Racism, Design and the Built Environment
Traditional design practice perpetuates and supports the dehumanization and killing of Black people. The intersection between racism, design and the built environment is a part of the primary building blocks of this country. For generations, urban planning, policy making, architecture and landscape architecture have been used as tools to further oppress and marginalize Black people. Collectively, the related professions determine what resources are allocated to our communities, how communities are planned and designed, and who, ultimately, benefits from these decisions (which, largely, isn’t Black people).
The physical design of the built environment impacts every aspect of our lives including housing, food, education, employment and health. These all contribute to our social, emotional and economic well-being. Yet, design leadership is largely white, which does not reflect the diversity in our communities. In the US, only 0.4% of licensed architects are Black women. This lack of diversity highlights the historic exclusion of Black people from decision making power in our built environment. This systematic exclusion, and upholding of whiteness, continues to have harmful impacts on Black people.
These impacts include racist housing practices that segregated neighborhoods and limited Black wealth-building opportunities; highways built by eminent domain through Black neighborhoods; the destruction of Black business districts, historic neighborhoods, epicenters, and cultural spaces; the militarization of police, mass incarceration and increased patrolling in Black neighborhoods; inequitable access to public transportation and fresh food in Black communities; polluted neighborhoods and environmental health risks; housing disparities accelerated by disasters; the displacement of Black people from their neighborhoods; and the list goes on.
Generally, these examples are illustrated as isolated acts of circumstance used to negate acknowledgement and responsibility from those that uphold and benefit from notions of white supremacy. However, these impacts all point to the issue of structural racism in this country. And, in the midst of a pandemic and economic uncertainty, history repeats itself to show that these racist and interconnected assaults continuously aim to slash through, kill, and uproot Black people and neighborhoods. In short, traditional design practice was created by and for white people, which produces and reinforces place-based inequities and injustice.
Architects have a “positive duty to protect the health, safety and welfare” of the public, but recent events highlight the need to evaluate, exactly, which part of the “public” is being referenced. Historically, our “public” has never operated as a unified front encompassing all people. And, traditional design practice solely amplifies this divide. This was the premise of my 2019 keynote address during the New Orleans’ chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ CEUniversity. If we are to radically shift the paradigm of design and design professions, we must acknowledge the historical harm done against Black people, and act NOW.
Now is the time to ask: “How will we transform traditional design practice and the decisions made about our built environment to ensure that Black people’s health, safety and welfare are protected?”
Now is the time to eradicate the toxic social conditioning that restricts Black people’s ability to move freely through spaces and places, which triggers embedded trauma and, at times, the killing of Black bodies.
Now is the time to release Black people from blame for systemic wrongdoing created and upheld in the built environment. A few months ago, there were media reports that alluded that the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Black people is due to the inability of Black people to make moral decisions about their health. We shall no longer accept false narratives that blatantly ignore American history. Black people are not to blame for structural racism (or our varied responses to it), nor the impact it continues to have on the livelihoods of Black people.
Now is the time for curriculum reform in collegiate design education; and to intentionally teach kids about design and the opportunities to promote justice and healing in our built environment.
Now is the time to actively balance joy and justice. The image of breathless Black bodies in private and public spaces is forever etched in our minds, and the inherent trauma is a part of our daily lived experience. Simply, this is heavy, and Black labor (emotionally and physically) has always been exploited. Take time to rest and prioritize self-perseverance in the midst of justice. This is also a part of the resistance.
Now is the time to develop strategies and take action, which includes being mindful of our collective economic spending power. Black people spend over 1 trillion dollars on consumer goods. Now is the time to redirect this power into our own communities; and demand that corporations take an active stance on racial justice, and amend the harm they’ve created in Black communities.
Now is the time to hold people and organizations accountable. There is an over saturation of non-profits, professional organizations and design firms that preach hashtag equity. They use Black faces for photo ops and financial marketing stunts, but have been quiet during this time. Their silence is loud and clear. Now is the time to call them out and financially dis-invest from organizations that aren’t active in the fight towards justice.
Now is the time to ask, “How will you ensure that Black people’s health, safety and welfare are protected? And ultimately, what are you willing to sacrifice?”
Now is the time for design to be redesigned.