Design Justice Q&A

Allison Nkwocha in conversation with Kat Engleman, Kofi Boone, Hanna Kim, Alma Du Solier, Julian Agyeman, Melissa Guerrero, and Jeffrey Hou

We are in a moment of reckoning. The global pandemic has drawn the curtain back on the racial and socioeconomic inequities that have always been in place, disproportionately ravaging already vulnerable BIPOC populations. Since the birth of the Occupy Movement in 2011 and Black Lives Matter in 2013, civil unrest over these growing inequities has continued to simmer through the decade. COVID-19’s swift public health crisis, economic shutdown, and subsequent loss of jobs served to bring the pre-existing simmer to a boil. Under these conditions, George Floyd’s brutal murder at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin became a catalyst for national and international uprising. In direct contrast to the sudden emptying of public space that characterized the beginning of the pandemic, since those eight minutes and 46 seconds on May 25, 2020 we’ve seen city streets occupied by protestors in solidarity, the overnight creation of informal spaces for healing and remembrance, the establishment of autonomous zones, the reclamation of spaces that memorialized racists, and the increased need for accessible green spaces in every neighborhood. Uses and expressions of space and power are being redefined, and design students, academics, and professionals alike are calling for design justice, new methods of learning from and meaningfully engaging with communities, and full accountability within our practices that have long histories of spatial injustice against and oppression of Black and Brown people. The call is not new, but the moment demands new types of design processes and outputs that will contribute to an inclusive and equitable future. Allison Nkwocha asked seven design justice advocates to consider what these new types of design processes might be and where they might lead.

Design fields have a history of treating community engagement as a box to check rather than an essential source of creativity, learning, and empowerment. How can designers shift from designing for to designing with?

Kat Engleman: Society develops all of us to see ourselves as either the people who make decisions or the people who have no agency in what happens to them and the world around them. Designers often play into this dynamic as people who typically already have class and race privilege and utilize their role to show that they are the experts and they are the ones who make the decisions. Additionally, when it comes time to engage communities, we ask groups of people to gather and share their individual opinions about the project as opposed to engaging them in a collective decision-making process. We can’t design with communities if our process prioritizes designers and then individual members over the community as a unit. I think in order to change this dynamic, designers have to create processes that allow community members to regularly participate in the decision-making processes themselves, to do so as a collective, and to have their decisions respected as the project moves forward. This transforms the designer’s role from being transactional and hierarchical to one that is mutual, allowing designers to use their expertise as a conduit while community members step into ownership of the projects that will impact their lives.

Kofi Boone: I think some of this is about trust. Establishing trust takes time and accountability. Engagement doesn’t mean empowerment or even satisfaction. The scope of a lot of professional work compresses trust-building into the timeframe of a project. I think in some cases there is a need for sustained trust-building with communities, uncoupled from the timeframe of a project, especially if they have been harmed in the past by well-intended design and planning work. And I think some of this is about power. Much of the research that forms the basis of community work is decades old when government policy was stronger and more resources were local or at least regional. Now, fewer resources used for change in the landscape are local, policies have weakened, trust has diminished. Meeting the needs of local people when resources are not local, on land that local people do not own, is very difficult. There are some useful strategies coming from partnerships that empower communities with local land and policy control.

Hanna Kim: I believe that at the core of any design practice lies an ability to create genuine and lasting relationships. Too often, however, the role of a designer becomes distorted in a capitalist, white supremacist, and patriarchal society. When designers aren’t taught to or allowed to access the power and responsibility inherent in design, they can easily be relegated to a middleperson between a client and a community. To combat this, designers must realize the true potential and ramifications that exist at their fingertips. Designers don’t just create buildings – buildings create cities, and cities create nations. Designers don’t just create posters – posters create messages, and messages create ideologies. For me, this is both empowering and humbling. It is also scary. “Designing with” needs honest and rigorous interrogation. Who is included in the design process? How will this design impact generations of communities? Where are the blind spots? What are the unintended consequences? Who are the real experts here? Participatory design offers great guidance on this topic. Ultimately, I believe it comes down to having humility to listen and unlearn, exercising moral courage to be on the right side of history, and taking time to build genuine trust and solidarity with people.

