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Designing for Equity: Using a Civil Rights Framework

March 11, 2015

This is the third post in the “Design for Equity” series. Read all articles in the series in the design for equity section.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s moved pivotal barriers that segregated and discriminated communities based on race. The civic consciousness was active and awake, numerous grassroots efforts reached a critical mass and the Civil Rights Movement implemented strategies that permanently changed legislation. The outcome resulted in three landmark laws: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned the discrimination of people based on their race, color, religion, or national origin in employment practices and public accommodations; The Voting Rights Act 1965, which prohibited discrimination in voting; and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which lifted discriminatory restrictions on immigration based on ethnicity.

Fifty years after the marches from Selma, in today’s context of #blacklivesmatter, we are reminded that in 2015 some fundamental civil rights are still not accessible to all people. There are many systems—economic, educational, criminal—that produce inequitable, unjust environments that, by design, are meant to disempower and marginalize communities. Social justice movements work towards transforming these systems, with the goal that everyone is represented and that all outcomes are equitably beneficial to all.

The built environment is a constructed system where communities live and this system plays a critical role in all of these issues. How it is shaped, used and programmed remains controlled by a select few who are generally not representative of all. However, design can be a lever to attain social justice. Design needs civil rights outcomes, not just functional, programmatic, and aesthetic outcomes. Design can be a strategy to redistribute power and create more opportunities for full participation in the shaping of our built environment, resulting in more equitable neighborhoods and empowered residents.


Community Design Can Design for Equity

In the late 1960s during the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, nonprofit community design centers emerged to facilitate the process of engaging people—particularly those that cannot otherwise access and/or afford professional design services—in the design of their homes and communities.

We need to revive the driving values of the 1960s to work towards breaking down barriers and institutionalized injustice, so that there is equal opportunity and benefit. As stated in the series introduction, working in the public interest is not enough; we need to design for equity.

Heroic Communities

The context of Community Design is often in low-income communities of color, where it is common that the designer is not from the community. As the second article in this series stated, this working relationship is inherently loaded with social baggage of privilege, race, and class. Designers need to acknowledge that we may never have experienced the “problem” we are trying to “solve” and that the community is the authentic expert on their issues. The community needs to be part of deciding the solutions that are designed in their communities. Designers need to recognize and respect the long-term civic infrastructure that exists within neighborhoods before and after design projects come along. With this in mind, designing in a civil rights context recognizes that communities should be able to create their own planning tables, not just be invited to tables set by others.

Skid Row Housing Trust

How Can Design Produce More Civil Rights Outcomes?

Community Design has largely been defined by engagement and participation. These two activities are key components to a more equitable process, but alone do not define a civil rights framework for design. To dig deeper into this question, I spoke candidly with Alexie Torres-Fleming, Executive Director of Access Strategies Fund, and Anne-Marie Lubenau, AIA, Director of the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence.  Both women have participated in leadership roles that address the role of design within a framework of civil rights, and are redefining the relationship between the designer and the community.

We Live Here, We’re Experts, Too!

Alexie grew up in the South Bronx in the ‘60s and ‘70s when “the Bronx was burning”—a time when policies intentionally shrank populations and amenities were literally burned to the ground. Alexie was one of many leaders who took action from within the community. She was able to understand the learned oppressions of her neighborhood and actively engage, mobilize and fight for what was necessary for the equitable development of her community. By founding Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice in 1994, Alexie worked to organize her neighborhood and support leadership development.


To build resilient community infrastructure and ensure residents of the South Bronx’s Soundview and Bruckner neighborhoods were actively participating in projects that would impact their community, Alexie co-founded the Bronx River Alliance in 2001. The Bronx River Alliance actively rallied for ways to develop their community instead of waiting for projects to finally come to their neighborhood.

One campaign and victory of the coalition that generated public investment into their neighborhood was transferring private- and publically-held open space along the Bronx River waterfront to be under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. With a plan to develop the space for public benefit rather than a new truck route that would induce environmental burdens in the neighborhood, NYC Parks proceeded with a traditional closed-door, top-down model of planning and design that excluded meaningful decision-making with the Bronx community whom originally spearheaded the effort to transform the site. As a result, the community partnered with the Pratt Center for Community Development, a trusted design team that understood the values of the community, to work with the neighbors and design their own community vision for revitalization. With these design resources as leverage and a place of negotiation, the South Bronx community fought for the implementation of their community plan. NYC Parks ultimately adopted some community suggestions like the concrete plant park.

CPP After_2007CreditJoanByronPrattCenter

The process for revitalization was organized by the community and resulted in generational leadership and long-term community development. The most valuable and long lasting impact of the Bronx River Alliance’s work was empowering community members to exercise their voices and creating space for their demands to be heard. The design community was invited to the table to work in conjunction with their efforts, not lead the neighborhood restoration project. In the end, the neighbors that were directly impacted by any potential planning work led the process.

Building Community Capacity, Not Just Buildings

Another example of creating trusting relationships between designers and community members is Anne-Marie’s experience leading the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh (now Design Center). The organization stretches beyond the traditional delivery of design services by linking resources and developing design capacity within non-profit organizations and communities.

Founded in 1968 as the Pittsburgh Architects Workshop, the Design Center provides Design Fund grants to nonprofit community development organizations to hire private design firms—architects, landscape architects and urban designers and planners—to develop preliminary designs for strategic projects. Rather than provide design services, Design Center staff offer technical assistance to help grantees navigate the design process. Activities include helping with project strategy, stakeholder engagement, development of a scope of work and request for proposal, selection of and engagement with a design firm, and the working relationship with the design team. At the conclusion of the process, the community has a completed design proposal as well as an understanding and ownership of the decisions and process that informed it, all of which can be used to advocate for and solicit funding and support for implementation. The learning experience facilitated by the Design Center has enabled local community development organizations like East Liberty Development Inc (ELDI) to develop in-house capacity and expertise to undertake more ambitious projects.

The Design Center’s practice connects communities with resources, information, expertise and knowledge that gives them agency and power to envision and implement change in their physical surroundings. Through these collaborative efforts, Anne-Marie and the organization built capacity that has enabled Pittsburgh communities to lead their own planning processes that engage stakeholders and designers in visioning for the future.

Community Planning Larry Rippel Photography

Equitable Processes Sustain Just Outcomes

Both Alexie’s and Anne-Marie’s experiences included the development of long-term leadership and capacity within the communities they worked. Their equitable processes and projects produced opportunities for advocacy and fundamentally shifted the process of building environments. Design as a process can redistribute decision-making abilities to historically marginalized communities so they are civically in control of shaping their built environment. Design should actively pursue outcomes that support the growth and access of civil rights. This level of systems shifting outcomes take time, but we need to move forward with intention, so that design in the public interest pushes equity and is active and relevant to the larger social justice movement.

By Theresa Hwang with Anne-Marie Lubenau and Alexie Torres-Fleming

Do you have any examples of projects, people, or orgs that are designing for equity? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Be sure to check back March 18th for the fourth feature article in this series – “Finding Your Path” by Nicole Joslin – or sign up for the IDH newsletter to have it delivered straight to your inbox!

Image sources: Wikipedia, Skid Row Housing Trust, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Joan Byron for Pratt Center, and Design Center/Larry Rippel Photography

One Comment

  1. Creative Reaction Lab was started in response to what was happening in Ferguson. I am a former Ferguson resident and area designer. We have since expanded our work to look at many civil and human rights issues including gun violence, domestic violence, school to prison pipeline, and more. Would love to talk to you more.

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