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Using Architecture to Build a More Equitable Future for All

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As we move through Black History Month, it’s necessary to reflect on the history of our industry, the progress that we have made so far, and the progress we must continue to make in the future. Although it may not always be at the front of your mind when discussing racial injustice, architecture continues to play a major role. Let’s discuss how we can learn from the past to build a more equitable future. 

How Urban Planning Has Been Used to Undermine Minorities 

While delivering a speech during the Democratic National Convention in 2016, Michelle Obama said she “wakes up every morning in a house built by enslaved people.” From the very beginning, America has been built on the backs of minorities, without ever allowing them proper credit, compensation, or even basic rights. This oppression continued long after African Americans were freed from slavery. 
For years, American urban planning and design have served as white policymakers’ tools for consolidating power and suppressing people of color. Urban planners slashed through neighborhoods in the name of slum clearance and urban renewal. Condemnation laws and eminent domain were used to displace residents. Zoning laws were used to create segregated communities and when race-based zoning was ruled unconstitutional by the supreme court, state and local governments developed loopholes. Redlining, a practice that marked minority neighborhoods as “high risk” for mortgages, made it nearly impossible to obtain a mortgage if you were not white. Most U.S. urban freeways were routed through low-income and minority neighborhoods, which created disconnections from opportunities and resources. These freeways were designed to carry people through minority neighborhoods but never to them. As a result, most businesses did not invest or show any interest in the neighborhoods. This was a strategic move to ensure that minorities remained at a disadvantage. When designing America, the plan of action was clear: create segregated communities and deprive them of all opportunities and resources reserved for their white counterparts.

Ways In Which Architecture Can Be Used to Dismantle Racial Injustice 

Eradicating racial injustice is an issue that requires cooperation and diligent work in every aspect of society. Architecture and urban planning are no exception. So, how can we use architecture as a tool to bring about a more equitable future?

Building Opportunities for Free Movement Through Public Space

We cannot pretend that everyone has the freedom to move through, occupy, and enjoy public spaces, especially in most United States cities. Throughout history, the gathering of black people has always been perceived and treated as a threat by those in power. Urban planners and architects need to take these facts into account to build a more equitable space for all people, regardless of their color. Design solutions need to promote social integration, actively combat segregation, and uphold the dignity of all people once they enter the public space. Public spaces need to be physically inviting and safe for all.

Engaging the Community to Effect Positive Change

As previously mentioned, freeways were positioned to cater to white neighborhoods and as a result, limited opportunities in diverse ones. When architects and urban planners design a new building, park, or freeway they are making changes to existing neighborhoods and communities. Anything they are constructing will become a part of those people’s lives and may affect their mobility or opportunities. This is why it is necessary to engage the community and ensure that new construction or development genuinely supports the existing neighborhood instead of gentrifying it. It is not always about the importance of the structure but how it will affect the community around it. 

Empowering People to Transform Their Urban Landscapes

Architects can take projects with an open mind while embracing social equity. However, it can be hard to work with communities that have been victims of gentrification, even when the new developments come with the best intentions for the community. For instance; Urban landscape improvements aimed at creating more public spaces can be viewed as a threat by the community. This is because most people interpret them as imports that do not address the community’s needs. The solution to this issue is for architects to work with community members to come up with something that they feel utilizes their public space in a way that will benefit their neighborhood. 
One of the most important parts of designing with an open mind is to prioritize installations that bring life back to the community. Examples of these are designing community gardens accessible to everybody, transforming brick or concrete walls into lush, and installing benches or other resources at parks.

Advocating For the Acknowledgement of The History of Systematic Racism in Urban Development

Urban development has been a tool used by white institutions to oppress and deprive minorities throughout history. Architecture has never been neutral, and until we acknowledge this, we cannot progress. The institutions educating urban planners and architects must highlight this fact and teach future generations not to repeat history. Rather than offering this information as an elective, it is pertinent that it is a required part of the curriculum. Every single student must graduate with the knowledge of urban planning’s racist history and understand the power that they hold as the future of the industry. 

Final Word 

We have reached a point where our society is increasingly divided. The United States is one of the most segregated countries in the world today. We must change this, and our first step must be to acknowledge the existing injustices and how we can all combat them in our respective industries. 

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