Who does design include, benefit, or harm?

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Advocates from around the US learn about The Blue House, a co-working space and community collective in Central City, New Orleans during the AIA Design Justice Summit.

An AIA summit on design justice moves past definitions and compels architects to take action.

In the 13 years since Hurricane Katrina, parts of New Orleans have yet to make meaningful recovery. Formerly thriving centers of African American life, the Lower 9th Ward and the Central City neighborhood became unsafe—some sections, unlivable, even—in the aftermath of the storm. What may be mistaken about New Orleans is that problems only started post-Katrina, that redevelopment processes alone have failed to adequately establish happy, healthy community life. But what the hurricane actually did was illuminate pre-existing inequities like decades of infrastructure neglect and limited access to preparedness education and services. Katrina merely proved what can happen when already vulnerable communities are faced with disaster.

How architects and designers can create dignified spaces and living conditions for people in communities like these is the driving reason AIA convened leaders in Central City for the Design Justice Summit this September.

Design justice advocates selected to attend the event arrived in New Orleans from all corners of the US—from New York to Honolulu, from San Francisco to Kansas City. There was Garret Nelli, AIA, a young architect from Seattle. There was Grace Haynes, a community visual artist from Los Angeles. There were Hawaiian landscape architect Angelica Rockquemore and Rodolfo Rodriquez, an Austin-based health and housing strategist. All told, 35 advocates and experts with equally diverse professional and personal backgrounds gathered.

To prepare for design justice conversations and workshops, advocates toured the heart of Central City, visiting organizations committed to social welfare. The neighborhood’s sprawling boulevards, named for leaders Martin Luther King Jr.­ and Oretha Castle Haley, were once the center of the city’s civil rights movement. The crack epidemic of the 1980s eclipsed the gains of desegregation a generation earlier, and in the decades since, continued drug problems and a violent crime rate twice that of the rest of New Orleans and six times the national average has threatened residents. Central City was deep in crisis by the time horrific flooding from Katrina impaired the neighborhood’s already crumbling structures.

With the help of socially-driven organizations, the area is starting to gain footing. Undertaking development and housing are the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority and the Gulf Coast Housing Partnership. Developing community spaces are Tulane’s Small Center for Collaborative Design and architectural design firm Concordia. Focusing on cultural development is nonprofit Efforts of Grace, Inc. Their multi-building Ashé Cultural Arts Center supports local artists and offers programs spanning a variety of artistic disciplines. Also in the neighborhood, The Blue House collective, food incubator Roux Carre, and the Youth Empowerment Project drive economic prosperity and social connection.

Drawing parallels between the contributions of these organizations and their own work, advocates told stories of issues facing their communities back home. Rapid urbanization and resulting gentrification, displacement, and homelessness were common problems described by participants from larger cities. In other places, lack of access to healthcare, food, and human services pose the biggest threat to a thriving population. Advocates discussed how they are working to overcome such injustices through projects of social resilience, cultural placemaking, and inclusion.

Back at Ashé’s converted Power House event space, ten experts and planning committee members led advocates through a series of panel discussions and workshops that challenged their viewpoints on systems of power. “Design justice is beyond trying to build for the betterment of individuals, but dismantling power structures,” said Bryan C. Lee, Assoc. AIA, chair of the Design Justice Summit planning committee. “It’s broader than the singular building or the one relationship you may have with a particular client. Our job is to find those systems and challenge them in our work.”

“Design justice is beyond trying to build for the betterment of individuals, but dismantling power structures.” - Bryan C. Lee, Jr., Assoc. AIA

Using a guided framework developed by Lee’s organization, Colloqate Design, advocates explored how entities like government agencies, academic institutions, private corporations and individuals grouped by race, class, or identity intentionally or inadvertently impose disadvantages on people. “This is not an answer,” Lee said about during the workshops, “It’s a process by which you understand these component parts to get to the root of the issue you’re addressing.”

Advocates examined housing, healthcare, legislation, and education—the component parts of a community they believed are most responsible for impacting the welfare of the public. Developing fictional locations and populations based off their own communities, they pinpointed privileges and injustices that manifest in the built environment. Commonly found injustices included limited access to civil services, displacement, and little investment in community spaces and infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, advocates identified affected populations as historically marginalized groups: racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, youth and elderly, and women.

Design Justice Summit advocates, experts, and planning committee members came together to identify design solutions for injustices in their communities.

