Field Notes on Design Activism: 2

This is the second installment of a narrative survey in which several dozen educators and practitioners share perspectives on the intensifying demands for meaningful change across design pedagogy and practice. How is the field responding to the interlocking wicked problem that define our time — climate crisis, structural racism, unaffordable housing, rapid technological shifts? To the increasingly passionate campaigns to decolonize the canon, to make schools and offices more equitable, ethical, and diverse? What are the issues of greatest urgency? What specific actions and practical interventions are needed now?

Clockwise from top left: Banner created by the Fronteristxs, draped on an arts center in Albuquerque. [via @fronteristxs] Freedmen's Town, Houston. [Patrick Feller via Flickr] Queens, New York, after Hurricane Sandy [David Fradkin] Collage created by Asiyih Lawrence in Dahlia Nduom's design studio at Howard University.
Clockwise from top left: Banner created by the Fronteristxs, installed at an arts center in Albuquerque, New Mexico [via @fronteristxs]; Freedmen’s Town, Houston [Patrick Feller via Flickr]; Queens, New York, after Hurricane Sandy [Alex Fradkin]; Collage created by Asiyih Lawrence in Dahlia Nduom’s architectural design studio at Howard University.

Pondering the possibilities of “design activisms,” I’m thinking of a Twitter thread that I copied and saved in November 2021. It was circulated by the Berkeleyside newspaper and detailed a horrible accident; a bicyclist had been hospitalized in critical condition after being struck by a car and pinned beneath it. In response, @WarrenJWells tweeted: “Traffic violence is both a moral disaster and a climate issue. People will keep driving as long as they feel they have no safe choice, and those who bike/walk out of principal [sic] or necessity will suffer the consequences.”

Tweet protesting traffic violence as moral disaster and climate issue.

I had saved the Twitter thread in part because I was thinking about a fatal shooting that took place just one week prior, on November 18th. A young Black mother was shot to death while riding in the passenger seat of her fiancé’s SUV, near the San Francisco Bay Bridge toll plaza. Her children, also in the car, were unhurt. What stood out to me was the fact that this woman was on her way to a job interview. Her grandfather noted that she had been living in the outer East Bay suburb of Antioch, working to provide for her sons. “She was doing, I guess, the Instacart thing .… And she worked and tried to keep herself going and keep her boys happy.”

These stories are related, though it might not seem obvious how.

My current research focuses on transportation infrastructures established during the era of urban renewal in the United States, and on links between the permanent dismantling of Black communities and the introduction of the highway system — in other words, how Black displacement relates to the dependency on cars. I could go on and on about this history, but suffice to say that, with recent conversations about Biden’s infrastructure plan and the Build Back Better “framework,” the past few months have generated more news stories and think pieces about transportation infrastructure than I’d seen in many years before.

Design activism should abandon the drive to address the desires of an ideal urban population, and respond to the needs of those already here.

At the same time, gentrification has revised battles over the significance of cars, and for whom. The gig economy has exploded since the advent of the pandemic, expanding a population of precarious laborers, like the young woman who was working for Instacart, who need cars to provide the prompt and reliable service without which they will lose their incomes. Meanwhile, as wealthy and White residents move into redeveloped downtowns, Black, Latinx, and Asian/Pacific Islander residents are often forced to commute from farther away. (The distance between central Antioch and the Bay Bridge toll plaza is 37.7 miles.) They don’t necessarily have the option to consider cycling to work or school. And then there is the push for “slow streets” which, especially in the Bay Area, has been led mostly by middle-class White residents seeking to limit vehicular traffic in favor of pedestrians or cyclists. Notwithstanding the lack of public transportation options like reliable bus lines that can also transport the area’s disabled residents.

So, in many ways, the woman who died on her way to her job interview and the woman who was fighting for her life in Highland Hospital are victims of the same structural, racialized, classed violence that continues to predicate the conditions under which we live. From the Build Back Better quasi-failed mega-plan to local slow-streets initiatives, design innovation, in regard to transportation infrastructure, too often fails to protect working-class and Black, Brown, and API populations at the most basic levels of bodily safety, let alone in regard to economic and cultural benefit. Without such protections, design “innovations” become luxuries that are not “activist” in the sense of promoting justice, equity, health, and overall well-being.

Central East Oakland, poster for "Oakland Slow Streets" on a telephone pole, 2022.
Central East Oakland, 2022. [Brandi T. Summers]

Design activism should abandon the drive to address the desires of an ideal, future urban population, and instead respond to the needs of those who are already here. If design justice is supposed to use design principles to dismantle interlocking systems of inequality rather than reinforcing their endless reproduction, then we must work harder to acknowledge the actual, extant conditions that undergird such systems.

