Racism is built into U.S. cities. Here’s how architects can fight back

The following article is reposted from Fast Company, by author Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMA, NCARB, LEEP AP BD+C

Police brutality and the coronavirus pandemic are two health crises that disproportionately impact black Americans. Architects, who take an oath to protect the “health, safety, and welfare” of the public, must be part of the solution.

I am an architect. I’m also the daughter of a man who lost his life to the coronavirus. My father was an African American artist from Detroit who was just shy of his 80th birthday when he died in April. We’ll now have to celebrate his birthday without him. Over 100,000 Americans will not be celebrating their next birthday with their families as a result of this pandemic. The statistics tell us that COVID-19 is disproportionately infecting and killing black Americans.

This isn’t just a public health problem; it’s a design problem. Many people may not know that licensed architects are technically required to protect the “health, safety, and welfare” of the public in our design work. This sort of Hippocratic oath for architects is something that is top of mind for me, particularly in my capacity as president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, a professional organization composed of more than 1,000 designers, the majority of whom are African American. As government and healthcare officials explore ways to make African American communities (and other minority enclaves) healthier and more resilient following the coronavirus pandemic, I urge them to open their discussions to include architects, too.

But this isn’t just about the coronavirus. As I write this, people in cities around the nation are protesting another health concern that disproportionally affects blacks: police brutality. To be clear, racism plays a role in both these topics. With police violence, we see an overt racism that can be readily observed and even filmed. COVID-19 arrives more subtly, borne by the invisible racism of poverty, employment opportunities (blacks are more likely to work jobs deemed “essential” or that cannot be performed remotely), inadequate or nonexistent healthcare, and the very real issue of weathering—the fact blacks in the U.S. age faster than whites due to no attributable factor other than societal stressors associated with race.

What I’d like to focus on today, however, is not how we arrived here but where we should look when seeking solutions. When it comes to addressing how to safeguard all communities from future health crises, architects bring a myriad of skills to the table. Here are just a few:

Interdisciplinary expertise: Architects are uniquely trained to collaborate across many different disciplines to solve complex challenges. We are experts in design thinking, which is exemplified by the ability to lead interdisciplinary teams in the process of iterating around a concept until the most effective solution is developed.

Best practices for a healthy built environment: Architects and planners are experts on designing sustainable and resilient places that have the ability to foster health and well-being. The built environment is our collective home, and designers are equipped to optimize our habitat to meet the needs of every community if resources are available to do so.

Diversity of perspectives: Architects have the incredible duty and privilege to shape the future of the built environment for everyone. Given how personal our buildings and public spaces are to our communities, it is vital that architects have the ability to deeply connect with their clients’ needs. As diverse as our communities are, so should be our cadre of architects deployed to solve society’s most complicated problems.

Architects have the power to “Design for Life” when our clients and public authorities demand projects that prioritize well-being. People like my dad perhaps could have had another birthday if we all made the conscious decision to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public in all communities, regardless of who lives in them.

In America today, we can predict that a person from a zip code in a black or Latino community will have a lower life expectancy than a person from a zip code that represents a primarily white community. How can we ensure that more communities extend their life expectancy? How can we expand the birthdays that get celebrated everywhere? We must pledge ourselves to truly design for life.

Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMA, NCARB, LEEP AP BD+C [Image: HOK]

Kimberly is an architect in HOK’s Chicago studio and the 2019-2020 National President of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA).

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