In this time of seismic societal shifts due to the pandemic and spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement, the fields of architecture and design are questioning their role in this movement. Emerging conversations are examining the impact of architecture as a colonizing force. Minority and underrepresented practitioners’ voices are being more commonly elevated in these conversations to share their knowledge and lived experience with architecture and design’s predominantly white practitioners.

Architecture is reckoning with the oppressive role it has played and continues to play. Looking beyond the noticeable examples of jails and prisons, the discourse is questioning spaces typically seen as “neutral” and having “good design” as spaces that reinforce existing power structures. We are recognizing that a neutral architecture or design does not exist. The methods and sensibilities taught at architectural institutions not only perpetuate, but are inextricable from, structures and cultures of oppression.

Architecture and design are fields with an immense amount of privilege and power, as they literally shape our physical world. As architects and designers, we need to do better. We need to challenge the processes and assumptions that are so ingrained in our practice. While it may yet be unclear how to do it, it is our responsibility to try. It is our responsibility to “decolonize” design.

On October 26, 2020, AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee held its first workshop in a series called Decolonizing Design Research. The remaining workshops in the series will be as follows:

  • 12/14/2020: Activist Scholar
  • 2/4/2021: Collective Voice
  • 4/13/2021: Measuring Justice

This series aims to shine a light on these issues of oppression, and provide a forum for practitioners to share their approaches to conducting design research to create spaces that are anti-racist and just. The goal is to mitigate the harm being done through design research practices, and to question our methods in service of more just design.

The topic of Monday’s workshop was “Citizen Participation.” The event was introduced by Committee Co-chair Fauzia Khanani (Founding Principal of Studio Fōr and Co-Founder of Design Advocates) and moderated by Gabriel Halili (Designer and Urban Planner). The panel of speakers included Caitlin Cahill (Associate Professor, Urban Geography & Politics, Pratt Institute), Amara H. Peréz, Ph.D. (Popular Educator, Participatory Action Researcher, and Critical Strategist), and Quardean Lewis-Allen (Founder and CEO, Youth Design Center).

Decolonizing means giving communities agency over their physical space

Halili opened by explaining the decision to use the word “decolonize” for this series. He described it is a framework that calls into mind our role as decision makers for the built environment. He emphasized that we as designers hold power in how our physical spaces look and function, and that our process must become more intentional.

“The production of knowledge is not objective, or value-free.”

Cahill emphasized the shift that is needed from “non-participation” to “citizen control,” as is outlined in Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation. This framework calls out “sham participation” and advocates for a redistribution of power through the participatory research process, by bringing the “have-nots” in to help make real decisions. Sham participation reinforces the status quo. It can be exploitative by setting up a dynamic where researchers profit from the uncompensated time and expertise of community members. Cahill encourages researchers to critically examine who is profiting from the participatory research they are conducting. She notes the “tyranny of participation,” where the imbalance of compensation coupled with the perception that nothing happens with participant’s responses and input, can lead to mistrust and a lack of confidence in the process. Growing up Policed, participatory action research (PAR) about growing up policed in NYC, was cited as a successful example of a just and anti-racist approach.

Students as vital collaborators, rather than subjects to be studied

Peréz shared her successful PAR project, Space Matters, at Portland Community College (PCC). Conducted through a lens of Critical Race Theory (CRT), she engaged 25 students of color for two semesters. They learned to view their physical spaces on campus more critically, and planned and conducted a research project about their campus. This approach sought to disrupt the “whiteness” that is pervasive in design and planning practices, in exchange for a more inclusive process. Peréz stressed that traditional research practices are informed by “color blind” ideologies which ignore the role of race/racism in physical space. This overlooks a significant portion of peoples’ experiences and the impact space has on them. In her team’s research at PCC, the cultural dimensions and qualities of space that are so often ignored, were foregrounded, yielding crucial insights.

Some of the tools that Peréz and her team used for this research included workshops and focus groups, and socio-spatial inquiries such as photo journaling to expose features of white, intimidating, male exclusive spaces. They found that these new approaches went much further to validate the lived experience of underrepresented minorities and uncover hidden mechanisms of power.

Creating equitable spaces while breaking the cycle of poverty in Brownsville

Lewis-Allen’s experience running the Youth Design Center (YDC, previously Made in Brownsville) is rich with participatory action. His initiative seeks to break the cycle of poverty and address the lack of representation in design and technology by providing gateways into those fields for youth ages 16-24 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. YDC leverages social activism, tactical urbanism, and place-based interventions to create change. They use the Equity Centered Community Design Field Guide as the basis for their approach, which integrates equity and social justice to go beyond the Human Centered Design process. YDC is also aligned with the Blackspace Manifesto, which was created for Black designers, activists, and leaders to “protect and create Black spaces.”

In terms of specific tools or activities, Lewis-Allen emphasized the importance of active listening, especially with communities who have dealt with a lot of trauma. YDC leverages pop ups with provocations to engage the community and start important conversations. He also uses urban design and analysis techniques such as mapping to learn about lived experience: for example, having kids map out where they feel safe in their community versus areas where they will not travel.

We’re in this together. Try new things, and share what you learn.

Overall, practitioners are trying to better understand the invisible forces of systemic racism in our architecture and design practices and test out new approaches. There are many challenges that we are up against – from the inertia of tradition to the difficulty in justifying a fee for this type of research to a client. As the pandemic continues, there is a need to ensure marginalized people aren’t lost on the other side of the digital divide, and that we fight to include them in our research. We are designing WITH and not FOR. We must acknowledge the importance of framing the questions for our research – as explained by Peréz: “whoever frames the questions plays an essential role in framing the narrative.”

For those interested, please consider joining the conversation by:

  • Attending the remaining workshops in the Decolonizing Design Research series. Details will be posted to AIANY’s Calendar closer to each event; dates are listed above.
  • Joining the AIANY Social Science + Architecture Committee Monthly committee meetings. They are open to the public and typically take place at 8:30am on the last Thursday of each month.

Kate Ganim is a designer and strategist with a background in architecture. She built San-Francisco based KIDmob and LMNOP Design, and is currently a Senior Strategist at brightspot strategy.