Byron Nicholas (MUP '13, BAED '11)

Byron Nicholas.

A forward-thinking urban planner who is highly engaged with the field both professionally and outside the work place, Byron Nicholas is committed to inspiring and informing a new generation of change makers to re-imagine black urban spaces.

By Tyler Madell

Published February 25, 2019

"I’ve always been critical of the publicity given by mainstream publications to high-profile persons and their well-known views and opinions, while giving little attention to those who are looking for their voice and solutions to be heard."

This unwavering sentiment drove transportation planner Byron Nicholas to create Black + Urban, an online publication featuring topics related to Black urban spaces worldwide. Nicholas (MUP '13 & END '11), along with other contributors, works to change the perception of Black spaces that are "perceived as destitute and hopeless without understanding how they came to be."

In addition to Black + Urban, Nicholas works as the Supervising Transportation Planner with the Hudson County, New Jersey Office of Engineering.

Here Byron discusses the context of Black + Urban and his path to becoming the urban planner he is today.

You refer to Black + Urban as a safe space for young Black urban professionals. How so?

I've always found large editorial publications to lack pluralism. Even for Black-oriented publications, the opinion section represented monolithic perspectives of Black people. Many publications provide insightful details on the issues that plague Black spaces and communities, however, few offer thoughtful, inclusive and comprehensive solutions on how they can be resolved. 

I launched Black + Urban in September 2018 to provide a space for people who don't usually have a platform to express their opinions, ideas, and solutions - particularly young and emerging planners hoping to inspire others to change their behavior and the physical places where they live.

Through Black + Urban, I also hope to change the perception of Black spaces. Some spaces are perceived as destitute and hopeless without understanding how they came to be. Black + Urban attempts to shed light on the creative techniques people in these spaces use to reshape and change them for the better.

What can readers expect to find?

Joenette Cobb portrait.

Byron Nicholas (right) meeting with the co-founder of Oonee pod (a bicycle storage startup in NYC) for an interview.

The site evolves every day. Currently, there are highlights on Amazon’s impact on New York; a Black cyclist's experience in New York City; and a look at urban planning issues through the lens of HBO’s hit show ‘Insecure,’ which follows the personal and professional journeys of two young Black women in Los Angeles.

I am in the process of working with partners to establish Black-Owned Wednesday features on our social media accounts to highlight successful businesses, organizations and community groups that serve and uplift Black communities. Also in the works is Financial Fridays which will inform our audience about tools for financial responsibility such as credit, homeownership and investments in Black communities.

I'm excited to announce upcoming features on a new entrepreneurial venture for bike storage, a mobile barbershop in Black spaces, and a profile of a loan officer who is working to change the social, economic and physical landscape of Buffalo, NY.

You're a dedicated mentor. How does Black + Urban support this work?

I know how tough it is to become acclimated to interviews, the AICP certification exam, and the professional workspace. I mentor young and emerging planning professionals through APA's AICP Mentorship Program. I see Black + Urban as a tool to engage in mentorship, promote career development, and encourage diversity and inclusion within the planning profession and for our constituents. Black + Urban can be used as a work sample or portfolio for young professionals ready to get their ideas out so that prospective organizations can view their work online. We are in a digital age where employers are looking for unique ways where individuals can be creative and the Black + Urban website is that space. One of my goals for 2019 is to host a Black + Urban career networking event for young professionals. I also hope to host panel discussions on controversial planning subjects that affect Black spaces.

What inspired you to become an urban planner - and now a writer?

The physical landscape of New York City was my first inspiration for planning. Growing up in southeastern Queens, NY, I grasped an early understanding of land use and transportation simply by commuting from the suburban section of Queens to the hyper-urban areas of Manhattan. I was fascinated by the complexities of express and local trains’ ability to transport people from one place to the next. Then I started to understand the history behind each neighborhood's demographics and the problems with racial inequity through transportation and housing. After obtaining my bachelor degree in Environmental Design at UB, I decided to pursue my Masters at UB and specialize in physical planning and urban design.

In 2017, I heard former APA president and current NYC parks commissioner Mitchell Silver speak at the New York City APA Diversity Workshop. He spoke of his challenges in the profession and advised us to write down our ideas as a first step to getting things done. There is no doubt that Mr. Silver inspired me to start writing my own ideas. In fact, Black + Urban is a product of his advice.

One of your recent articles explores the racial context of Buffalo's construction of the Kensington Expressway. How has your experience at UB and in Buffalo shaped your work today?

As a professional transportation planner, I am always conscious of the disparities many Black and low-income communities face due to transportation inequality. My experience with the City of Buffalo as a real-life studio gave me the opportunity to think about cities multi-dimensionally. Buffalo has a unique history with so many different factors contributing to its social and physical design. Buffalo, however, is not unique to the transportation- and race-related dilemmas that once plagued cities all across the country. For example, the destruction of Humboldt Parkway is synonymous to the devastation that communities in the Bronx and Miami endured after federal transportation projects built highways through low-income African-American and Latino neighborhoods.