Design for Equity
There’s a new kind of practitioner in town, one that bridges the gap between good design and social justice—and dismantles systems of exclusion.
The fields of design and architecture are shifting.
Art and design professionals have long collaborated to ask questions about our shared public spaces, the land we are on, our relationships to one another, and our built environment, and recently we’ve seen a rise in social practice, community-centered design, and co-design emerging as new ways to practice.
Historically, architecture and public design practices have been largely dominated by White designers, and traditional art and design education have mostly eliminated community members and social issues from this process of investigation. Over the past few years we have seen an emergence of artists and designers of color, bringing lived experienced to the places they design, leading the charge in changing what questions are asked, and engaging their skills as facilitators and listeners rather than only as outside experts. Essentially, they’re addressing issues of social justice.
Here’s why this shift is so important: Inequitable distribution of access to food, healthcare, parks, safe and stable housing, and welcoming spaces are all results of the many years of unbalanced, discriminatory policies and decisions made by a privileged few on local and national levels.
When architects, landscape architects, and urban planners address these inequities through more inclusive and equitable community-centered processes, these dominant systems can be dismantled—through design. Engaging community members, young people, elders, new immigrants, indigenous people, residents and others as partners is an essential part of the process and necessary to ensuring equity. Designers working in this way are setting a new standard for what “good” design should look like in our country and who gets to decide.
The design process itself—when designers ask questions, analyze current conditions, find gaps, and work to resolve these gaps—is where significant change can begin. When the community is involved, the act of evaluating systems, processes, and programs is itself a form of social justice. Designers who prioritize inclusion are:
- sharing power with community members, creating access to processes not every community has had the privilege of being involved in;
- understanding the mechanisms that perpetuate oppression, and dismantling systems and tenets of White supremacy that have dominated the creation of our built environment, distribution of resources, and access to power;
- putting empathy at the forefront of their process, using deep listening skills to truly understand the needs of people affected by these oppressive systems, amplifying human dignity, connecting people to each other, and remembering that people are human beings with emotions and opinions;
- creating spaces and places that are designed for the person who currently has the least amount of access, and working cues into the design that all are actually welcome in the space; and
- generating actions, operations, and locations that establish social and physical conditions which encourage and allow people to reach their full human potential—and to do this work themselves.
“People don’t think they deserve good design,” Quardean Lewis-Allen, founder of Made in Brownsville, once said to me. That means design is seen as being reserved for only certain people. But because design creatively addresses challenges and prompts examination of how we use our shared resources, we can all benefit from it. And because a more inclusive approach essentially creates new systems and methods of movement, sharing, and use of space, good design changes the course of our existence.
Read on about the work of Quardean and others who are breaking processes open and addressing issues of social justice through their design work.
DEANNA VAN BUREN
For six years, Deanna Van Buren worked in the mainstream of architecture designing large retail structures in Europe. On her return home to the U.S. she was keen to reconnect with African-American culture. So on Martin Luther King’s birthday in 2006, she went to a Black church in East Oakland, California, to hear the veteran activist Angela Davis and her sister, Fania. The topic: restorative justice—in which victims, perpetrators, and community members meet to decide how to repair the harm done by crime.
Van Buren had an epiphany. Restorative justice, with its emphasis on human connection and solution-finding rather than abstract statutes, struck her as “a much more logical, more realistic approach than our current judicial system. It’s more aligned with human nature. ‘Blind justice,’ absolutely objective justice, is impossible,” she says. “We’re subjective, emotional beings, and a system that allows for that is the one we need to embrace, because it works.”
She found her life’s work that night: designing spaces for restorative justice to flourish. For her, current “justice architecture”—courtrooms, jails—is too rigid and forbidding for the restorative paradigm. “Architecture amplifies our social interactions,” she says. “The current spaces, and the activities that go on in them, are traumatizing.”
With developer Kyle Rawlins, she founded Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS), a nonprofit architectural and real estate development firm in Oakland. Generally partnering with community organizations, DJDS has developed restorative justice and peacemaking spaces and structures. The design challenges include balancing an open, light-filled, domestic-scaled atmosphere open to the natural world and including objects of beauty—all of which help participants “regulate their nervous systems,” Van Buren says—with giving participants a sense of safety.
