Design desperately needs social justice

Architects too often fail to inform their work by the communities they serve

May 31, 2015 2:00AM ET

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be an architect. I believe that design can create spaces of inspiration and beauty for all people, regardless of race or class. While I know that design alone cannot rectify inequities, I do believe it can ameliorate them. 

Many fellow designers do not share this view. Largely taught to create objects of beauty, designers often neglect the social, political and economic implications of their work. This is apparent in the legacy of cruciform, brick public-housing towers that have formed the backdrop of America’s low-income communities. Inspired by modernist principles, architects used these forms because they were inexpensive and quick to construct. But while traditionally urban environments are enriched by varying building heights, materials, color, texture, use and occupants, the typical model of affordable housing is monolithic, sterile and repetitive — an oppressive environment that serves a singular class of residents. Similarly, in this era of the “poor door” (with class-segregated entrances built into the floor plan), architects serving low-income residents commonly design spaces of lesser material quality that feature fewer amenities. In these ways, designers inadvertently perpetuate the disenfranchisement of particular populations by offering subservient design.   

Such overwhelming disregard for social issues is rooted in designers’ education. I attend the Harvard Graduate School of Design, arguably the nation’s top design school. And yet one of the default assumptions that it and similar other programs carry is that high-quality design is a luxury good that a certain class of patrons — often white and wealthy — enjoy. This pervasive misunderstanding causes a fundamental disconnect between designers and those for whom they design.

Designing in a vaccum

In our architecture design studios at the GSD, we rarely discuss the communities affected by proposed designs. During my first year, I was tasked to design a building along the locks of the Charles River in Boston. In addition to my formal investigation, I wanted to bridge the insular communities flanking the site. Charlestown, the northern bank of the river, is a predominately Irish enclave with a large Asian and black low-income community. In contrast, the North End is a wealthier Italian neighborhood with a strong tourism industry. The site had potential to connect the neighborhoods and ameliorate the residing ethnic groups’ uneasy history and income disparity. I wanted my project to help create greater social cohesion.

Despite this evaluation, my instructor discouraged me from incorporating these considerations and told me that my interest was trivial. From that point on, the building’s form alone became the project’s motivation and the communities were erased from any of my design considerations. By no means was I trying to circumvent the assignment, but I firmly believed that having been provided a site, it was important to incorporate these external social factors. It seemed myopic and irresponsible to propose a building without discussing who would use it, how they would occupy it and what influence the building would have on its surrounding neighborhood.

I fear that a design education prioritizing form over function and impact ill-prepares future designers for the realities of diverse urban conditions. With concerns about housing affordability spreading across the country, there will be increased pressure — and legislation, such as inclusionary zoning mechanisms incentivizing the construction of affordable units — to develop housing that is accessible to varying socioeconomic classes, especially low-income communities. To integrate a broad range of incomes, varying amenities and different household structures within a single building, designers must prioritize the needs of its constituents.

Architects have a tremendous amount of agency to support a landscape of equitable communities, which their education and practice should reflect.

While some practitioners, including FOURM Design Studio, Design Corps and MASS Design Group, make significant efforts to design responsibly, most are uninterested in preserving and benefiting communities. Without prioritizing equity — in the classroom and in practice — we will continue to fail marginalized communities that need better-quality buildings, more beautiful spaces, greater access to amenities and safer and more desirable public spaces.

Architecture and the other design professions could take a hint from urban planning, which takes into account not just the form of urban spaces, but also finance strategies, historical research and community engagement. Tent City, located in Boston’s diverse South End, exemplifies community-based design. Catalyzed by South End residents themselves fearing displacement from new development, it preserves housing for a variety of tenants and is close to public transit and Boston’s commercial hub. There are few visible distinctions between the affordable and market-rate units. They are the same size and equally distributed across the building, with only moderately different finishes. Unlike traditional public-housing models of monolithic cruciform towers, the development mimics the neighborhood’s beautiful bowfront rowhouses with intricate brick construction, a diverse cluster of tall and short building volumes and a welcoming public plaza flanking its side. Each facet of the design incorporates its residents, rich and poor. Design and social justice, in other words, don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Integrating social justice

Part of the problem starts with the makeup of designers in elite institutions. I am one of an approximate 30 black faces in a student body totaling 860. As the president of the Harvard GSD’s African American Student Union, I lead efforts to unite and support black students at the GSD, while also promoting the interests of black design professionals at large. Since our inception three years ago, we have lobbied for increased representation of black students, hosted a lecture series inviting black designers who might otherwise be overlooked and have driven the GSD to reconsider its curriculum and faculty hiring.

On April 8, for example, we held a conference called InFORMing Justice to jump-start a conversation among designers, urban planners and social activists about equitable, community-focused design. A collaborative event organized with the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and the GSD’s Loeb Fellowship, it was the first of its kind at the GSD.

The panelists explored the intersection of design, justice, equity and race. Theresa Hwang, the director of community design and planning at the Skid Row Housing Trust in Los Angeles, talked about collaborating with the neighborhood’s predominately black residents, who suffer from housing instability, in order to construct permanent housing that is customized to their needs. By asking for residents’ input, she is able to integrate amenities that are priorities for them, such as libraries, gardens, art rooms and exercise facilities, and bring positive attention to an otherwise marginalized community.

Following the panel, the audience brainstormed ideas to improve the GSD’s pedagogy and integrate social justice into the design profession. The discussion made evident how disconnected design is from the communities that most need it. And it only scratched the surface: Of the approximately 250 attendees, there was a disproportionate representation of urban planners and people of color.

Still, I am optimistic that such collaborative events are serving as a wake-up call. Thus far, the GSD has committed to creating a new course in the design studies department that will evaluate case studies of socially conscious architecture, landscape architecture and urban design and planning. It also will integrate social justice throughout existing coursework when deemed appropriate. But for these improvements to resonate, they must emphasize responsibility, because designing for communities should not be optional.

Hopefully, InFORMing Justice and similar efforts will encourage designers to be sensitive and proactive and to engage with the people their work ultimately affects. Designers cannot design in a vacuum. We have a tremendous amount of agency to support a landscape of equitable communities, which our education and practice should reflect.

Dana McKinney is a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she is pursuing concurrent Master’s degrees in architecture and urban planning. She received her A.B. in architecture from Princeton University. She intends to pursue both architecture and urban planning licenses to design and construct mixed-income housing and public institutional spaces.  

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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