Rosa Sheng
Rosa Sheng

Historically marginalized, economically challenged communities are likely to disproportionately bear the consequences of climate change, rising housing and education costs, reduced social services, and workforce automation. While architecture and planning might appear to be unrelated to these complex issues, I challenge architects to gain a broader understanding of how social justice is linked to our built environment.

We speak of aspiring to seek better outcomes for our civic realm, yet we often ignore or overlook how architecture—a manifestation of historic systems of power wielded by policies, procedures, and the privileged—has influenced our built context in ways that prevent equitable and just access for people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ+ community.

We don’t need to look far back in history for examples: redlining, NIMBYism, and self-appointed watch patrols that call the police on those they perceive as not belonging in their neighborhood. Mabel Wilson’s article “Mine Not Yours,” featured in the U.S. Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale, narrates this experience with unapologetic authenticity, underscoring the effects of feeling endangered by design.

The design of private space marketed as public space has further blurred the line of who is responsible for creating inclusive civic places. Bookstores masquerade as public libraries and coffeehouse franchises conceived as “welcoming, inviting, and familiar” places usurp locally owned cafés. Apple stores rebranded as “town squares” and the Salesforce “Park” roof garden on the San Francisco Transbay Terminal are no substitutes for public space. If anything, they confound the issue of who is at liberty to occupy them. Police arrests of those “waiting while black” affirm this crisis.

Architects impassioned to right these wrongs can get behind Design Justice, a movement that seeks to identify and subsequently mitigate the structures of oppression and barriers to success for people who have been historically marginalized. At the inaugural AIA Design Justice Summit in September, a group of social impact advocates, architects, and urban designers from across the nation gathered to unpack Design Justice in the context of the built environment and to develop solutions to address injustices communities face.

As Bryan C. Lee Jr., Assoc. AIA, founder and director of design of Colloqate Design, in New Orleans, and founding organizer of the Design Justice Platform (DJP), noted: “For every injustice in the world, there is an architecture that perpetuates it.”

Make no mistake: These barriers may be invisible to those who have benefited from the systems of power and privilege that have perpetuated injustice, such as design outcomes that don’t regard the health, safety, and welfare of all.

In a series of workshops modeled after the DJP, teams proposed solutions that could be deployed in the near- and far-term, ranging in scale and permanency: pop-up shops to stimulate local economies, mobile medical units, and public family resource stations where nursing, pumping, changing, and resting were dignified, safe, and clean.

If architects are to advance Design Justice, we must make the cultural transformation of an integrated bottom line that prioritizes people, places, planet, and prosperity. And we must ask ourselves: Do we address social impact only when the client mandates it, or when we have a personal connection at stake? Can we provide design and problem-solving services to every person and community as part of the value we bring?

Design can inspire as well as heal, build empathy, dignity, and respect, and, yes, reconcile injustice. It is in our collective interest to learn and stay vigilant about the historical connections between design that perpetuates systems of power and privilege that results in unjust conditions. It is our ethical responsibility as architects and planners to leverage design as a means to create equitable and just outcomes in our built environment for all.

Author's Recommended Reading and Resources

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Editor's note: We regularly publish opinion columns that we think would be of service to our readers. The views and conclusions from these authors are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.