Perspectives 10.16.2020

New York Studio Holds Design Equity Week

This summer, our firm renewed and expanded our commitment to diversity and inclusion initiatives following the wave of protests calling for racial justice. To carry that momentum forward, our studio created Design Equity Week—a series of events that would continue the dialogue on a local level, and bring the conversation clearly into focus in the context of our role as designers.

Over the course of the week, we engaged in four insightful discussions about design through a JEDI lens with some of our firm’s thought leaders.

Gabrielle Bullock, Director of Global Diversity, kicked off the week with her presentation, Visionary Design Solutions Thru the JEDI Lens. Gabrielle has been a key player in our firm’s success for over three decades, working in both the New York and Los Angeles studios where she became the first African American and first woman to rise to the position of Managing Director.

Gabrielle’s talk included a brief explanation of key JEDI concepts, before she gave an overview of the design process around Destination Crenshaw, a 1.3 mile public art experience built along Crenshaw Blvd and the LA Metro line . This project exemplifies the concepts and approach of cultural competency, representation, and engaging the community as a true design partner. As a true celebration of the neighborhood, the resulting public space is one that is so authentically tied to the community that it’s recognized as a place where one “can visit, but cannot stay.”

“The way that we’ve all been taught is very Eurocentric and a very narrow view of what architecture is, what the aesthetics are, and the design process. I challenge us all to be more ethnically and culturally curious and competent.”

—Gabrielle Bullock

In her talk, Campus Planning for Social Justice and Inclusion, Brodie Bain, Planning and Strategies principal in the Seattle studio, gave an overview of the efforts by Bellevue College and Oregon State University to understand how to improve a sense of equity and inclusion on their campuses. In addition, she is now working with Portland Community College on a system-wide facilities plan that incorporates Critical Race Theory.

Brodie explained that as the team went through many hours of critical race theory training as part of the planning process, they were required to reflect on their own biases: how do we see the world and how is it different from the people we’re designing for? It also became imperative that in order to incorporate meaningful inclusion, they had to be intentional about who they were seeking out for information, and to feel ok with reaching out to specific underrepresented groups to make sure their voices were heard. Understanding other people’s experiences and applying that understanding to the physical environment became a key takeaway of the project planning.

“We want to create a place that’s very unique unto itself, and creates a strong sense of community and helps people thrive. To create a sense of belonging you need equal access, and an equal sense of comfort…”

—Brodie Bain

We often move through spaces and interact with objects at all scales without taking a step back to think about how things came to be the way they are. It sometimes takes more than one look to realize that in these spaces, all people are not accommodated equally. This kind of bias exists in many dimensions. In her presentation, Bias by Design, Principal Joan Blumenfeld focused on how gender bias intersects with our day to day lives in surprising ways, and how designing more inclusively can impact and neutralize other types of bias.

As an example, Joan shared that the first average-female-sized crash test dummies were not introduced until 2011. That means safety standards for cars were, and in many cases still are, based on the typical adult male.

When it comes to our physical environment and transportation, several issues become obvious when examined through the lens of bias.  The quality of childcare tends to be better in suburbs than in cities. As a result, many women make the decision to work closer to home to be nearer to their children, which puts constraints on their career choices. Related, public transportation in most cities is typically not designed well for women traveling with small children (maybe carrying strollers, diaper bags, backpacks, etc.) making navigating within the city completely inconvenient.

In the history of design, women’s contributions have been completely ignored, erased, or excluded from the process. Joan encouraged us to think about how to design spaces, objects, products and solutions in a universal way that considers not only gender, but also ability and a number of other variables as well.

“It turns out that a lot of the most iconic pieces of furniture were either co-designed or mostly designed by women you’ve never heard of.”

—Joan Blumenfeld

To close out the week, we welcomed guest speaker Andrea Batista Schlesinger, a partner at HR&A Advisors and leader of the Inclusive Cities practice, who works to make cities more just and equitable. As a former leader in government think tanks, philanthropy, and political campaigns, Andrea brings a deep understanding of government and advocacy in making cities just and dynamic places.

Andrea uses a three-tiered framework to approach design strategies that listen and respond to the community, based on the following questions:

  1. How do you make this project equitable
  2. How do you mitigate against any unforeseen consequences?
  3. How do we use this project to create a more equitable city?

She also reminded us that the words inclusion and equity are not interchangeable, and it’s critical for us to know the difference. She asserts that we can continue to respect the value of inclusivity as we look to move toward equity.

Mariana Giraldo and Michelle Muhlbauer also presented the challenges around these issues as they related to the Neighborhoods Now project.