This article is part of the Building Equity series, which explores how architects are working with communities and civic leaders to develop creative, innovative design solutions that fight climate change, systemic racism, and inequities in the built environment. It’s time to show the world what design can do.
In June, 100 years after the “Black Wall Street” community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was attacked by a white mob, the United States announced federal action to change racial discrimination in one of the key factors behind wealth disparity in America: housing. “Shockingly, the percentage of Black American homeownership is lower today than it was 50 years ago,” President Joe Biden said. “That’s wrong, and we’re committed to changing that.”
For decades, redlining, restrictive zoning codes, and segregation have diminished the health of communities of color in the United States, decreasing life expectancy and creating a gap in health and wealth. A 2020 report by the Brookings Institution, for instance, states that the median net worth of a white family in the United States is nearly ten times ($171,000) that of a Black family ($17,150). According to the 2020 U.S. Census, the poverty rate among Black Americans (18.8%) is more than double that for white Americans (7.3%). Overall, this inequality can result in unhealthy living conditions, fewer resources for treatment, and devastating illness. According to a recent joint study by Stanford and Duke Universities, Black and Hispanic Americans made up 53% of all patients who died from COVID-19 during the first six months of 2020—a direct result of systemic inequality. “The pandemic has shone a spotlight on racial and ethnic disparities that have existed for years,” stated Fatima Rodriguez, MD, the lead author of the study. “Our study shows overrepresentation of Black and Hispanic patients … that needs to be addressed upstream, before hospitalization.”
Connecting communities with nutritious food sources is vital in improving health outcomes, while sustainable architecture can cut food waste and reduce emissions. For years, architects have worked with communities to bridge this divide. Now, with momentum from new federal programs and greater awareness of disparity in the wake of COVID-19, architects should continue to use design to address redlining and zoning and to improve public housing projects in innovative ways—creating greater equity for communities everywhere.
Planting seeds for better health outcomes
Redlining, a policy initiated by the government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in 1933, designated Black neighborhoods as “hazardous” on so-called residential security maps, leading to denied mortgages throughout the U.S.—and decades of widening gaps in wealth and health that remain to this day. In Dallas, for instance, along the South Central Expressway, there’s a predominantly Black neighborhood called Bonton that has suffered from redlining. Nearly half the residents live below the poverty line, and this section of Dallas has long been a food desert, with the closest grocery store more than an hour and a half away by bus. Now, however, the community is changing the narrative to inspire hope and reshape its image.
Daron Babcock first came to Bonton when a friend of his doing prison ministry introduced him to the residents. Many of the neighborhood’s men, he recalls, were unemployed and had criminal records and health issues. Babcock left his home in North Dallas in 2012 and relocated to Bonton. He started Bonton Farms—an urban farming initiative—and recruited several residents there to join him. The project grew slowly; they knew that to increase its impact, they’d need to scale up.
In 2014, The American Institute of Architects (AIA) Dallas Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) partnered with Bonton Farms to expand its reach. First, ELP participants tackled zoning, helping to change laws that prohibited selling food grown in a person’s yard. Next, Daniel Dain, AIA, and Laura Eder, AIA,—two ELP participants—developed plans for an indoor marketplace and café that could serve as a flagship for Bonton Farms. They began holding community meetings for feedback. “It was a great experience to listen to people’s stories and get their insight on what they wanted the building to be,” Dain says. “We knew we had to hear directly from them what’s really needed. The building won’t solve any problems by itself; it’s what they do with the space that matters.”
Babcock says bringing in architects is essential. “They help us right those wrongs by creating design projects to replicate what’s been done in other healthy communities,” he says.
“Bonton is a community for everyone, a beacon of hope in a challenging area,” Eder says. “It’s a neighborhood that has been neglected and is being brought back to life by its own residents because of their joy and passion. The people who live in Bonton have been here for generations.”
Adds Dain: “There’s been amazing growth and development in downtown Dallas and North Dallas and all these suburbs, with great jobs and all this stuff happening. But this little place in South Dallas hasn’t changed at all. The dichotomy of the two—you see so much investment and growth happening everywhere else, but this area has remained the same.”
Eder agrees. “A lot of this goes to the current conversation that’s happening in the world right now concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she says. “Architects can create spaces that feel welcoming, comfortable, and inclusive to everyone.”
