We the People – Leveraging Design for Social Equity

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February 25, 2021


Discovery, Healing, Learning

By Melanie Harris

I am an architect. I am also a woman of color.

As a brown woman, and now a citizen who emigrated to the United States from India 17 years ago, the recent unrest in our country following the death of George Floyd has made me pause and think about the role of architecture and architects in building a world that not only encourages but demands equity through design.

As architects, we must use our voices to educate, advocate, and demand a say in the future of our world. We are leaving legacies that define a narrative too important to ignore. The buildings we design become vessels of a collective consciousness. To see architecture in the sum of its parts is paramount. Here’s how we can do that:

Design for the People. We have been taught to design to the context, a varied array of constraints, and to the site. But let us also start designing for those who use the space. For example, in certain economically impoverished areas, it is important to provide larger waiting areas in clinics than is the industry standard. This allows larger families with siblings and grandparents to attend appointments with the primary patient when childcare is too expensive or not available. Understanding the people who use the space and the way the space will be used has such value in design, yet it is often overlooked for aesthetics, budget constraints, or schedule demands.

Empower the People. We must inspire neighborhoods to take pride in improving their quality of life. Instead of allowing gentrification that forces out a community’s indigenous residents, we must add resources that allow them to invest in the future of their neighbors and their community. Programs such as urban farms operated and used by the community, sustainable initiatives providing green energy sources at a discount, increased access to education specific to preventive healthcare and well-being, and community art and upgrade programs allowing neighbors to define their surroundings are all great means to accomplish this.

Stay Invested in the Community. More often than not, architects and designers are removed from the job once the project is complete and occupied. Like doctors’ follow-up visits, we should endeavor to conduct post-occupancy evaluations – particularly in impoverished neighborhoods and on projects that deeply affect the community, such as clinics, hospitals, schools, and housing – and take any necessary corrective action to make sure our buildings serve all the people for whom they were designed, not just owners or clients.

Strive for Inclusion. We must locate and design accessible public spaces for people of all races and economic standings. Instead of using parks and plazas as a tool to separate, we must see these as opportunities to engage and integrate. Design has the power to address concerns regarding safety and security. We must not allow these concerns to prevent us from doing what is right. Let’s understand the importance of established minority neighborhoods. Let’s learn how to work with the local community by providing the proper resources and support to enhance a community and meet its needs.

I cannot wait for the day when, regardless of race, sex, gender, or economic status, we all have equal rights to safety, security, a sense of belonging, and self-value. The very first words of our Constitution are “We the People of the United States.” Our country cannot move forward until there is equity for all of its citizens. At the very foundation of our democracy is the right to shape our future for the betterment of all the people. As leaders in the building industry, we have a professional and moral obligation to use our skills and training to achieve this goal, now more than ever.

Melanie, healing practice director, shares more insights on her LinkedIn page, here.