Alma Du Solier: I do not believe designers today intentionally follow a community process to check a box. Most believe the process we are following is inclusive and helpful, and, if asked, most would say we would do it even if not required. But changing the default of “designing for” to “designing with” requires us also to question our process constantly and tailor it to the idiosyncrasies of particular communities. Identifying a community’s unique stories requires research by inquisitive and brave designers and clients. Research allows us to meet the community at a place of respect and appreciation for what works and what does not seem to work. But, our understanding of place based on research is only part of it – we still need to be prepared to change it based on the community’s input. This suggests that the engagement process should not only be part of a project’s initial stage. We let ourselves believe we cannot collect relevant input at all project stages because we confuse engagement with seeking design direction, and thus stop engagement when the design has been “frozen” to avoid changes that could contradict approved permits or budgets. “Designing with” requires us to focus on community values and continue dialogue to evaluate our interpretation of such values in our work throughout.

Julian Agyeman: I’d like to see much more use of urban ethnographies by designers and planners. In my Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts, we have a very popular class on Urban Ethnography for Urban Planners. Every school of design, planning, architecture, etc., should have such a class. Deep ethnographic data should be coproduced by designers and communities before projects start. I see this as the only way to forge greater community understandings that can help designers and planners shift from designing for to designing with. Designing with is coproduced design.

Melissa Guerrero: For far too long, too many communities have been left out of the design process altogether, and the history of urban planning is rife with examples of so-called “master plans” concocted in offices without any community input. More recently, design and planning have included local community voices, but, as you indicate, this can be too proscribed. At Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), we have set out to create a new way of involving the community as an integral part of the design process, from start to finish. For each project the community engagement process is tailor-made for that community and site, but the common denominator for each is to start with the premise that the community has an expertise just as valuable as a sub-consultant’s or the client’s. This simple switch in how we value the community’s expertise leads to engagement strategies that respect their contributions such as paying for their time, developing a leadership council to advise on the engagement work plan, and developing a committed group of residents who meet regularly to discuss larger neighborhood issues related to the public space project we’re asking them to co-create with us.

Jeffrey Hou: Indeed, community engagement has often become procedural and lacking in substance even with the best intention. In Design as Democracy (Island Press, 2017), a group of colleagues and I assembled a collection of techniques that focus on community engagement as a source of creativity, learning, and empowerment. But beyond just techniques, we need to change the way we work with communities – to learn from the perspectives of those who have more extensive knowledge and experience. Besides taking on projects from public or private clients, we need to proactively develop projects and initiatives in partnership with community organizations. Shifting from designing for to designing with requires a fundamental shift in mindset and an awareness of our limits as design professionals. We need to consider public engagement as an essential part of the design process – a dialogical process that enables the stakeholders (designers included) to communicate and deliberate what the issues and solutions are. We need to build relationships with community stakeholders and see them as partners in the process. It is not feasible for design professionals to develop a full understanding of issues and nuances in a short amount of time. It is therefore essential that we work with our community partners.

What does authentically inclusive community space look like? Can you cite any exemplary projects in terms of the process of community engagement and how it manifested in the outcome?

Kat Engleman: I think these types of spaces are ones that are have a level of specificity that grounds it in a time, place, and people. An authentic and inclusive community space where I live will have to be different than a space that is across the city, not just because the physical locations are different but because the people and built environment bring experiences and histories that produce something fundamentally different here than they would anywhere else. The depth of this specificity doesn’t have to automatically be understandable to “outsiders,” but it should be legible to the people who would use those spaces. I also think these types of spaces are ones that allow people to be in their full dignity. Can it be an inclusive space if community members inherently feel ashamed of their class position? Or if someone with a disability cannot fully use a space? Or if a person of color is hypervigilant about the racial dynamics in the space? Unfortunately, I haven’t seen many spaces like this, and typically spaces like this are ones that are created by community members themselves without designers.

Kofi Boone: I don’t know. Years ago I would’ve said it’s a space that attracts a wide array of people who feel they can be their authentic selves in public and can negotiate differences in non-violent ways. The cliché is something like Washington Square Park in New York City, where you can hear many languages, see a hip-hop cipher, a protest, a Chinese holiday celebration, etc. Today, I’d say that spaces don’t operate in vacuums and I question the possibility of inclusive spaces in decidedly exclusive communities. Recently I’ve been learning more about the origins of the Black Commons and Community Land Trusts. Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative had characteristics of authentically inclusive space. Co-op members had stakes on the shared space and its products. Cooperative economics, governance, and power. I think these spaces may be more recognizable by their contexts and underlying processes than their forms and artifacts. I remember an email exchange with Susan Fainstein about the components of her Just City theory. Her theory references the significance of systems: affordable housing, equitable transportation, and a living wage. Why not landscapes? She said she’d never thought of them in that way. Toni Griffin has been pursuing this question for a long time and is creating interesting and not-soobvious connections between people and their environments. Mindy Thompson Fullilove as well. I can’t think of a space per se or its physical characteristics; but I try to think about inclusive spaces as being surrounded by communities engaged in inclusive practices.

Hanna Kim: Every community has its own structures, dynamics, and strategies. However, the communities that center those who experience firsthand or who are directly impacted seem to cultivate the most inclusive and sustainable relationships and the most creative outcomes. I’ve been working with two organizations recently on projects that seek to engage and represent community. The first is the Convict Leasing and Labor Project (founded by activist and historian Reginald Moore), which seeks to expose the history and legacy of the convict leasing system. With Mr. Moore’s guidance, I produced a report on the “Sugar Land 95” – the remains of 95 African Americans unearthed in Sugar Land, Texas in 2018. In this case, the directly impacted community—the victims of convict leasing—are no longer able to speak their stories. For years, CLLP has been holding people accountable so that the descendants of the Sugar Land 95 could be identified. History, memory, and trauma can expand the notion of inclusivity in the community design process. Another organization I’ve been working with is United Stateless – a grassroots organization led by stateless activists in the US. Stateless people are often forced to live in the shadows because of lack of identification and as a result they may be ignored in community engagement processes for public projects. These people face a dilemma: speaking up proves their existence, but it also makes them more vulnerable to state violence; using aliases protects their identity but perpetuates their feeling of erasure. I’ve been working on ways to overcome this through illustration – sometimes just being seen can be a form of justice.

Alma Du Solier: The inclusive process is one that engages a community in dialogue about values and true aspirations, not paving colors, furniture styles, or endless wish-lists of arbitrary programs. The latter approach reduces the process to a Pinterest search for pretty pictures instead of what really matters. It may appear inclusive because everybody is invited to provide opinions, but they are superficial. I had the opportunity to be lead consultant in developing a master plan for Ocean Beach, the Pacific coast of San Francisco. Thirty-five stakeholder groups with diverse backgrounds and agendas were represented on a task force. There was a key topic dividing the group: the relocation of a sewage pipe that was perceived as the cause of and solution to the problem, depending on who you asked. We created a process to understand the values behind this divided view and were able to elevate the conversation to serving those values, instead of finding a compromise on the solution. Three different implementation plans have emerged from this process, building on the value-serving “key moves” proposed by the master plan. For a site with this level of physical and jurisdictional complexity, the change toward realizing aspirations per agreed-upon values instead of fighting over engineering approaches provided a productive and truly inclusive process that has yielded win-win solutions.

Julian Agyeman: One of the classic cases of urban place-making from a low-income, minority perspective is the redevelopment of Dudley Street by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI). Dudley Street straddles the Roxbury–Dorchester line in Boston and DSNI’s 34-member board of directors is diverse, with equal representation of the community’s four major cultures (and therefore historical narratives of place): African American, Cape Verdean, Latinx, and white. It works to implement resident-driven plans with partners including community development corporations, other non-profit organizations, and religious institutions serving the neighborhood, banks, government agencies, businesses, and foundations. DSNI soon realized that retaining community-driven development would not be sufficient to halt the kind of gentrification that now displaces residents in other parts of Boston. Its solution was the creation of a community land trust, Dudley Neighbors, Inc. (DNI), which uses a 99-year ground lease that restricts resale prices in order to keep the land available for affordable housing. To date, a total of 200 new homes and two community spaces or micro-centers have been built on DNI land.

Melissa Guerrero: At Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) we hold the goal of creating equitable and sustainable development with communities in every single project, but we also realize that design alone cannot solve inequity. This is why we developed the “Productive Public Space” model that integrates community organizing, cultural and income-generating programs, research, design, and planning to holistically help disadvantaged communities build healthier, more connected, and more prosperous neighborhoods and cities. All of our projects are case studies for how to conduct authentic community engagement that guides the designed outcome, but I’ll focus on one park project, Nuestro Lugar (Our Place) in North Shore, California as an example. Staff from KDI’s design, planning, and community teams worked together on delivering dozens of community engagements. One key workshop was co-led with artists where the conversation was focused on what residents loved about their community. The park’s theme “From Sea to Sky” emerged and it’s reflected in the landforms for stargazing, the plant palette, wayfinding signs, a community mural, and symbols embedded throughout the park. With KDI’s support residents also established a women-led food cooperative, a youth-led bike share program, and an arts committee. The park includes an allée that doubles as a flexible market space to support these collectives and more to come. Completed in 2018, the park marks the beginning of a new era for North Shore: one in which community members can gather, play, celebrate their heritage, and call for more of the improvements they need.

Jeffrey Hou: To me, an authentically inclusive community space is community owned and reflective of the social, cultural, and economic diversity of the community. It is also evolving and open-ended. Furthermore, it must be a place of learning and understanding. By community owned I mean a sense of ownership the comes from engagement in the process of placemaking. Because a community can change and its boundaries can shift, an authentically inclusive community must have the capacity to evolve. As inclusivity takes time and effort to develop, an inclusive community space needs to serve as a place of learning and understanding. Growing Hing Hay Park is a project in Seattle’s Chinatown International District that I have co-chaired since 2013. Through the design process, we faced conflicting interests from diverse community stakeholders. We had the fortune of working with Turenscape and MIG to develop a design that gave form to the complexity of cultural identities in the neighborhood. But community engagement as a learning process goes beyond just the design. After the project was completed, representatives from different community groups continued to develop a signage design that eventually embraced the multicultural identities in the neighborhood. Both the process and design made the park an authentically inclusive community space.

This is not the first time that mainstream design culture has been “awakened” to the importance of recognizing BIPOC communities and the landscapes that shape them. Do you see this as an enduring shift in design?

Kat Engleman: The pessimist in me says no. A more optimistic view would be that it’s too soon to tell. There’s an ever-heightening level of political polarization in the US, which has moved some people into understanding the ways racial capitalism has produced various types of conditions for people of color with many others pushing back on the idea that racism is alive. It’d be naïve to think that the design profession doesn’t also hold this spectrum within it that will inevitably hold back progressive movement. Additionally, power structures are extremely adept at absorbing these types of pushes in order to maintain the fundamental structure while pacifying people by offering limited and symbolic gestures toward change. An example of this is the painting of “black lives matter” on city streets while not actually structurally changing the conditions that produce police brutality. In the case of design, I fear that the momentum we see will simply become about merely “recognizing” race and racism or representational politics as opposed to a deep understanding of how we all understand our role within the current power structures and seek to radically transform it.

