Equity By Design: Architects as Catalysts for Community Engagement & Social Impact

What if the principles of equity were expanded beyond the current perception of a workplace-world focus and into the design of cities and communities? We’d get results like the three panelists that my colleague, Rosa Sheng, FAIA, assembled at the 2018 AIA Conference on Design. Katherine Darnstadt, Michael Ford, and Garrett Jacobs joined Rosa in a discussion on their very different approaches to equity and achievement in their communities, each sharing compelling stories of how they’ve found their voice and broken through barriers along the way. The architectural profession has many valuable paths to follow.

Michael Ford, also known as “The Hip Hop Architect,” is committed to the positive impact of written and verbal communication on design, especially its ability to engage young people into a constructive, optimistic discussion regarding architecture and urban design. The complexity and engaging approaches hip hop rhymes take to describing and posing solutions to important social issues prompted a not-as-wild-as-it-seems idea to create the “Hip Hop Architecture” concept. Through a series of trials and experiments, he’s evolved a program of camps that help engage kids in underserved communities with the practice of architecture and urban design. It’s a profoundly non-traditional approach to teaching design intent and impact not directly rooted in traditional Western Greco-Roman precedent. Hands-on design work takes place simultaneously with the development of hip hop rhymes expressing design objectives and positive outcomes. During the session, Michael shared a video of one of his campers at the session performing their rhyme – it was amazing, clearly focused, and reminds us of the fundamentals we were taught in our early years in architecture school – to find links between creative expression and the spoken or written word. Michael’s work has been featured in Rolling Stone, on the Today Show, and across the web.

Katherine Darnstadt recounted her challenging career entrance as she coped with being both newly licensed and laid-off at the start of the Great Recession in 2010. Assessing her options and considering possible paths forward, Katherine embarked on a community-focused design practice exploring ideas of tactical urbanism and pop-up solutions in underserved communities. Called “Latent Design,” her message is an energizing approach of small moves that might not seem heroic but have big impacts. She demonstrated her approach in an interesting move that repurposed a former city bus obtained at auction to deliver fresh produce to inner cities, chipping away at the painful statistic that 25-percent of the U.S. population lives in a food desert. In another bold strategy, the frustration of not being able to entice general contractors to participate in small (say, $20,000) community service construction projects prompted her to obtain her own general contracting license in Chicago. It turns out that it’s not that complicated or costly a process, yet it opens doors for her and her team to experiment with prefabrication, innovation, and development of new skill sets not normally utilized by young architects. These small projects thread the gaps between protracted zoning and community approval process that can sometimes cause good ideas to wither. The speed-to-market “why not” approach is a space where we’d all like to spend more time practicing architecture, and Katherine is a great example of how this can be done well.

Garrett Jacobs launched the Open Architecture Collaborative as an international community of designers working inside local communities to solve social and infrastructure challenges. Established under the premise that education is key to solving issues of social equity, so themes of inclusion, access, co-creation, equity, diversity, and sharing become key themes for their strategy. As part of a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, Garrett’s team has developed a branded “Pathways to Equity” training program for emerging professionals that focuses on development of skills and experiences that promote healthy engagement of communities as they envision how to redesign themselves. With about two dozen chapters worldwide, their idea of teaching more/building less has clearly gained traction and demonstrates that inclusively building knowledge and critical capabilities is a road to empowerment and social equity. The interesting aspect of this is that it’s a selfless expression of architecture that derives value not from what the architects (and other team collaborators) care to design, but how much they care about guiding a community towards a design for themselves. Garrett’s team helps navigate entitlements, zoning, analysis, and consensus building in a way that makes the community’s solutions seem inevitable, not contrived.

Rosa’s session tied in nicely to AIA President Carl Elefante, FAIA’s plea for architects to consider their relevance to society and act accordingly in conjunction with the U.N. initiative, “The New Urban Agenda.” Throughout the 2018 AIA Conference on Architecture, we saw a full spectrum of projects that were relevant to society and routes for each of us to become even more relevant than we might think we are already. Half a century ago, Whitney Young spoke at the AIA Annual Convention in Portland, Oregon and delivered a serious indictment of the architectural profession. Worth a read, you can almost hear the stunned silence that was probably there during delivery. As Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans and huge engine for the Detroit Renaissance, would say, “no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” For me, that was a theme that tied this panel’s success together and challenges us all to work harder, do better, and don’t avoid those seemingly crazy, non-traditional ideas that might just work.

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