Defining what design justice looks like in a community proved to be a bigger challenge than discovering injustices. The advocates saw that long-term goals like policy changes and economic development offer the biggest opportunities to create a thriving public realm. Rodriquez, a past recipient of the Architects Foundation Diversity Advancement Scholarship, championed political advocacy, encouraging designers to get involved in local political campaigns. Like many of the advocates, he believes that creating a just built environment is not just about buildings. “I think about design justice as doing the right thing beyond four walls,” he said.

Advocates proposed solutions that could be employed more immediately, ranging in scale from individual to collective, temporary to permanent actions. To support cultural development and retain memory of a community’s past, advocates suggested art installations and social media campaigns. To enhance public safety and social cohesion, they pitched re-envisioned open spaces with walkable and accessible corridors. Pop-up shops to stimulate local economies, mobile resource units to deploy health services, live/work housing programs—they targeted each injustice with specific, creative ideas.

While their solutions varied, the advocates all agreed on one important point: design justice looks different in every community. Architects and collaborators can find opportunities to properly address injustice in the built environment, but only after committing to deeply understand issues specific to the people for whom they are designing. Pascale Sablan, AIA, of New York’s S9ARCHITECTURE likened the duties of a designer with those of an interpreter, saying “we can understand the information that we have and translate it so it’s acceptable to match how people work, live, and function.” Advocates and experts alike championed participatory activities such as charrettes, surveys, and even door-to-door campaigning as crucial tactics for community engagement in the design process. “We need to take time to understand the different pieces to create spaces that enhance value,” Sablan said.

Kofi Boone, a landscape architect and associate professor at North Carolina State University’s College of Design has made engagement his priority as a designer and educator. “When you get the right people in the right space, you start to define the problem differently,” he said of his work at NC State while speaking to advocates at the summit. “We’re building a knowledge base and professional skillset to prepare people to deal with situations in their own backyard.”

Exemplifying tenets of design justice, Boone recently led an AIA Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) to readdress development in the Lower 9th Ward, where 15 planning processes have failed since 2006. Instead of starting from scratch on yet another masterplan, the AIA team reviewed the homeowner association’s analysis of previous plans and held listening sessions with residents. They focused in on what mattered most, assembling facilitators whose expertise reflected the community’s priorities: economic development, infrastructure and transit, culture, and housing. “It helped the team be more strategic with their work and not waste time with open visioning,” Boone says. “It also built trust with the community.” While there is much work yet to be done, the R/UDAT’s recommendations will be fueled by continued community involvement and political will from newly elected leaders District E Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen and Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

"The more we can make a compelling connection with the public about what architecture can do for them, the better." -Rosa Sheng, FAIA

Supported by the Equity and Future of Architecture Committee, the Design Justice Summit is the most recent way AIA is deploying design as a solution for inequities in communities and the architecture profession at large. AIA will provide grant funding to support Design Justice Summit advocates so they may lead engagements back home.

Rodriquez plans to conduct research and design a campaign on the social determinants of health in low-income housing communities. Rockquemore will continue work building a therapy garden for young victims of sex trafficking based in native Hawaiian healing values. Nelli intends to lead events to help create a sense of permanence and belonging amongst residents in rapidly-developing Seattle, where there are more cranes operating than any other American city. On the Summit’s closing day, advocates each shared compelling plans for how they intend to create a more just environment for the people they live and work amongst.

Conversations throughout the summit contained an undercurrent regarding equity, diversity, and inclusion in architectural practice, which served as a reminder that the workforce does not yet accurately reflect the US population, despite positive trends. But they also illuminated a hill that the profession has yet to start really climbing—that architecture is still primarily serving those in power, those who maintain private interests and can afford design services. Rosa T. Sheng, FAIA, a leader of equity in architecture and expert panelist at the summit suggested that architects can start to shift the current client paradigm through storytelling. “The more we can make a compelling connection with the public about what architecture can do for them, the better,” she said.  

As a movement, design justice is not a new idea per se. Just as a few equitable design activists speaking up for accessibility led to the passing of the ADA, design justice is gaining traction and voices that may inspire future policy and practice changes.  At the Design Justice Summit, it became clear that individuals can inspire action to overcome injustices in the built environment, but as with any social justice effort, the strength lies in the many and not in the few. “We need to talk,” said Sheng, “but the power is in the action.”

Kathleen M. O’Donnell is a writer/editor at AIA, specializing in practice and professional development topics and Institute coverage.

Image credits

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Michael Mantese

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