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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Design Justice: Creating Inclusive Spaces in an Urbanized World

By Mary Mazzoni

Over half of the global population lives in cities, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050. These figures are even higher in the U.S., where nearly 63 percent of the population lived in cities last year.

This migration of people from rural and suburban communities into urban centers presents a crossroads for the future of sustainable development: We can either create cookie-cutter templates for 21st-century cities -- incorporating the needs and wants of a select few -- or embrace our cultures and experiences in order to craft inclusive neighborhoods that are as diverse as their inhabitants.

Last week Bryan C. Lee Jr., place and civic design director for the Arts Council Of New Orleans, promoted the latter through a concept he calls design justice.

Along with his position at the Arts Council, Lee serves as president elect of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) Louisiana chapter and was the 2014 NOMA member of the year. Before a crowded room at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, Lee spoke passionately about leveraging architecture, design, and city planning to empower communities of color and deliver inclusiveness rather than oppression.

"Design justice advocates for the elimination of privilege and power structures that use design and architecture planning to disenfranchise people across this nation," Lee said in Austin on Wednesday. "Architecture itself has power. Architecture is an institution. And like all institutions, it uses its power, its procedures, and its policies to overtly and covertly oppress those who have been disinherited from that system."

These oppressive spaces are all around us. We just need to take the time to look. They could come in the form of a Robert E. Lee statue in the center of New Orleans. They could be interstate highways that slice holes through neighborhoods of color. They could be maps of our cities denoting neighborhoods that were redlined in the '30s and '40s, which often remain the poorest and most blighted neighborhoods to this day. These structures and spaces are physical representations of centuries of oppression faced by people of color, and our refusal to address this reality only exacerbates the tensions we face today, Lee said.

"Until we -- as designers, as planners, as coders, as human beings -- deal with our post-reconstruction past, we won’t be able to actively rid ourselves of these injustices," he insisted. "We have to face them now. We have to face them now in our political lives, but we also have to face them now in our lives that deal with the physical world and the built environment."

Pushing back against injustice with colloquial design

What is the response to an unjust built environment? Or more specifically, what is design justice in practice? Lee calls it colloquial design: "Colloquial design is about understanding the sophisticatedly formal use of informal space to form architectural precedent, to create spaces of racial and cultural equity. It really relies on an understanding of those communities you serve."

Far too often, designers, architects and city planners come into a neighborhood thinking they already know what it needs: a fancy new grocery store, a trendy restaurant or a corner cafe. But the true needs of that community may be very different, a reality it's past time for designers to recognize, Lee said. "You need to understand what are the functional needs and necessities of those people in this community: shelter, food, education, safety, commerce, entertainment, public space. These things in a given ratio for any given community form the DNA of that space."

Lee used the ubiquitous example of a vacant lot: "You see people fighting so hard not to have certain things go into blighted and vacant lots. And the answer is always: 'Well, you should want this development to come into this space.' No. The potential is gone for a hundred years if you put something that people cannot use in that space ... We have to address that as designers."

Action items

Lee went on to explain three action items designers, architects and city planners can employ to correct injustices in the built environment and craft inclusive communities that truly serve their residents.

1. Education: Lee emphasized that education -- particularly of young people of color -- is crucial to move just design forward. As part of his role at NOMA Louisiana, Lee directs the Project Pipeline initiative: an educational summer camp that engages African-American youth in architectural design.

African-American architects comprise a mere 1.5 percent of all licensed architects in the United States. This stunning lack of representation is undoubtedly associated with the tone-deaf designs that often crop up in communities of color across our country. Project Pipeline, and initiatives like it, seek to break down one of the biggest impediments that block African-American students from entering the profession: limited to non-existent exposure to the field of architectural design.

"Our ask of our students is to specifically understand social justice through the lens of design," Lee explained. "We ask them to understand themselves in the context of the whole ... This allows for kids, who are going to be the agents of change in our spaces, to understand why these things are important."

2. Advocacy: "Design justice through community advocacy is a huge deal," Lee insisted. "You want to frame [protest] in the sense of what we do. We are designers, architects, tech people. So, to protest is to have an unyielding faith in the potential for a just society. It’s not aggression. It’s hope. In the face of every other concern, it is hope. Design at its best should aspire to have these characteristics."

So, what does this look like from a practical standpoint? Lee explained that embedding social justice into a design project is next to impossible without engaging community advocates -- the pavement-pounders, the sign-toters and the neighborhood meeting organizers. They are the ones who know the neighborhood, he explained, and their voices will not only empower the community through a given design or planning project, but also ensure the project is useful for the community and will enhance its culture rather than detract from it.

"We give the power and the agency back to the community," he explained. "That’s your key."

3. Policy, planning and architectural design: Of course, getting the right people into the architecture space and engaging with community members on the ground means nothing without the architecture and planning itself. To realize a truly just space, thoughtfulness and collaboration with the community at every phase is crucial, Lee explained.

He referenced a project he worked on in New Orleans, in the location where a highway essentially tore a scar through Faubourg Tremé, widely considered the oldest black neighborhood in America. Seeking to reclaim the highway underpass, designers held community meetings and asked residents about their hopes and dreams for the space. They then created renderings, which were open for public comment.

The result was a community marketplace, tested under real conditions at the Tremé/7th Ward Arts and Culture Festival over the Memorial Day weekend. The marketplace included classrooms at the request of the community, as well as spaces for pop-up eateries, events and live music. "We then changed our policy based on the interactions that happen with people and space," Lee explained.

Such a concept could work in any city, Lee said, but the resulting design will likely be different everywhere you go. The photo below shows how the marketplace serves to amplify the unique culture of New Orleans, and the results are clearly something to which every American city would aspire.

Peace. Love. Happiness. #t7fest #SoulRebels #budweiser #party #festival #positivevibes

A photo posted by Treme 7th Wd Cultural District (@t7_fest) on

The bottom line

From community engagement and meetings to back-and-forth conversations with residents about what they need -- rather than what designers think they need -- the bottom line here is all about culture, Lee said. It's about stories. And it's about ensuring that every American story can be told through our neighborhoods and our public spaces.

Not every "up-and-coming" neighborhood needs a yoga studio or an artisanal whiskey distillery. Are these things intrinsically bad? Of course not. But neither are arts centers, educational hubs or music venues. By honoring the fabric of our communities, we can develop them authentically and sustainably for the generations of tomorrow. Otherwise, we risk being left with hundreds of cities that are more or less the same. And that doesn't sound like much fun, does it?

"Stories are important. Buildings tell our stories, and diverse stories come from diverse cultures," Lee concluded last week.

"Culture is the consequence of persistent circumstance and immediate conditions — our cities, our neighborhoods, our blocks incubate this culture. And for people of color in America, there’s power in the places and spaces where our culture is recognized, where our stories are told, where our language is valued. Because that is not only good design, that is justice."

Image credits: Nic Burton for SXSW Eco

Instagram courtesy of the Treme 7th Ward Cultural District

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni