Not Just a Building: Using Design and Advocacy to Create More Socially Just Communities

Every major U.S. city has been historically affected by social and spatial injustice in some way, from housing to policing to policymaking. And reversing generations of unjust policy making and economic disenfranchisement will require individuals across industries to take an active role in redefining  our cities.

An HKS panel recently explored what the architecture industry can do to help create more socially just communities. As stewards of the building environment, architects, designers and planners have the unique opportunity to redistribute power to undeserved communities by translating their vision and voices into the spaces around them.

The multidisciplinary panel, organized as part of HKS’ two-week ESG in Design Celebration and moderated by HKS Project Designer Hilari Jones, captured how the industry can enable social justice through urbanism, policy, and community-focused projects to encourage inclusion and a stronger sense of belonging among the people those projects serve.

Each speaker touched on the value of diverse teams, repairing community relationships, and scaling the impacts to enable broader change.

‘Designing for Humans’

For New York Architect and Keynote Speaker Pascale Sablan, socially just design starts with intentionality.

“We need to not just think about the client who pays the bills, but also who is impacted by the projects and structures that we are developing,” said Sablan, who founded the organization, Beyond the Built Environment, to advocate for equitable environments that reflect the diversity of their people.

Success in architecture is often evaluated on the finished product: How big is it? What features does it have? What makes it unique? The panelists emphasized that design teams should challenge themselves to think bigger, defining their purpose and processes early on and ensuring that each project meets those shared goals.

“It’s actually not a building – it’s an opportunity. Who are you going to invite to be your partner in that?” said panelist Karen Weigert, of the climate-focused nonprofit Slipstream.

“And we forget that we’re designing for humans,” Patricia Acevedo of JLG Architects added. “If we’re looking inside our site, we’re forgetting that architecture is the first impression that people have of any town.”

Repairing Community Relationships

Community engagement is more than simply checking off a box before starting a project, the speakers said. The planning process should be a human-centered approach that strives to serve, not harm, the people whom the project touches.

At the start of any project, it’s wise for designers to identify who isn’t in the room and invite them to have a say in the decision-making process. Failure to do this can erode the trust of the community, leaving ripple effects that last well past the project’s completion.

“I get asked all the time, ‘How can we introduce architecture to kids of color or socioeconomically challenges communities?’” Sablan said. “And it’s not that they don’t know what architecture is; it’s that their relationship with architecture is negative. Their built environment fails to provide them the kind of spaces that they need.”

Siboney Díaz-Sánchez is a licensed architect who became a nonprofit affordable housing developer because she was tired of advocating for more community voices in projects and being told by clients that those voices had no place in the scope of the project.

At the start of any project, it’s wise for designers to identify who isn’t in the room and invite them to have a say in the decision-making process.

She participates in the Design as Protest collaborative that works with artists, architects, designers, and planners to make policy recommendations addressing issues such as permanent affordable housing, eviction, and social injustice.

In her current role as a developer, community members are paid as consultants for sharing insight on upcoming projects.

“They have valuable experience information and should be compensated for that,” Díaz-Sánchez said. “Not only do we make room in the schedule for those feedback loops, but we need to compensate community members for their time.”

Díaz-Sánchez explains to owners early in the process that if they get input from the community up front, it could save them money that they would spend later on legal fees and other expenses to address issues that residents might bring up during public forums or hearings.

“It’s going to benefit the project, the sustainability of the project, the pride of the project, and the longevity of the project if we have community voice and authorship,” she said.

Elizabeth Kennedy, who leads one of the oldest black-owned and woman-run architecture firms in the U.S., said it’s also important for everyone on a design team to leverage their unique identities to bring out the best in their work. She shared how her own experiences as a Black woman have helped her be more aware of the experiences of other people of color – even when those experiences are different than her own.

Working with clients, one key step is to educate them about the process of completing their project and the impact the project could have on the surrounding community. After learning of the impact on the surrounding community and ways to engage them in the project, clients may be more willing to support  an equitable solution that serves their business interests and addresses the community’s needs.

“Just like doctors, who originated as patients, had to learn bedside manner, there has to be some concerted effort of restoring to individuals the ability to understand the process … in order to advocate through design solutions that sustain,” Kennedy said.

Scaling the Changes

But change and advocacy don’t necessarily require grand gestures. Sometimes, the broader changes within the architecture industry come from more socially responsible policies that can tackle a variety of issues and concerns.

Policies can address equity, climate and sustainability while also dictating who is paid to do the work, as a way to give back power to communities that have been historically left behind in the public realm.

For example, some states now require a certain amount of money be set aside for energy efficient measures at new constructions. And some businesses have altered their procurement policies to prefer, or require, hiring minority or women-owned businesses for their construction projects.

Designers can also connect with like-minded individuals outside their firms to collaborate on issues they are most passionate about and learn what else their own firms can do  to move the needle forward.

Sablan is an active member of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), where she promotes knowledge-sharing among younger and more veteran members. She also founded Beyond the Built Environment in 2018 to promote diverse voices and stories, and show the various pathways that minority designers have taken in the field.

“I’m empowering us to feel comfortable about telling our stories, sharing ourselves, and being the author of how we’re introduced to the profession,” she said. “I’m also exploring all the different ways that we impact the built environment because there’s not just one right way to do it.”