Perspectives September 2, 2020

Learning from a Painful Past: How to Design for Racial and Social Equity

For centuries, American urban planning and design have served as a White policymaker’s tool for consolidating power and suppressing diverse voices from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). From the onset of slavery in the 1600s to our modern-day era, that power has been used to weaken, dismantle, and destroy BIPOC communities—to deprive them of basic resources and human rights, from food and water to healthcare and education.   

Today, the Black Lives Matter movement has become the most widespread social justice initiative since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. And the architecture and design industry—which continues to be predominantly White, predominantly male—is facing a reckoning: We must acknowledge the inequities our industry has created and condoned, and we must take action, now, to right the wrongs of the past. We must work diligently to bring justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) into the very architectural institutions that have been complicit in perpetuating systemic racism.  

Here are four ways individual designers and the design profession at large can do that: 

Gabrielle Bullock, Director of Global Diversity at Perkins&Will, sits in on a community engagement event shaping the Destination Crenshaw project on LA's Crenshaw Boulevard

1. Unlearn Everything You Thought You Knew, Then Relearn It

 Architecture schools teach us to revere and emulate Eurocentric design traditions and standards of beauty. We may have the opportunity to take a single course dedicated entirely to the work of one White architect, like Le Corbusier, but we have very few opportunities to study non-European design (and, if we do, it’s usually part of a catch-all course like “Architecture of East Asia” or “Islamic Architecture”). This reinforces an inherently flawed architectural canon, which all but ensures we enter the design profession with a skewed—and limited—worldview. 

“I wasn’t taught in school that politics intertwined at all with the art of architecture. We studied famous figures like Frank Lloyd Wright, figures who were so disassociated with the dangerous and isolating veins in which their designs were at work,” says Maurice Cox, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development. “Yet we learned to revere them, without examining their political consequences.” 

Cox, an architect by training as well as an African American, says to design for racial and social equity today, we must consciously unlearn everything we learned in the past—and then strive to relearn through a broader social and historical context. He is among a growing number of design industry leaders who condemn the educational model for its Eurocentricity. They argue that, in addition to warping students’ understanding of design excellence, it discourages BIPOC students, specifically, from pursuing a career in the profession at all. And that means less diversity in the student body, which means less diversity in the talent pipeline. 

“It’s about having (Black) bodies in the room,” says Kofi Boone, vice president of the Landscape Architecture Foundation and professor of landscape architecture at NC State. “Black students need to feel they have a home to explore, a comfort and feeling of inclusion, before they can really experiment and challenge the status quo.” 

“You can’t design for the world if you’re not of the world,” adds Cheryl Durst, CEO of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA). 

Students engage with proposed plans for a new library at the New York Institute of Technology
The Big Take-Away: Challenge your assumptions about design, even if it makes you uncomfortable.

Consciously seek to learn and teach the design histories, traditions, and customs of other cultures, countries, and peoples. Actively recruit and engage BIPOC students. We learn the most when we step outside our own echo chambers and actively seek out diverse viewpoints.

The late Perkins&Will architect Phil Freelon engages community members with his plans for Emancipation Park in Houston

2. Engage the Community to Effect Positive Change 

When we design a new building, park, or complex, it’s inevitably in someone’s neighborhood. In this way, architects are injected into the fabric of people’s lives. Any change to that fabric will be felt in ripples that flow much further from the site or building itself.

“Right now, we don’t have a system that rewards designers to engage politically with their work,” says Cox. Unfortunately, “that leads to designers working in a vacuum, tuned into their small slice of a project that (unbeknownst to them) is part of a neighborhood-wide gentrification or renewal scheme.”

Proper research, compassion, and public engagement, Cox says, is critical to ensuring a new development supports, rather than gentrifies, an existing neighborhood. In other words, we must open our eyes and see the bigger picture. We must look beyond the one building or project we’re working on. We must actively engage with community members—from hosting visioning sessions and workshops to having open dialogues and town hall discussions—to give them a voice in the decision-making process.  