But DJDS also addresses the needs that foster the “school-to-prison pipeline” in communities of color: with, for example, a refurbished city bus that serves as a mobile schoolhouse bringing learning and other resources to struggling neighborhoods; and the Women’s Mobile Refuge Center, a mobile unit that allows women who have been released from incarceration in the middle of the night (a standard practice) to spend a safe night and prepare themselves for the next phase of their lives. (Van Buren, who begins every project with listening sessions, was surprised to hear that the women didn’t want beds in the trailer. “They didn’t want to take a nap,” she says. “They wanted to get their hair ready, get a change of clothes, contact their caseworker. They did want comfortable furniture they didn’t have in jail—a Barcalounger!”)
For Van Buren, these new structures and spaces are not just adaptations to new attitudes about justice; they’re ways of concretizing them. “When you build for a new set of beliefs about justice,” she says, “I believe it anchors the beliefs.”
When landscape architect Satoko Muratake graduated from the University of Minnesota College of Design, she had done plenty of theoretical study but, as she puts it, “I felt that the people focus was lacking. I wanted more engagement with communities. How does what I do affect the lives of people?”
Muratake, born in Japan and now a Senior Associate at Minneapolis’ TEN x TEN landscape architectural firm, has continued to live that question, working on projects that elevate the voices behind historic contexts and facilitate co-creation of public places that foster a sense of belonging in the community.
The first of these came right after she earned her Master of Landscape Architecture degree at UMN. “I stumbled into Juxtaposition Arts,” she says. Juxtaposition began as an after-school arts mentorship program for urban youth in Minneapolis’s North Side, and has evolved into a center for training in arts-and-design-based skills that allow opportunities for self-discovery, entrepreneurship, and academic advancement.
The organization was about to buy a property for a permanent home, and Muratake brought her research experience to bear on understanding the demographics and the needs of the area. Fifty percent of North Minneapolis’s population was under 21; the majority were African American, with a high percentage of Asians and Hispanics and some Native Americans. Thirty-six percent of population was below poverty level. There were needs for positive mentorship, educational opportunities, and creative outlets for young people in the neighborhood, and Juxtaposition Arts fit right in to fill the gap.
As part of her work in program planning, Muratake and others taught kids architectural design skills and implemented some public art ideas with youth coming to the program, like pocket park, street furniture, and mural. “It was about giving people the tools they need to make their own mark, to take their own place in society,” she says.
Muratake has been an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota and a Research Fellow at its Metropolitan Design Center, but at TEN x TEN she has been able to collaborate on creating spaces where stories from the margins of Twin Cities society and history can be told.
When TEN x TEN and collaborators were brought in to create a park and plaza memorializing the Rondo neighborhood, a center of St. Paul’s Black life that was destroyed when an interstate spur was built through its heart, one of Muratake’s roles was to lead a design workshop with Rondo Avenue, Inc., the community nonprofit that has worked tirelessly to keep the memory of the neighborhood alive. “Rondo was a great and truly community-led project,” she says. “We were humbled by their visions.”
She’s also working on TEN x TEN’s part in an ambitious project aimed at transforming the drab Mississippi riverfront in North Minneapolis in ways that allow its residents to enjoy the river.
“Uncovering stories like the institutional racism that led to the destruction of a community like Rondo, or reclaiming Mississippi River access for the North Minneapolis community are complex tasks,” she says. “It takes visionary community leaders, political will, dedication, and time.”
For her, collaboration with the community has been a powerful experience. “I believe we grew together as we shared many views of how to address the social issues of our time through design, art, and youth education,” she says. “Going forward, we hope to build a like-minded working community, making places that are just, authentic, inclusive, and future-focused.”
“Early in my life, I experienced the loss of a family member by gun violence,” says Quardean Lewis-Allen. “It had to do with a vacant lot. I wanted to break the association between vacant spaces and violence—and improve the quality of life in the neighborhood.”