Brandi T. Summers

Without any doubt, it is climate breakdown to which we as designers need to turn our attention. To say this is to understand “climate” as an issue that impacts all elements of societal, political, cultural, and beyond-human life. Climate breakdown is widening existing divisions between rich and poor, global north and south, and left and right political factions. To address climate breakdown is thus to address global justice.

In its current extractivist mode, architecture will accelerate climate crises.

What does this mean for design? Design, at least as usually understood in architectural discourse, is not a venue for activism in relation to climate; buildings alone are not going to address the threat of the sixth extinction. Indeed, in its current extractivist mode, architecture will accelerate the crises. This suggests that the primary task of design activism is to shift focus from objects, to ask instead whether one needs to construct at all; if a spatial realignment of the given is sufficient.

This entails a reversal of the question “what can design do to mitigate climate breakdown?” — which suggests that design can be in itself transformative — to the question “what does climate breakdown do to design?” The provisional answer is that it upsets the founding tenets of modern design as a “problem-solving” technocratic instrument. Climate breakdown, with its accompanying injustices, asks designers to situate themselves, first and foremost, as humans. This might sound blindingly obvious, but the contemporary design milieu, from its education to its professionalization to its financialization, tends to detach designers from the lifeworld.

Members of Mould Collective parading through London during the University of the Arts London's Carnival of Crisis, November 2021.
Members of Mould Collective parading through London during the University of the Arts London’s Carnival of Crisis, November 2021. [Courtesy Jeremy Till]

The first task of design activism therefore is to engage with others— experts and non-experts, designers and non-designers. The depth and complexity of climate breakdown can only be faced by sharing and collaborating, through multiple approaches. The strength of the design community lies in our ability to envisage and enact new ways of living together, engaging with the systemic change that climate breakdown demands. My hope lies in the fact that the required reorientation of human relations will necessarily be accompanied by new spatial relations, and it is the latter that the designer can help to imagine and incubate.

Jeremy Till

The area of most profound urgency isn’t (choosing) one of the crises we as a society find ourselves in; it is building designers’ capacity to engage those crises. Architectural education needs to teach better organizing skills.

Studio instructors need to encourage students to self-organize for sharing their learning and output in the studio; to understand the organizing practices of communities they are purportedly designing for; to open studios to members of any community being “studied”; to gather into their cohorts participants from outside their school, in order to get a fuller picture of problems they are being asked “solve”: in short, to organize a meta-university knowledge exchange.

From the Architecture Beyond Capitalism School, organized by The Architecture Lobby.
From the Architecture Beyond Capitalism School, organized by The Architecture Lobby.

Schools should teach students how to set up cooperative workplaces after graduation; to pursue collective bargaining at their firms; to connect with other entities advocating for progressive response to climate change; to push for updates in the regulations of the National Architectural Accrediting Board to include requirements for social, environmental, or policy-level engagement; to force the state licensure procedures overseen by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards to evaluate candidates’ knowledge of spatial-environmental issues facing the state in question.

Architectural schools needs to teach better organizing skills.

Organizing implies four capacities: recognizing the need for change; understanding the root cause of the problem; having the skills to cooperate with others effectively; and having a vision for a desired outcome. We need to ask why our discipline fails to discuss, or to foster, or to utilize these capacities. The Architecture Beyond Capitalism School, a project of The Architecture Lobby, is starting that conversation. It is organizing.

Peggy Deamer

Organize for Change

What is the one thing that we as design practitioners, educators, and students must do? We must organize to effect change, socially, politically, and professionally. Only by organizing can we turn knowledge, resources, and relationships into a potent force for transformation. Though perhaps overused as a term, organizing (to a greater extent than “change”) is something the design profession has not engaged in often enough. Taking a cue from political and social movements, we must mobilize our professions to address global climate crises, social disparities, and structural racism, to effect the changes that matter to society and the planet.

Within the profession, we must organize locally and across regions and borders; we can begin by rethinking the role of professional associations and leveraging their assets and networks. We can also form new organizations to explore new agendas and approaches. As educators, we must organize ourselves to lead change inside institutions and to transform how design and planning are taught and how knowledge is generated. As students, we must organize to demand these changes and form our own networks for change. As witnessed over the past two years, students can become critical drivers of change in education.

We must move outside our academic silos and beyond the comfort zones of our professional networks.