One example of engaging with the community to effect positive change is Destination Crenshaw, a 1.3-mile outdoor art museum being built in the heart of South Lthat celebrates the significant cultural contributions of the Black community. The project is the neighborhood’s creative response to the City of Los Angeles’s decision to run a light-rail train right through the community—the only stretch of the line that cuts through a busy commercial area at streetlevel.  

“This was so much more than an individual building to be designed or park to be laid out. Destination Crenshaw brought together entire communities, and their voices gave rise to a design that was a work of cultural preservation,” says Kenneth Luker, a design principal at Perkins&Will.  

A community member holds a Sankofa during a community-led design meeting for Destination Crenshaw in LA. A Sankofa is a symbol of the Akan tribe in Ghana, meaning "it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.”
The Big Take-Away: Engage with the community in which you’re working to fully understand people’s stories, perspectives, and needs.

Remember to zoom out and see the bigger picture, because our work has long-term and farreaching effects. Early involvement from the community is key to designing a successful, enduring, and well-loved place. 

Students and professors listen to presentations for a proposed new library at the New York Institute of Technology

3. Empower Individuals to Transform Their Urban Landscapes 

Sometimes, when working within tight-knit communities that have been subject to gentrification or policy-backed “cultural erasure,” as Luker describes it, even development with the best of intentions can meet strong resistance.  

For example, landscape improvements aimed at creating more public space and access to greenery are often viewed as a threat, Boone says, because people interpret them as foreign imports that do not address the specific needs, desires, or history of the local neighborhood.  

Yet Boone believes designers can learn a lot from these communities just by listening. And, with their newly acquired knowledge, they can work with community members to cultivate their land and use it to better their physical space. It’s a matter of showing them that landscape architecture can be “an act of reclamation,” he says. The result might be anything from designing community gardens that grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers, to installing park benches and other outdoor furnishings, to transforming brick or concrete walls into lush, beautiful “green walls.” 

Community members discuss public art installations at Destination Crenshaw in LA
The Big Take-Away: Make sure your landscape designs respect the needs, history, and character of the neighborhoods in which you work.

What aspects of the project are neighbors concerned aboutWhich issues are most important to the community? What’s been done well, and what’s been done not-so-well, in the past? Asking questions like these can help you create meaningful outdoor experiences that support the local culture. 

Zena Howard offers community members a presentation on proposed plans for her Hogan's Alley project in Vancouver

4. Embrace Social Equity—Then Become its Greatest Champion 

Even when we design places that are ostensibly open and welcome to all, BIPOC community members often grapple with feelings of exclusion—a vestige of the segregation era that reverberates even today.  

“Access isn’t just physical: it goes well beyond an unlocked door,” says Durst. 

For example, it is not uncommon for Black and Brown people to feel unwelcome in many of America’s “high culture” art museums and theaters, which are perceived as largely White institutions. Deeply internalized fears of illegal trespass—and its violent, if not deadly, consequences—are a lingering consequence of Jim Crow laws, and have been passed down from generation to generation. 

That’s why it’s so important to embed the notion of equity into conversations and actions around diversity and inclusion. Everyone must have equal agency, says Durst, and architects and designers have a unique role to play in ensuring that happens—not just through their completed work, but also through their intention. 

“Equity is personal,” she says. “It comes from within.”  

In other words, equity means that we assess built cultural expressions with an open mind, taking the time to understand history’s role in racial exclusion, as well and the effects that persist today.   

Hogan's Alley residents interact directly with the plans, photographs and maps outlining the new community proposal
The Big Take-Away: Remember that not all social equity issues are visible to the naked eye—many are ingrained in a community’s psyche.

Find out what makes a public place such a personal matterand then implement a design process that makes community members feel welcome, engaged, and represented. Accounting for people’s feelings and emotions can go a long way toward building trust and feelings of inclusion. 

Learn More

Listen to the forum on race and equity we held in August, including insight from Cheryl, Maurice, Kofi, and Kenneth, and moderated by Dahmahlee Lawrence, an architect in our New York studio.