February 14, 2022Decolonizing Design Research: Measuring Justice
Text by Celic Ruiz and Beren Saraquse
The “Decolonizing Design Research” series explores the ways research can create and reflect anti-racism and justice values within space. The fourth and last workshop in the series, “Measuring Justice,” was held on May 3, 2021, and began with host Tanya De Hoog, a principal at the engineering consulting firm Thorton Tomasetti and co-chair of the AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee, inviting the panelists and guests to define justice within an architectural context. How do we, as design professionals measure and evaluate justice?
The panelists included Taylor Holloway, a designer, architect, and social impact strategist, who applies design-driven approaches to promote equity in the built environment; A.L Hu, Assoc. AIA, a non-binary architect at the Solomonoff Architecture Studio and an activist fighting for racial, class, and gender justice in design; Andrea Kretchmer, a founding principal of the affordable housing development company, Xenolith LLC; and Matthew Clarke, the executive director of Design Trust for Public Space, a group that advocates for lively and equitable communities.
Holloway opened the workshop by sharing how her travels in South Africa via a 2013 AIA Chicago Martin Roche Scholarship helped her establish her own criteria for a “just” practice. She observed more established architects and designers working within this space and formed a three-part metric that looks at organizational structure, community engagement strategies, and project creation and implementation. She also shared from her work as a core organizer with Design as Protest (DAP) collective, a non-hierarchical, BIPOC-led, action-based collective of design professionals dedicated to justice in the built environment. DAP created the Anti-Racist Design Justice Index to track accountability within design institutions and provide guidance for a just design practice. The index is an interactive tool that offers direction for institutions in the form of steps that move a project towards equality, equity, justice, and liberation.
A.L. Hu, another DAP core organizer, continued the conversation by explaining how sharing queer architect experiences help increase workplace justice in th field. “Nothing about us without us” is a slogan that was previously used during the disability rights movement, and is now being used to continue fighting for justice in workplaces. Hu explains that increasing diversity creates equity and inclusion and posits that this increases profitability, as well. However, the results of the Equity by Design surveys indicate that gender and race diversity is not well-represented in the architectural profession.
After experiencing positive interactions in graduate school, Hu wanted to stay connected to other queer designers. They have shared their experience of being a non-binary architect in podcasts and symposiums, but they acknowledged that every person’s experience is different. This acknowledgment prompted the start of Queeries, a survey for LGBTQIA+ architects and designers to share and document their experiences in the workplace, school, and personal life. Hu’s goal is to use this data to create discussions and community for queer design professionals.
A lifelong advocate of equitable access, Andrea Kretchmer shared a just-housing model—a project that will provide 72 affordable units and support services for formerly incarcerated individuals and their families in central Brooklyn. These support services focus on creating opportunities for health, wellness, and physical fitness in the complex, which includes 7,000+ sq. ft. of green space, 10,000+ sq. ft. of community facilities, and 3,000+ sq. ft. for health service providers. The project will create opportunities for economic empowerment, in addition to equitable community.
The final panelist, Matthew Clarke, discussed how a project in Wenatchee, Washington shaped the way he thinks about just cities and spaces. While building a new park in a predominantly Latin community, the team directed their efforts to meet community members at events they were passionate about, rather than only engaging with the community in official project meetings. These events included Mariachi festivals that took place over the course of the year. Showing up helped the planning team gain more perspective and learn about their community’s values organically. Not only did this engagement create a group of leaders in the community that was able to advocate for their own needs and interests within the context of this project, but the group of leaders continued advocating for their community in other aspects, long after the project was over. An unexpected outcome of the project was that, following completion, voter turnout increased 300 percent. Clarke and his team realized that there’s no one way for measuring justice, and that some measurements may be less-expected and less straightforward than others. “Community engagement is not enough,” he said. “There needs to be a collective understanding of what is good for each community and their values.”
Breakout sessions were convened to further discuss how justice is and should be measured within the built environment. Groups were able to share examples and personal stories that integrated experience with process in the quest for just design. The sessions were more about framing questions rather than trying to find the “right” answer.
Participants asked, “Who is the who?” when deciding metrics, and can justice be quantified?” Hu asked, “What does a queer architect bring?,” and said that justice is a process that involves everyone bringing their whole self to the workplace. We highlighted the importance of representation metrics and the concept that design must help advance people through acknowledgment of diverse sets of needs.
Holloway mentioned the concept of broadening the lens of designers and architects, even at the level of asking who is left out of establishing what metrics are being measured in a project. The act of amplifying, diversifying, and bringing queerness (otherness) into the process begins to challenge the norm—the accepted idea of who the designer is and who the design is for. Within a project, designers’ agendas have to exist and magnify the representation of the voices from the community.
There is a collective sense of wanting to fix the oppressive systems that have been in place. As the discussion came to a close, the panelists were asked to share a call to action. Holloway asks more firms to use the Design as Protest index as a tool towards liberation. Hu wishes to continue their research through the documented experiences of LGBTQIA+ architects and designers via the Queeries survey, in order to create an index of personal experiences.
Kretchmer stresses the importance of not discounting the voices you hear speak out, in addition to thinking of outreach methods to target the people you are not hearing from. Clarke echoed a participant’s comment to embrace individuality and recognize humanity in the design profession.
Overall, the Measuring Justice workshop reflected on the concept that designers and architects aren’t doing enough. Just design not only involves the designer but the voices of the community that are not currently represented.
Panelist recommendations include:
For those interested, please consider joining the conversation by joining the AIANY Social Science + Architecture Committee monthly committee meetings. They are open to the public and typically occur at 8:30 am on the fourth Thursday of each month.
A.L. Hu, RA, AIA, NOMA, EcoDistricts AP, Design Initiatives Manager, Ascendant Neighborhood Development; Rose Fellow, Enterprise Community Partners; Core Organizer, Design As Protest; Facilitator, Dark Matter University; Member, The Architecture Lobby
Andrea Kretchmer, Principal, Xenolith Partners
Matthew Clarke, Executive Director, Design Trust for Public Space
Taylor Holloway, NOMA, Core Organizer, Design As Protest; Founder, Public Design Agency; Manager of Programs, Education, & Community Engagement, Prospect New Orleans
Celic Ruiz is an architecture student at Pratt School of Design, who seeks to create a career around designing inclusive spaces.
Beren Saraquse is a graduating architecture student at Pratt School of Design, who seeks a career in designing engaging adaptive spaces.