Kofi Boone: I think there is a lot of interest and increasing awareness. I think there is a sense that the story we’ve told ourselves about the value of landscapes and communities is incomplete. Whether or not this translates into resources to protect, nurture, and grow BIPOC communities remains to be seen. Despite the current situation with COVID, our global momentum is spinning toward increased segregation, disparities, and risks based on race. These challenges remain. What I am seeing is an increase in the level of agency young BIPOC designers are exercising in the face of this wave of attention. I think that the past few years have been a golden age for almost all of the art and design fields for BIPOC people except architecture and landscape architecture. There is something pernicious about the barriers within those fields that don’t seem to extend as strongly to other fields. I see young people seeking out different relationships and practice models with BIPOC communities than mainstream practice models that come with the baggage of bias and constraint. I think the question for the rest of us is what is our role in supporting them as they redefine who could and should be in front working with BIPOC communities and not just how we do so.

Hanna Kim: Since George Floyd’s murder, I see toolkits, workshops, and manifestos popping up all over social media. Corporations and organizations have put out statements on how they are standing with the BIPOC community (some get it right and some don’t). The removal of monuments has been truly inspiring. While I celebrate these changes, I always try to remember the strong grip of hegemony and history. The people may be “awakened,” but the machine is still at work benefitting the already-rich and polarizing the public. That’s why we must stay vigilant, malleable, and hopeful. Centering BIPOC voices and creating reparative opportunities for historically marginalized communities are critical steps. More importantly, a thorough assessment of our privilege and radical reimagination of our role should be a constant effort rather than a one-time response. Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s “Maintenance Art” manifesto helped me reimagine my practice as one of maintenance, rather than development. Activists who get in “good trouble” (thank you, Rep. John Lewis) despite disappointment and suffering, exemplify what an “enduring shift” truly looks like. We can let their wisdom guide us through the unprecedented times. It may be difficult to know where we are right now, but we should all strive to stay awake.

Alma Du Solier: I certainly hope it’s enduring. I believe the strongest challenge to recognizing the values of our BIPOC communities is our fear of controversy. We have not developed tools to discuss difficult topics that sometimes are key to revealing the true essence of place. We set our processes to achieve consensus at all cost, simplifying questions to the lowest common denominator where easily achieved agreement is possible and taking input from whomever shows up to the meetings, even if there isn’t full representation. We need all at the table and what draws the most active participation sometimes is controversy. I am not advocating for creating controversy, but rather for honestly questioning our “cookie-cutter” processes and for not being afraid to ask difficult questions and present difficult topics, such as the legacy of past government actions that have physically divided a place and still hinder investment funding, or the best value of open space in the face of widespread homelessness, to name just two. We need to get creative finding ways to discuss these topics openly, moving away from false dichotomies pinned as mutually exclusive. Dialogue leads to better understanding of issues and each other. Our role as facilitators of inclusion is one of brave co-creators, not surveyors of shallow and “safe” visual preferences.

Julian Agyeman: BIPOC communities are not only shaped by landscapes, they shape them too! From an urban planning perspective, I see this particular iteration of getting “woke” as deeper and more fundamental than earlier ones for three reasons. First, the Black Lives Matter movement has permeated our collective consciousness more deeply and across all racial/ethnic groups, especially whites, than before. Second, and related, this is the social media age. Nothing gets a pass. Everything is recorded in some way. Third, the urban planning/design narrative is changing. We are not mincing words anymore. In a recent piece in The Conversation, I called out urban planning as the spatial toolkit of white supremacy. Racial segregation was not the byproduct of urban planning; it was, in many cases, its intention – it was not by accident, but by design. This may have been contested 20 to 30 years ago, but is less so today.

