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I recently had the opportunity to attend the Association of Community Design Conference, an event hosted by the Neighborhood Design Center, a Baltimore nonprofit that facilitates the development of healthy, equitable neighborhoods. The conference was two days filled with discussions about the roots and relevance of community design. Over and over again, conversations referred back to Whitney M. Young Jr.’s famous keynote address at the 1968 AIA Convention, in which he called out the architecture profession’s “thunderous silence” in the face of civil rights movements.

I revisited the full speech and was struck by how relevant it still is. In 2018, even though architects have the skills to be strong stewards of equitable communities, we sometimes fall short of our own tremendous potential to have a positive impact on the built environment and on people’s lives.

While the task at hand can seem tremendous, I am interested in how we can change that. This is why I attended the Equity by Design Hackathon 4: ArchitectuREvolution, a terrific event that took place at the Syracuse University Fisher Center in New York City on June 20.  This occasion brought together designers to tackle the ideas of improving justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the architectural practice as well as the communities we serve.

Here are my major takeaways from the event:

  1. We have a lot in common. There were around 40 people at the event, of various ages and backgrounds, but when we broke into small groups for an icebreaker two common threads emerged: bilingualism and urbanism. Almost all of us spoke at least two languages and we either grew up in or currently lived in large cities. Finding emphasized our shared experiences over our differences.That said, another experience we all seemed to share was the sense that architecture is a tough profession for women and people of color. We need to push harder to make ourselves heard in order to avoid being sidelined in our careers. It was both good and bad to hear that other people were struggling with similar issues.
  1. Working fast is fun and useful. I really enjoyed the hackathon experience. It was invigorating to brainstorm and present a transformative idea in a single day. Having to think up and communicate concepts quickly is essential for designers and architects in all stages of their careers.
  1. Data is an essential component of 21st century design. Thanks to our shared experiences of living in urban areas, the members of my hackathon team were familiar with one of the downsides of city life: abandoned and neglected properties. How could architects address this problem systemically as a profession? My experience working with the East Baltimore Revitalization Project made it clear how essential it is for architects and planners to engage with a community. We need to make the design process transparent, teach non-designers important terminology to make discussions understandable, and really listen to what residents want and need. The social benefits extend well beyond any individual project. A community that understands the process of how its physical environment changes, from concept to design to construction, is well-equipped for future challenges or opportunities that arise in its neighborhood.

So, for the hackathon, our team decided we wanted to create a resource that would allow architects to work with people to repurpose or redesign spaces to align with local needs. Our proposed program, dubbed Hack the Block, was a nonprofit that would map both vacancies and needs in underutilized areas with community members.

The data collected would eventually inform community-led construction efforts and be shared with government organizations to build upon what we’d started.

To be truly successful, Hack the Block’s community engagement would be key. Telling people what they want or need is usually far less effective than asking them.

In the end, Hack the Block didn’t win – that honor went to Team Value Menu, which envisioned a Zillow/Yelp-type reviewing system for architecture firms that would allow job applicants to evaluate firms on a variety of metrics like community engagement, office culture, and mentorship opportunities. Often, young architects have only one hard number – salary – to go on when making crucial early career decisions, and a more complex and informative way of comparing employers would be useful.

I did, however, notice that Hack the Block and Team Value Menu shared a common thread. Both teams saw that people want to make well-informed, empowering decisions about their own lives. Top-down thinking from existing power structures doesn’t produce good design or good work environments. I love that Equity by Design is working hard to create a profession that reflects and serves a diverse world.

My hope is that the future of architecture looks more like another passage from Young’s speech: “It took a great deal of skill and creativity and imagination to build the kind of situation we have, and it is going to take skill and imagination and creativity to change it. We are going to have to have people as committed to doing the right thing, to inclusiveness, as we have in the past to exclusiveness.”

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