr. Destiny Thomas began to speak out against the racism inherent in urban planning and the idea for a virtual protest was born. 

On June 18, 2020, Thrivance Group held a virtual teach-in to confront this legacy and to establish a community of practitioners and advocates committed to un-learning urban planning. More than 8,000 people from around the world gathered for 23 hours straight, creating what is now known as the Unurbanist Assembly. On June 18 of this year, the second Unurbanist Assembly will take place, focusing on healing and atonement and again, lasting 23-hours.

Although completely virtual, Thrivance Group produces the event from a location of significance with Dr. Thomas facilitating every session. This year, the Unurbanist Assembly will be hosted by the city of Savannah, Georgia, and will coincide with the first in-person convening of the BBSP Transportation Justice fellows. Because it’s a protest and a teach-in, not a conference, sessions are not recorded and participants are encouraged (if able) to forgo sleep to hold space for critical discourse and strategy development. The number of hours is in honor of the day Arbery was killed and the 2.23 miles he was said to have run before his murder. 

Registration for the event is completely free and everyone interested in disrupting the harmful legacy of urban planning is invited to attend. Geared towards building community, the assembly is a great place to share resources, join reading groups and make new connections. Many of the event’s guest teachers come from disciplines outside of urban planning, offering closed sessions as well as breakout rooms. There are also special ceremonies, keynotes, a happy hour with a DJ, and guided transformations. On the morning of Juneteenth, at 6:30 am EST, the protest will close with presentations from Savannah-based partners, a live stream of a neighborhood bike ride, a sunrise salutation with meditation and sound healing, and a live musical performance.

Even the most altruistic, data-driven, transformative design concepts require a degree of reckoning with the past. Going forward, it’s our responsibility to create a plan to heal the existing trauma affecting BIPOC and to change urban planning for the better. The Unurbanist Assembly offers a collective space to break free from the status quo and reimagine a different way forward, where urban planning is no longer motivated by white comfort. We hope you’ll join us.

The Better Bike Share Partnership is a JPB Foundation-funded collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the PeopleForBikes Foundation to build equitable and replicable bike share systems. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or sign up for our weekly newsletter. Story tip? Write