Social justice through design

Designers work with Edible Schoolyard NYC, building garden structures to supplement the organization’s food justice goals and education initiatives. Photo credit: Todd Winters.

By Kathleen M. O’Donnell

People around the world are subject to a broad range of injustices. Inequities in a community can be the result of systematic racism, classism, sexism, and other biases that find their way into the policy, infrastructure, and services of a city. The built environment is unfortunately not immune to imposing injustices. Design choices can sometimes marginalize citizens, but architects are seeking to address this through a philosophy and movement called design justice.

Design justice leader and architect Theresa Hwang is founder and director of Los Angeles’ Department of Places, an organization that uses the power of participatory design to strengthen neighborhoods. Ahead of the AIA Design Justice Summit, she shares their insights about how cities can be made more just and happy through design.

How do you define design justice?

Theresa Hwang: Design justice is actively deploying design, as both projects and processes, to dismantle white supremacy and its systemic forms of oppression, to move towards a more equitably resourced built environment, that supports all neighborhoods and residents. Design justice reclaims the design process to build power, so that people control the decisions over their neighborhoods and self-determine the outcomes of their everyday experience in the built environment, regardless of their race, gender identity, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, citizenship status, and beyond.

What are some of the common problems that advocates of design justice seek to address?

TH: I believe issues that are commonly addressed include the lack of affordable housing, environmental and health hazards in communities, limited access to quality open spaces, and limited opportunities to decide what happens in and to, one’s neighborhood.  As design justice evolves, designers are seeking to prevent ways racial segregation continues in neighborhoods, how gentrification is erasing the memory and identity of communities of color, and how development continues to reinforce class disparities.

How can design of the built environment directly contribute to a more just and inclusive society?

TH: The built environment is the continuous backdrop and home to many of the experiences of daily life. A more just neighborhood only affords greater opportunity, mental health, social cohesion, confidence, and opportunity for self-expression and joy.  When one has a safe, nurturing home, block, neighborhood, you have the ability to grow and thrive.  The just design of the built environment extends beyond aesthetic merit, to include opportunities for community members to actively take part in deciding the development of their neighborhood, having control and power over where one lives, access to programs and resources that generate sustained wealth and on-going opportunities for growth.

The built environment is a manifestation of dominant society’s values and priorities. It’s the physical product of intention. A more just built environment can heal. Design justice can create an everyday experience where everyone can see their own identity and story within the neighborhood, where one feels connected to their surroundings. A just built environment makes you feel important, valued, honored and held. Currently, limited stories and identities are visible, welcomed, and supported in the built environment.

Tell us a story of design justice in action.

TH: Since 2009, I had the privilege to work alongside committed community leaders and advocates in Skid Row, Los Angeles. From 2013-2015, we organized to develop Our Skid Row, a resident-driven plan for equitable development. Skid Row is the site of the highest concentration of unhoused individuals in the United States. Although originally a transient community, Skid Row evolved into a place of permanence with long-term residents with a strong social fabric that supports extensive grassroots organizing efforts to strengthen the neighborhood.

Our Skid Row is a community-led, collective vision that redesigned and reimaged Skid Row to actively center and support very low-income and houseless residents. Over 380 people, including resident leaders, unhoused people, non-profit organizations, and activists, designed solutions to improve and enhance the neighborhood. Our Skid Row prioritized residents that are often marginalized and excluded during traditional planning processes. Our Skid Row reflects the positive aspects of the community and celebrates the people into the built environment.

My role as designer took the form of facilitator.  I designed activities and tools to support community members to articulate their own vision and synthesized collective ideas. With the launch of the community vision Our Skid Row, years later, the plan continues to serve as an advocacy tool that organizers refer to, representing the vision and needs of the community.

How can local government and nonprofit organizations contribute to a more just built environment?

TH: I think right now, the majority of a more just built environment falls into the scope of work and duty of nonprofits and government.  Already, many non-profits are working in communities to ensure residents have access to spaces and programs that fill resource gaps.

I think a more strategic question would be, how can private firms contribute to a more just built environment? Everyone has a place and position in the creation of justice in the built environment, the onus should not only fall on the shoulders of nonprofits and municipalities.  The private sector should be held to the same expectation of developing more justice in this world, rather than complicit to sustaining existing systems of exploitation and exclusion.


Learn more about working with an architect in your area, by contacting an AIA chapter near you.