To connect with other forces of change in society, we must move outside our academic silos and beyond the comfort zones of our professional networks. We must work with and learn from our community partners and stakeholders about the issues they face. We must collaborate with policy-makers and elected officials to produce changes upstream in policy, budgeting, and planning. We must build coalitions and join scientists and other professional allies to expand our collective networks and knowledge. The profound social, economic, and environmental challenges we face are too complex for any one profession or discipline to address alone.

Bulletin board with activist slogans at Design as Protest event at University of Washington, Inauguration Day, 2017.

Scenes from a Design as Protest organized by students at the College of Built Environments at University of Washington on Inauguration Day, 2017.
Scenes from a Design as Protest event organized by students at the College of Built Environments at University of Washington on Inauguration Day, 2017. [Jeffrey Hou]

To become agents of change, we must reorganize our methods and tools. Although every design action is arguably political, design practices are too often disengaged from institutional political processes. We must begin to link planning and design to social and political processes in society and work to leverage the subtle and not-so-subtle connections. While organizing may seem foreign to some aspects of professional practice, it has been critical in past design movements, from City Beautiful and Urban Parks to New Urbanism and, more recently, the Green New Deal. Learning from these precedents, including their limitations and missteps, will help us to develop the competencies and critical thinking necessary to design for justice and change.

The challenges we face today are numerous and complex. Each may also require a different response in different social and political contexts. Political organizing, for example, would not be the same under tyrannies as in democracies. Regardless of the circumstances, however, organizing is critically needed to bring about the transformations that we hope to see. Let us bring about the change by organizing in schools, offices, associations, communities, neighborhoods, cities, and other places of possibility.

Jeffrey Hou

The Overshoot

In terms of climate instability and carbon emissions, the next half-century or so is the period of “the overshoot.” This is also, more or less, the lifespan of buildings currently on the boards in offices or under construction. We are designing for the overshoot, or could be.

What is the overshoot? It’s the scenario under which the United Nations, the European Union, and other organizations propose to manage the global economic relationship to carbon emissions. In short, the plan is to continue emitting CO2 (with some reductions unevenly committed to or acted upon), while relying on the future development of carbon-capture technologies to draw some of those emissions back out of the atmosphere. Such removal technologies are untested at scale, but this is not the issue here. Even if they work (I hope they work), the plan is that the next few decades will see business as usual in terms of carbon emissions. Disruptions to familiar climate patterns and to the lives and livelihoods of millions will continue, and increase in intensity.

The overshoot is, again, the plan. The economic cost of reducing emissions is so high that a technocratic solution of “net-zero carbon” has been collectively asserted. The plan is an accounting maneuver: it relies on future carbon removal so that planetary assessments show a “zero” long before significant carbon reduction will be achieved, or even possible.

Climate tipping points around the globe, based on current policies. Source: The Guardian.
Climate tipping points around the globe, based on current policies. [The Guardian]

Warming projections, based on current policies. Source: Climate Action Tracker.
Warming projections, based on current policies. [Climate Action Tracker]

What are the stakes for architecture in the overshoot? The profession has generally (albeit often implicitly) gone along with net-zero and other eco-modernist frameworks — because, in parallel to carbon’s challenge to the economy, the challenge to architecture is existential, overwhelming. The permission structure of the overshoot means that regulators, policy makers, manufacturers, and the building industry have little incentive to call for, legislate, or provide materially for the dramatic changes needed to mitigate climate disruptions. Buildings are still being built according to last century’s methods. Any building rising today that relies on fossil fuels is — per the recent mitigation report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a “lock-in” building: locking-in more emissions, more instability, more mass displacement, more violence.

A dramatic reframing of architecture, its practices and pedagogies, is both possible and necessary.

Design activists can help mitigate and manage the overshoot. A dramatic reframing of architecture, its practices and pedagogies, is both possible and necessary. Degrowth opportunities abound. Perhaps the most obvious is retrofit; any analysis that takes both maintenance and embodied carbon into account quickly sees the benefits of reusing existing building stock. Considering reuse also helps designers draw a line between survival emissions and luxury emissions. Architecture has long relied on luxury emissions for its cultural viability. An architecture of survival emissions sees in every project a creative opportunity to redistribute the carbon account (what is left of it), to focus on survival for the many rather than luxury for the few.

Overshoot Days, under current policies.
Overshoot Days, under current policies. [Earth Overshoot Day]

Architects can also take into account the habits that generate luxury emissions: excessive heating and cooling, bespoke finishes, too-large spaces. The history of architecture, seen from the perspective of the overshoot, provides myriad instructive examples. Design can be an instrument of demand management, a means to do more with less. Architecture culture can also embrace the urgency of these degrowth opportunities, agitating against business as usual through writing, exhibitions, teaching, podcasts, Twitter feeds.