Bonton’s history mirrors that of many under- and disinvested neighborhoods in the U.S., especially in major cities. Babcock says he knew of the history of Dallas’s segregation and Bonton’s exclusion from needed infrastructure, but witnessing it firsthand was jarring. The health disparities are many. According to a 2019 Dallas County Community Health Needs Assessment, Bonton residents have the shortest life expectancy of any neighborhood in the county—65, compared with the countywide high of 90.
Removing barriers for economic growth
For decades, zoning laws across the U.S. partitioned communities of color and created concentrations of poverty. By restricting residential spaces to single-family use, for instance, these laws often excluded low- and moderate-income families from housing. Architects are increasingly working with communities to change zoning laws and allow more mixed-income, mixed-use housing, creating equitable opportunities for business and neighborhood growth.
In Chicago, just a few steps from 51st Street and the Green Line train stop on the South Side, there’s an enterprise bubbling up called Boxville. Boxville is the city’s first shipping-container mall and street-food market, located in Bronzeville, a historic Black community. Considered a food desert like Bonton, Bronzeville created Boxville to increase access to healthy food and spur the economy. One of the first vendors was Green City Market, a nonprofit organization looking to expand its fresh food operation.
Sharon Samuels, AIA, is the design architect behind Boxville. Accessibility from public transportation was important in bringing businesses to the project. She explains: “The lines that run through neighborhoods like Uptown and Lincoln Park, you can’t get off the train without having at least six or seven businesses within walking distance. But you get off the train on the South and West Side, and you see vacant lots. Why should these neighborhoods be any different?”
The idea behind Boxville, Samuels says, is to create an accessible space that eases into a plaza, “front-porch style.” Boxville’s mission prioritizes sustainability and addresses climate change.
Boxville’s first phase is complete. As more businesses open, more containers will be added, with plans to include solar panels, a geothermal system, and recycled water. Currently, architects are working with civic leaders to install sustainable features. Zoning laws remain a persistent hurdle on Chicago’s South and West Side, Samuels says. According to her, the laws are “archaic,” prevent economic development and have blocked several of her projects in the city.
Delivering the tools for better nutrition
Gentrification can heighten tensions between longtime residents and newcomers, and the generational wealth gap between white community members and people of color may be a contributing factor.
Duron Chavis, who manages several urban agricultural projects in Richmond, Virginia, has a solution: Food. A seasoned organizer and food-justice advocate, Chavis quickly mobilized resources to jump-start Resiliency Gardens at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and began distributing raised beds directly to people’s yards throughout the city.
“COVID showed how fragile the food system really is,” Chavis says. “If we didn’t get stimulus checks and food stamps, America would have turned into a developing country during the crisis. All these people lost their jobs and had no money. They wouldn’t have had food to eat.”
Chavis defines food justice as the right for people to produce, distribute, aggregate, and innovate food on their own terms, in their own communities. He doesn’t shy away from connecting the dots on how slavery, Jim Crow, racial violence, and gentrification continue to impact Black communities in the former capital of the Confederacy. Architects, he says, are crucial when it comes to revitalizing neighborhoods. He studied geographic information system maps of Richmond, his hometown, paying close attention to the Southside, his neighborhood. The data made perfect sense, he said—the hot spots for chronic disease were roughly the same areas on the map where people had limited access to healthy food. And outside his neighborhood, he saw green spaces throughout the city.
“Gardening is one area where we can all come to an agreement that, yes, there are inequities in the built environment as it relates to even just green space. It shouldn’t be a luxury to have green space in your community. Green space should be productive and responsive to community needs.”
City planning—the housing market included—is built on a history of segregation. Architects, appraisers, real estate agents, the banking industry, and local governments have all been complicit in perpetuating it, says Mabel Wilson, a professor of Architecture and African American Studies at Columbia University. She says that architects can be a part of the solution to undo the damage. Wilson dedicated her career to examining the nexus of race, public health, and architecture.
“In cities, the areas that were hardest hit by the pandemic usually correlate with areas that were redlined in the 1930s,” she says. “That built zones of poverty into the city that are sustained because racism is systemic. And those become areas with high rates of incarceration and few social services. I’ve looked at maps that start to correlate these relationships.”
“Our society still talks about these challenges as people problems. To me, it’s more of an environmental-design problem,” Babcock says. “Our inner-city communities were developed to intentionally leave out critical infrastructure that is necessary for the people who call those places home to build healthy, productive lives.”
Chavis echoes this sentiment.
“It’s envisioning that creation,” he says, “that imagining of what cities can be like and look and feel like that gives folks something to dream toward, and hope toward, and rally around.”