Andrew Burton / Getty Images

Public unrest sends urban designers back to drawing board

Architects, planners seek to address connections between race, design and social inequity in poor neighborhoods

A few days before Baltimore erupted in sometimes-violent protests over the death of a 25-year-old black man in police custody, about 250 architects, planners, students, community advocates and designers gathered for a three-hour session of soul searching over the role of urban design and social equity.

Co-sponsored by the African American Student Union of Harvard University’s renowned Graduate School of Design, where the event took place, the panel discussion and brainstorming revealed angst and worry that, too often, the professionals in charge of building America’s cities are more interested in actual structures than the people who live in them.

After African-American men died at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and North Charleston, South Carolina; the calls for social justice that flared in cities across the country have reached the halls of academia.

The panel tried to address the connections between design and race, and what professionals in the field can do to help erase the social inequities in poor, urban, minority neighborhoods.

“It’s something we don’t talk about as designers,” said Dana McKinney, president of the student union, who studies architecture and urban planning. “We don’t have courses on justice and race. … It’s the first time these issues have really been put forth.”

Some participants even suggested that design professionals should take a moral stance and refuse to build prisons that house a disproportionately large number of minorities rather than contribute to the persistent pattern of mass incarcerations.

The recent protests sparked by police brutality of minorities may finally be changing what the next generation of architects does.

The school, one of the national leaders in architecture, has now committed to review its design curriculum and cross-list more courses offered by the sociology department and at the law school.

“The tragedies of Ferguson and Baltimore forced people across different races, classes and ethnicities to recognize the urgency of the topic,” said Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “Because of the way we see so much of the contemporary landscape of American cities linked with a lot of the killings, it’s a lot more evident and visible than it has been in recent memory. That leads to an urgency in terms of addressing the topic and raises fundamental questions about the relationship between spatial form and its implications.”

There has already been a shift in the past decade, said Mostafavi, who created a diversity committee at the school six years ago.

The younger generation of architects wants to combine excellence in design with social responsibility.

“Star” architects are still valued but, at the same time, “we see a greater tendency toward people in the younger generation to actually want to participate in projects that have more significant impact,” he said.

‘It’s something we don’t talk about as designers. We don’t have courses on justice and race … It’s the first time these issues have really been put forth.’

Dana McKinney

President, African American Student Union

There is little disagreement that spaces with good housing, parks, clean streets, public transportation and good schools can lift neighborhoods out of squalor.

“It’s the creation of the kinds of spaces that basically recognize the dignity of life and respect different communities,” Mostafavi said. “If you have a decent living environment, it does make a difference. … It has deep impacts in terms of how you feel, how you behave and how you socialize. Space leads to separation and to segregation.”

A simple playground can transform a community. So can reliable public transportation to connect people to jobs.

But as architects launch on this social agenda, it’s crucial they reach out to the people who live in the community,” said Theresa Hwang, director of Community Design and Planning at The Skid Row Housing Trust in Los Angeles and one of the Harvard panelists. “How do we engage as many of the people who are going to be impacted?”

Her organization, which provides housing and services to the homeless and formerly homeless, has been holding workshops to get residents to come up with their vision.

To reach many of the homeless, Hwang’s group uses a mobile cart or “participation station” and wheels it through the streets of Skid Row.

“We brought design workshops to the people,” she said. “In a lot of communities, people are not even allowed the opportunity to dream what is possible. … This really creates the opportunity for residents to articulate and voice what are their priorities.”

What they want is often simple: Basic necessities, such as trash cans, access to clean water, public bathrooms and more housing.

Debate over architecture’s role in promoting social justice is not new. During the civil rights movement, the backlash against “urban renewal” and massive housing projects sparked a grassroots community design movement. But the efforts were spotty and rarely involved broad involvement from investors, city planners, architects and designers.

“It had kind of been a smaller strain of architecture and planning — alternative career disciplines,” said Liz Ogbu, an urbanist who runs Studio O, a design and consulting practice in Oakland, California, that combines various disciplines to transform communities. “There was high design and then there was the stuff we were doing. Over the course of the past decade, there has been an increase in the number of people who want to make this field their primary calling. We’re visiting the sins of the past.”

Ogbu worked on The ReFresh Project in New Orleans to turn an old grocery store into a health services hub that includes health care and healthy foods. Whole Foods is a partner.

The courtyard of a cluster of buildings at Hunters View, a multi-phase redevelopment project that includes the replacement of all existing public housing units into mixed-income residences, in the Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco.
Robert Galbraith / Reuters / Landov

She is also part of a team redeveloping Hunters Point, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the southeastern corner of San Francisco, a 40-acre site of a former Pacific Gas and Electric Company plant. The bulk of it will be housing but the push is on to fend off rapid gentrification and incorporate affordable units and retail services that can create jobs for the predominantly black community. It could become one of the last patches of affordable housing in San Francisco.

As a Detroit native, Kimberly Dowdell, an architect who is studying a year at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, knows first-hand how urban blight can devastate minority communities.

“Essentially, nothing is being designed in these neighborhoods,” she said. “How do we make success out of an environment that’s falling apart? In Baltimore, you can see that a lot of the buildings being burnt are not occupied. … The design response would be rebuild these places.”

She worked on a project in Newark to clean up Military Park.

“It was a pretty bad place to be,” she said. “It was a place you didn’t want to walk through. There was drug paraphernalia.”

Through public-private partnerships, the park was transformed into a community gathering place with a burger pavilion, restrooms, yoga and movies in the park, better landscaping and lighting and a full-time security staff.

In Los Angeles’ Skid Row, about 4,000 of the estimated 15,000 residents are homeless or live in shelters. The Los Angeles Poverty Department opened a Skid Row History Museum to show the community how urban planning can change their destiny.

On display are two plans that were considered by the city in the 1970s. One was to open a detox center and completely clear the area to build housing and parking lots. The second, which involved a community design center, proposed saving the single room occupancy hotels typical in the neighborhood, renovate and expand housing and bring social services to the area.

The latter was adopted, putting a halt to upscale development within Skid Row and protecting the interests of the area’s low-income residents.

“We created a neighborhood where you couldn’t build market-rate housing,” said John Malpede, director of the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a community group that is putting on the museum exhibit. The show includes performances, meetings and cultural events, all intended to involve residents. “The intent is to make it clear a longtime permanent community exists in Skid Row and … save the neighborhood of repeated threats of being paved over and built upon.”

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