May 05, 2016
BY: , and
THEME: Point of View

Four Ways Designers Can Help Bring Equity into Communities

Inequity in our communities is at an all-time high. The physical indicators are easy to spot – physically and socially disconnected from the greater city, these neighborhoods lack access to the essential components of livability. Often, the residents of these neighborhoods are comprised of historically-marginalized populations. Access to livable amenities, such as quality education, affordable housing, livable wages, vibrant community spaces, and reliable transit is essential for decreasing this disparity. As designers, it is essential that we get involved in the conversation and help create a more equitable future for our communities. Here are four ways we’ve joined the equity conversation.

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1: Recognize the Problem and Start a Conversation

To address a problem as deeply rooted as inequity, we cannot continue to find solutions for the surface-level issues. The causes need to be tackled. Often, it is the city or municipal policy makers who address these root issues.  Lend your voice to the mix and connect with your official community leaders on the current state of affairs.  What if each of these city representatives went through race equity and social justice training? For example, in our hometown Seattle the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) is a leading force in educating all city employees, board, and commission members on the subject of racial inequalities that have plagued Seattle’s history.

The San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects launched Equity by Design and is developing a conversation within the design community around issues of gender representation in the field. Their 2014 Equity in Architecture Survey report, highlighting the inequity in our profession, has sparked national and global media attention on ways to alleviate the imbalance. Our office in Seattle recently held an open discussion about equity in our profession. And firm-wide, Perkins+Will’s Diversity + Inclusion + Engagement initiative has focused on establishing awareness and moving beyond barriers.  Starting and then actively participating in the conversation is the first step.

2: Get Others Involved

Consider outreach opportunities and how to facilitate engaging a diverse set of stakeholders in the conversation around design and development. You may discover unique synergies by engaging a wider audience. If you have a program in place to donate or contribute pro bono work to your community, be sure that others know about it too!

Perkins+Will offices do this through our Social Responsibility Initiative. We have been approached by community members, developers, other consultants and contractors to help bring community-enriching projects to fruition. These efforts are exciting and community-building experiences. We recently completed a project where our contractor engaged labor apprentices to complete concrete and paint finish work. This is a win-win: the apprentice gets a chance to log supervised labor hours she or he is required to complete, while the client is receiving a discounted labor rate. Sometimes, after-the-fact donations come in that could have been game changers. For example, a furniture vendor that could have helped refinish a space with donated pieces or at a discounted rate would have lowered the entire project budget. Instead, the post-facto donation, while appreciated, is not accounted for in the original scope of work. Engaging different constituent elements early can help reduce this type of missed opportunity.

A picture from the Move Day Celebration for Mary's Place Family Shelter.

A picture from the Move Day Celebration for Mary’s Place Family Shelter.

3: Research and Investigate Equity Disparities

All parties should participate in the planning process and commit to the shared goals and values that shape the growth of a vibrant and inclusive city. Equity has to be a pervasive quality of institutional practice and policy. Seattle is facing the highest rate of growth since the Klondike Gold Rush. This growth can lead to problems: a recently declared state of emergency on homelessness by the Seattle’s mayor has been layered on top of the already acknowledged affordable housing crisis. With these considerations in mind, the City of Seattle released its first draft of an equity study in 2015 to complement its major comprehensive plan update for the city. These efforts are working in tandem with the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), to both increase affordable housing opportunities in the city and bring awareness to the many sides of the existing needs of the city,  from transportation, to access to housing, childcare, and business centers, and more.  Efforts such as these are happening in many cities. Look for ways to get involved and engage public resources to further conversations in private or institutional settings.

A Seattle Design Festival workshop is a great opportunity to engage with other designers on ways to impact the communities we work in. Photo: Trevor Dykstra.

A Seattle Design Festival workshop is a great opportunity to engage with other designers on ways to impact the communities we work in. Photo: Trevor Dykstra.

4: Turn Conversation into Policy and Design

Whether it’s an analysis of equity and its impact on the physical, social, and financial approaches of a project, or drafting a framework for an equitable community plan, conversation should lead to an implementation strategy. Set the expectation that community design will ensure equity-based outcomes. The NYC Parks’ Framework for an Equitable Future is a leading example of a community-based approach to bringing more access to park initiatives and programming to historically-marginalized communities in New York City’s five boroughs. More universally, Parking Day advocates for public parks in cities across the globe and encourages innovation in public spaces. A direct outcome has been parklet programs and newly created green spaces in a handful of cities.

As designers, urban planners, and architects, we have a unique understanding of spaces, how they affect people, and the opportunities they can create. Studies have shown that regions that work toward equity have stronger and more resilient economic growth—and that affects everyone.

The time is now to get involved in your community and for you to join the conversation.

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