Lewis-Allen decided to fill vacant spaces by designing buildings—by becoming an architect. But it was his awareness of the challenges facing a budding African-American architect from inner-city neighborhoods like his own Brownsville, Brooklyn, that led him to his biggest “building” project: Made in Brownsville (MiB). It’s a creative agency where young people learn marketable skills in the digital-design world. In the process, they show the world and themselves that high-end creativity is alive and well in an inner-city neighborhood.
Lewis-Allen says that the hurdles he had to face in becoming an architect weren’t huge—more in the nature of “inconvenient ignorances.” Not knowing how to convert his on-paper design work to slides, for example, led to “several incomplete undergraduate applications.” He eventually was accepted into SUNY–Buffalo, and went on to the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “But if I had met even one designer earlier in my life, I wouldn’t have had that portfolio problem,” he says.
It was the only senior Black architect he knew who persuaded him to apply to Harvard, “because as a person of color, I needed the best credential I could possibly get.” He cites the barriers that most designers of color are up against: the costs of licensing are significant, family connections in the profession are few—and mentoring can be hard to come by.
So MiB teaches and mentors high-school-age young people in design thinking, art, multimedia, and tech and communication skills—including graphic design, video, animation, 3D design, printmaking, painting, 3D modeling and fabrication, photography, coding, robotics, and web design and development.
It’s a nonprofit, but Lewis-Allen is by no means tied to that model. “Too often, folks serving marginalized communities feel like the nonprofit route is the only way to go,” he says. “But we lose out on important things like access to property if we aren’t building equity. There’s a piece of MiB that can be a for-profit entity and probably be very successful.”
While he says there are no immediate plans for such an entity, preparations are under way to launch Made in East New York in the neighborhood that adjoins Brownsville on the southeast. And he hopes the projects can expand their impact. “We can use digital marketing and media to forward the goals of small business and the arts community here,” he says. “To create an online hub for information and resource sharing that can put a positive spotlight on the neighborhood—for a positive economic and social impact for the next generation.”
Architect Joseph Kunkel, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member, wanted to make a difference for Native people. He knew all about their struggles for decent housing—the overcrowding, the lack of basic amenities. But then, in 2013, four years out of grad school and having worked on education-related building projects in Canada and Bolivia, he embarked on a HUD-funded project to study the best examples of affordable-housing design by tribal housing authorities around the U.S.—and he was, as he puts it, “lifted up.”
“I realized that, if they’re given the opportunity, tribes have the self-determination to do this work,” he says. “We have the capacity, we have the intuition, and we will build.” He found innovative tribal housing projects to admire, including the Puyallup Longhouse/Place of Hidden Waters in Tacoma, Washington, a LEED-certified development inspired by the traditional Salish longhouse, which was garnering praise in the mainstream architectural press.
And that, in a sense, defines Kunkel’s double mission as a designer and the executive director of SNC Design Lab (formerly Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative, or SNCC) in Santa Fe, New Mexico: to design and build structures that are comfortable, beautiful, and culturally appropriate for Native people, while also showing the non-Native world just how compelling contemporary design from an Indigenous perspective can be.
The HUD research project was carried on while Kunkel held an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship, the focus of which was to design housing in cooperation with the Santo Domingo Tribal Housing Authority in New Mexico. Kunkel worked out a plan for 41 two-story units that echoed the style of traditional Pueblo dwellings, and which offered ample communal space for community gatherings. “And we created 41 art studios,” he notes, “because 75 percent of the residents in Santo Domingo make their primary living from art.”
Kunkel did careful pre-design work, the most important element of which was listening, a strong cultural value in Indian country. “But historically, Native communities haven’t been listened to,” he says. “And architectural education itself has come from a place of privilege. The architect develops a body of knowledge and becomes this supposedly all-knowing person. I’ve flipped that on its head by saying that communities are the architects of their own destiny.”
Kunkel first connected with SNCC during his fellowship, and now, as its director since 2017, he oversees its role of, as the organization’s website puts it, “synthesizing and disseminating best practices of native design through research, case studies, tools and resources for tribal developers.”
For Kunkel, a 2019 Obama Fellow, this boils down to a few questions: “How do we start to reframe what architecture can do? Instead of dominating and repressing a community, how can it respond to the culture of those people? How can it heal?”