Yet, the overshoot looms. High heat in particular presents daunting challenges. The plan is for atmospheric anomalies to become the norm. Thus the stark but necessary task for design activism is to develop a counter-plan: to provide refuge, services, and support, to foster community amidst and as a way through this period of instability. To create shelter, that is — and, despite it all, hope.

Daniel A. Barber

Every design action is a political act that concretizes power and authority.
– Randolph T. Hester, “Design Activism for Whom?” 2005

Design is not passive or neutral; design decisions modulate life experiences, whether positively or negatively. Design is therefore inherently political, as fundamental as food or water — although not all designers appreciate their formidable potential for improving the human condition.

Asiyih Lawrence, Barry Farm Community Museum, palimpsest collage created as part of Dahlia Nduom's Fall 2022 design studio at Howard University.
Asiyih Lawrence, Barry Farm Community Museum, palimpsest collage created in Dahlia Nduom’s Fall 2022 third-year undergraduate design studio at Howard University.

Design activists should not exist as a separate category. Educating all designers as activists is our most urgent need.

I would argue that design activists should not exist as a separate category of “community-engaged designers.” Instead, design education should empower all designers to see their practices through an activist lens, teaching them to critically investigate issues in social and environmental justice and to propose innovative solutions. Concrete steps toward this goal include:

1. Define “design activism.” It is incumbent on design faculties to formalize (in consultation with relevant stakeholders) and promote their definitions of activism in the field, and to place these practices at the core of their pedagogy. Without definition, complex issues risk devolving into mere diversity-and-equity check-boxes.

2. Develop frameworks that integrate design activism throughout the curriculum, while negotiating professional accreditation requirements. Many institutions are already thinking about this as they seek to decolonize curricula. For example, my architecture seminar and studios at Howard University have tackled problems in housing equity; housing responses to climate-related displacement; and methods for spatializing individual and collective memory in community museums, as a response to gentrification and cultural erasure. These courses a) allow students at an HBCU to grapple with issues facing their communities; b) help them to unpack the architect’s role in these interrelated issues; and c) encourage them to become disruptors, to address systems of inequity by pushing the perceived limits of design and designers’ roles. These ideas should be expanded and applied throughout design curricula.

3. Push beyond disciplinary boundaries to collaborate on new courses and programs at undergraduate and graduate levels. Interdisciplinarity can be difficult to achieve, given institutional barriers — yet such approaches reconceptualize design pedagogy with new tools, research, materials, and varieties of engagement, working to educate participants both inside and outside the academy against implicit biases, and to promote change without exacerbating existing disparities.

4. Lastly, design education should consider students’ individual needs while empowering them to tackle the often difficult work of being an activist designer. Mental health and strategies of self-care should also be supported, on the institutional level, as extensions of activism.

Educating all designers as activists is our most urgent need. What could have more impact than empowering thousands of practitioners with design-thinking skills and confidence in the proposition that changing the world for the better is central to their professional identity?

Dahlia Nduom

How Architecture Happens

What if one motivation for studying the history of architecture was to explore the discipline’s capacity for participating in coalitional politics? (I’m borrowing this term from Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s writing on the Combahee River Collective, which has been brought to bear on architectural discourse by scholars like Ana María León.) I suspect my M.Arch History 1 class, which is looking at the period 1450 to 1850, wasn’t expecting that question this morning — surely our subject matter would be far removed from the concerns of engaged practice that preoccupy many of our students? But it seems to me that our apparent distance from the “early modern” also affords a view onto the thorny question of just how architecture happens.

What if one motivation for studying history is to explore the discipline’s capacity for participating in coalitional politics?

We started our conversation this semester with Samia Henni’s potent 2018 essay “Colonial Ramifications,” a reminder that colonialism was not just “back then” but exists in what might be understood as an array of ongoing colonialities. In that sense, the canon will not be decolonized, just like it will not be decarbonized, not in the literal sense — if it were (and I realize that no one is proposing this), wouldn’t we lose sight of those twinned phenomena, coloniality and carboniferousness, that are cast into the field’s foundations and which make architecture such an urgent site for activism? It’s crucial to decenter old geographies, unmake old ideas of the architect, account for the effects of buildings on landscapes and cultures, and above all bring forward futures that didn’t take and designers long written out of the field’s grand narratives. Not in the name of perfecting an ever-more-representative list of what students “ought to know,” but because looking at history in this way helps us to identify sites of unresolved struggle — sites that have more in common (with each other and with the present) than we might first suspect.

