Architect's Role in Creating Equitable Communities
AIA Equitable Communities Resource
Design is centered on context—those who will inhabit a space, the neighborhood in which it exists, and the surrounding environment. As such, architects and designers naturally impact the areas where they design and build, resulting in outcomes that extend to social equity.
This resource shares how architects can, in their practices, bring about racially just and equitable outcomes for all members of the communities they serve. These actions take place both within projects and beyond. Although there are myriad challenges in the design and development process that can hinder the depth of impact, providing designers frameworks for actionable tools, tactics, and strategies offer a means to understand their extent of agency. With these tools in hand, designers can more sensitively drive equity in practice and in the communities in which they work and live.
Why this matters
Business as usual in the arena of development of the built environment will continue to perpetuate the social, economic, health, environmental, and geographic inequalities that exist in our communities today. Disparities in well-being, health, wealth, policing, and education are distinctly different across race and class lines. We know that up to 60% of health outcomes are determined solely by one’s zip code.1 It is in highly segregated white neighborhoods that the best life outcomes are reported.2 Household income in these neighborhoods nearly double incomes in segregated communities of color and life expectancies are four years longer.3 The disparity in outcomes is a direct result of historically unjust policies and actions that have created barriers for specific groups within American society.
An understanding of the history of places reveals patterns of violence and injustice. When repetitions of old patterns are observed or new patterns emerge within project processes and in public dialogue, architects have an obligation to speak up. By expanding awareness and understanding of context, tools, and areas of greatest impact, this resource outlines specific ways that architects can work to mitigate oppression and work for just and equitable communities.
How to use this resource
This resource is a collection of targeted ways that, using their agency and power, architects can work to mitigate oppression and advocate for a future with just and equitable communities. Practitioners have integrated these tangible actions—tools, strategies, and time-tested practices—into their design practices to yield more equitable processes and outcomes.
 Emily Orminski. “Your Zip Code is More Important Than Your Genetic Code.” National Community Reinvestment Coalition. 30 June 2021. Accessed online 14 Nov 2021. https://ncrc.org/your-zip-code-is-more-important-than-your-genetic-code/
 Stephen Menedian, Samir Gambhir & Arthur Gailes. “Twenty-First Century Racial Residential Segregation in the United States.” The Roots of Structural Racism Project. 21 June 2021. Accessed Online 8 Sept 2021. https://belonging.berkeley.edu/roots-structural-racism.
Architect's Role in Creating Equitable Communities: Foundations
Design Injustice: How did we get here? From enslavement and denial of human rights and dignity to broken promises of 40 acres and a mule, Jim Crow laws and other mechanisms have been used to steal wealth, land, and opportunity through restrictive covenants, destructive highways, and federal mortgage policies that restricted Blacks, Jews, and others in support of ‘homogeneous [white] neighborhoods.’ Slum clearance and other tools including forced removal, predatory mortgages, credit scores, forced displacement, disinvestment, gentrification, among others, have been instituted to deny opportunities for adequate wages, access to necessary goods and services, and proximity to high-paying jobs to Black Americans.
Architect's Role in Creating Equitable Communities: Within Practice
Reconsidering architecture firm culture offers an opportunity to remake our offices as places of welcoming and belonging for all people, especially those with identities and experiences not widely represented in the field. Who is at the table / in the office / on the team directly affects what is being discussed and what solutions are being brought forward. From research to design decisions and community engagement, asking the right questions is key to identifying the best design solutions. As homogenous teams may limit what questions are asked, diverse teams add value, make firms more competitive by offering new insights and connections to diverse clients and communities, and result in richer and more responsive projects. Advocacy in Action Investing in Equity: Engaging with Policy Architects are well-situated to understand how policy takes shape in the built environment. On many occasions, firm leaders have access to elected officials and decision makers. An architect’s professional title and firm profile can lend legitimacy to feedback given on topics and help amplify the challenges or opportunities identified by local communities who may be impacted by the project. Being seen as a reliable and trusted partner of government agencies is another opportunity to build business and to influence what business as usual is.
Architect's Role in Creating Equitable Communities: Within Projects
How do architects design and advocate for equitable processes and outcomes in projects, from scoping to construction? During each design phase for the project, there are a number of actionable opportunities to impact equitable outcomes.
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