Text by Jessica Morris

On November 18, 2021, AIA New York’s Social Science and Architecture Committee hosted the first of two programs in a series on Public Space Research and Design. “Gauging Climate Inequities” brought together a set of research and practice perspectives that articulate the complexities, challenges, and imperatives for designers working towards just practices. “Just Practice” is the 2022 AIANY Presidential Theme. The discussion outlined approaches to interdisciplinary design research that both question and aim to support the best practices in process, through critical analysis. 

Researchers and invited guests included Helen Cole, a post-doc researcher at Barcelona Laboratory for Environmental Justice and Sustainability, Timon McPhearson, Professor of Urban Ecology at The New School, Ibrahim Abdul-matin, an urban strategist and the founder of Green Squash Consulting, and Jessica Elliot, an architect with Hart Howerton, a Culture of Health Leader, and the Chair of East Harlem Community Board 11 Environment Open Space and Parks Committee

Abdul-matin and Elliot have a firsthand, community-based understanding of the challenges involved in choosing a site for public infrastructure and building support for or opposition to public investment, as well as the socio-cultural realities that inform cohesive neighborhoods as they address built-environment preferences. 

Cole drew from research that aggregates public health and built environment data to determine who benefits from Green Infrastructure investment in neighborhoods that are, or are at risk of, gentrifying. 

McPhearson’s presentation highlighted the stacked-deck of vulnerabilities that high climate risk and historically under-resourced communities often bear, while questioning engagement methods and the lack of rigor, intentionality, and consistency in scoping criteria for public investments.

The speakers each shared a published paper or document that anchored their perspectives. Taken together, the suite of provocative research calls into question what designers are capable of in practice.   

Cole’s research on green gentrification finds that benefits are not equitable. For planners and designers, these implications may serve to inform early project-planning assumptions. The paper raises awareness of how health-based data can be applied to spatial analysis, as part of a body of research that serves to define difficult terms—such as “gentrification”—in a way that can be measured and approached intentionally.

McPhearson’s research on siting criteria (how/where a building is situated on it’s lot), the scoping and regulatory processes that serve to locate a project, posits a smart and well-timed opportunity to identify a critical gap in an equitable process that can be addressed intentionally. Through analyzing codified language in public documents that precede green infrastructure investment, a picture of priorities centered on hydrology and economics emerged. McPhearson suggests that if environmental justice is to be a primary motivator in deciding where to put green infrastructure in cities, there is much work to be done in anchoring that “commitment” in the criteria that paves the way for project implementation. Furthermore, engagement and pre-planning should be codified to improve the process, accountability, acceptance, and outcomes in communities that have been subject to past planning injustices. 

This case study examines legacy planning practices and their evolution through one project’s decades-long planning and development, which highlights past injustices while pointing to the legal protections and processes which are now in place. These processes ensure more and better communication about public investment prior to implementation. 

One of the recommendations from McPhearson’s siting research—to engage, inform, and partner with willing communities early in the pre-design process—would be a stark shift from the current status quo, whereby informational design reviews are delivered at public presentations, with little opportunity to incorporate meaningful feedback. This is the usual current practice, too-little, too-late approach, that community members know all too well. 

It is fair to recognize and acknowledge the limitations of our agency partners, but also to assert the importance of funding pre-design research and engagement undertaken in partnership with cities and communities, by trusted community-based design and planning professionals. Pre-design research builds capacity, acknowledges and harnesses local expertise, and embeds the potential for the benefits of the investment to be received more willingly and more equitably. 

So, what can designers do? We can continue to work, personally and professionally, to build trust within our multidimensional communities. We can engage creatively in the civic processes that exist around large-scale public investment. We can be critical in our design tactics and processes, in order to consider the implications of these and other research findings, while advocating for process audits and changes to the status-quo that will result in more equitable design approaches. 

While architects and design teams are not always at the seat of power and are not solely responsible for allocating funding or controlling regulatory processes and implementation timelines, our expansive knowledge before, during, and after the impact-cycle of the work that we collectively engage is vital to success and this knowledge must inform and pervade every aspect of client and stakeholder engagement and design decision making. We should always approach design through this lens of research-based understanding.  


Want to get involved?

The AIANY Social Science + Architecture Committee meets regularly. Meetings are open to the public and typically occur at 8:30 am on the last Thursday of each month.


Event panelists:

Ibrahim Abdul-matin, Co-founder, Green Squash Consulting; Board Member, International Living Future Institute; Board Member, Sapelo Square

Helen Cole, PhD, Co-coordinator for Urban Environment, Health and Equity, Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability (BCNUEJ), Institut de Ciència Ambiental i Tecnologia, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB)

Timon McPhearson, Director of the Urban Systems Lab and Professor of Urban Ecology, The New School; Research Fellow, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Stockholm Resilience Center, and the Beijer Institute for Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Science



Jessica Morris, Assoc. AIA is an independent design consultant and interdisciplinary professional working at the intersection of environment, cultural sustainability and human behavior. She engages in teaching, research and practice with a focus on innovative, integrated thinking across disciplines while reconciling relics of our pasts. She drives strategic advancement of client-side goals towards shaping healthy, mindful atmospheres in institutional, public and private realms. Since 2020, Jessica has Co-Chaired the AIANY Planning & Urban Design Committee.