Melissa Guerrero: As designers and planners working on behalf of BIPOC communities, we must actively work to make it an enduring change. When necessary we need to be ready and willing to educate clients and funders, whether that be on a project-by-project basis or on a larger scale through policy advocacy work. Changing education will be fundamental, both in terms of curriculum and student body. The more we can make design schools inclusive and diverse, the more the design and planning professions will better reflect the communities they serve, making this an enduring pivot rather than a flash-in-the-pan concern.

Jeffrey Hou: The moment of “awakening” in 2020 is unlike others in recent memories in terms of its depth and scope. Whether the shift or interest will endure or not will depend on every one of us – faculty, academic administrators, students, practitioners, activists, organizers, and so on. Efforts need to come from both top and bottom. We need to put pressure on the professional organizations, universities, and institutions to take appropriate actions, to reallocate resources, and to address longstanding biases and disparities in education and practice. As educators and practitioners, every one of us needs to be accountable. But efforts also need to come from those who may not in the position of power and authority. The moment will only become an enduring movement if enough people are engaged and take action. The power of the movement comes from our individual and collective engagement. It can start with a group project in the studio, a volunteer effort outside the classroom, and/or participation in a local or national event, such as Design as Protest. A transformative and enduring change depends on all of us.

Kat Engleman is the civic engagement coordinator at Youth United for Change, an organization based in the West Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia that trains working-class youths of color to organize for political change in schools and communities. She has over 10 years of organizing experience and is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Master of Landscape Architecture and Master of Architecture programs.

Kofi Boone is a professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University. His work and research focus on the overlap between landscape architecture and environmental justice with specializations in democratic design, digital media, and interpreting cultural landscapes. Boone serves on the board of directors of the Corps Network, as well as the Landscape Architecture Foundation where he is vice president of education.

Hanna Kim is an artist and a designer who is committed to working on issues of human rights and social justice. She holds a MDes from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art. She has collaborated with the Center for Urban Pedagogy, the Equal Justice Initiative, IDEO, and many community organizations, and is currently a Soros Equality Fellow and a nonresident fellow at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. She is the author of Shapeless Shapes (2019), a graphic novel about statelessness.

Alma Du Solier is a Mexican-American landscape architect and architect and is studio director at Hood Design Studio, an award-winning cultural practice based in Oakland, CA, which merges landscape architecture, public art, and urban design. Du Solier has been lead designer for a wide range of projects from urban parks and waterfront projects to large development communities and long-term open space and resources strategic planning. Her design approach builds on her dual design background and her interest on the meaningful integration of design with site and culture.

Julian Agyeman is a professor and critical urban planning scholar at Tufts University in the United States. He is the originator of the increasingly influential concept of just sustainabilities: the intentional integration of social justice and sustainability. His research explores the complex and embodied relations between humans and the urban environment, whether mediated by governments or social movement organizations, and their effects on public policy and planning processes and outcomes, particularly in relation to notions of justice and equity.

Melissa Guerrero is a landscape architect and design director at Kounkuey Design Initiative’s Los Angeles office. She has over a decade of experience in community-based landscape architecture work with organizations such as the Trust for Public Land, Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, Mayor Garcetti’s LARiverWorks team, and New Yorkers for Parks. Guerrero’s work focuses on the conversion of underutilized public land into multi-benefit landscapes and she believes co-creating with community has the power to deliver high-caliber, identity-rich design while strengthening civic engagement and democracy.

Jeffrey Hou is professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, Seattle. As the director of Urban Commons Lab, his work focuses on public space, democracy, and civic engagement. In a career that spans the Pacific, he has worked with indigenous tribes, farmers, and fishers in Taiwan, neighborhood residents in Japan, villagers in China, and inner-city immigrant youths and elders in North American cities. Hou is recognized for his work on guerrilla urbanism and bottom-up placemaking through collaborative publications including Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities (2010) and City Unsilenced: Urban Resistance and Public Space in the Age of Shrinking Democracy (2017).

  Copyright © 2018 Department of Landscape Architecture

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