Architects make drawings that describe the distribution of material, labor, and meaning on contested land. No surprise, then, that many of the buildings we teach oblige us to understand architects as agents of power, capital, empire, extraction. Buildings sometimes bear the marks of these entangled pasts, but more often sublimate them. How do we reckon with the conditions of architecture’s making, when those circumstances are concealed by the architectural object or eluded by the architectural image? Can we attend to the specificities of the sites we study, and also keep an eye on solidarities that might link them?

Responding to these questions requires imagination, but history can help us make these perspectival shifts. By articulating the position of the architect within the architecture of the past — not just by considering who and what is served by the buildings we study, but by acknowledging that we participate in material expenditure, that we define the ways that people labor, that we are also labor, that we as individuals and as a discipline are enmeshed in the various colonialities of the present — I like to think that our understanding of where and how to imagine activist intervention will continue to multiply.

James Graham

Wicked Problems

In his 2015 article “The Paradoxes of Design Activism: Expertise, Scale and Exchange,” C. Greig Crysler suggests that we rethink design problems as “wicked problems.” This means, he writes, “not only that there is no definitive solution or endpoint to the design process, but also that in some cases what is initially posed as an ‘architectural problem’ might be best addressed in an entirely non-architectural way.”

Crysler’s example is a 2009 student protest over steep tuition hikes at UC Berkeley that resulted in bricks being thrown through the windows of the university chancellor’s house. In 2015, the university announced installation of a security fence around the mansion, to save money on the security detail that had been assigned to the chancellor six years before. The fence, Crysler argues, was a weak solution that made a powerful statement about the segregation of institutional power from the campus community. Weak solutions don’t solve wicked problems; they multiply them.

Banner created by the Fronteristxs, in partnership with Prison Divest NM Coalition, and draped on the wall of the Sanitary Tortilla Factory, an arts center in Albuquerque. [Composite created by Nora Wendl from the Fronteristxs Instagram feed.]
Banner created by the Fronteristxs, in partnership with Prison Divest NM Coalition, installed at the Sanitary Tortilla Factory, an arts center in Albuquerque. [Composite by Nora Wendl from the Fronteristxs Instagram feed]

On October 2, 2020, the Fronteristxs, a collective of artists in New Mexico, partnered with the Prison Divest NM Coalition to drop a banner from the top of the Sanitary Tortilla Factory, an arts center in downtown Albuquerque. The banner quoted Angela Davis: “Prisons don’t disappear social problems, they disappear human beings.” Drawing attention to the fact that the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and that 43 percent of people incarcerated in New Mexico are held in private prisons — in addition to the 73 percent of those in immigration detention who are confined in privately-run facilities — the Fronteristxs urged the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board to divest public pension funds from for-profit prisons. The action was synced with posts on the group’s Instagram account (@fronteristxs) that gave instructions for exerting public pressure on NMERB leadership. These tactics for generating broad participation worked, and on October 16, trustees of NMERB were handed a 760-page packet containing hundreds of letters from educators and staff statewide, plus a petition with 1,200 signatures. The board voted to divest.

Multifaceted, entangled problems require wicked solutions.

The Fronteristxs and the Prison Divest NM Coalition had arrived at a strong solution. They understood that they were dealing with what artist Nina Elder refers to as “hypersystems,” multifaceted, entangled problems that require wicked solutions, that must be made public and interdisciplinary in order to be solved.

In being invited to contribute to this timely survey about design activism, I keep returning to the work of @fronteristxs, and Crysler’s writing, because what appeals to me is the situatedness of thinking about our agency in “design activism.” Where are you situated — in what places, communities, environments? What do you have access to? What pathways of power and capital need to be interrupted or appealed to, right now? How many people will work with you on this?

Nora Wendl

It is (or should be) a no-brainer that addressing climate change is the single most urgent challenge of our time. But the global scale of the problem and the intractable dilemmas up and down the chain of responses (individual consumption versus structural economic change; mitigation versus adaptation; nonviolent protest versus militant sabotage) can obscure pathways for action and incubate despair. For design activism to play a constructive role, it must immediately work to link — in the public consciousness — the prospect of planetary annihilation with the pressing concerns of our most vulnerable citizens: good jobs, good housing.

Rockaway Peninsula, Queens, New York City, after Hurricane Sandy, November 2012. Photograph by Alex Fradkin from Citymakers: The Culture and Craft of Practical Urbanism, by Cassim Shepard.
Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, New York, after Hurricane Sandy, November 2012; photograph by Alex Fradkin. [Courtesy Cassim Shepard]

We need to articulate visions of the abundance that awaits on the far side of an energy transition.

With regard to jobs: economic opportunity may have been the main driver of 20th-century migration (both international and rural-urban), but the bigger push-factor today is the imperative to flee climate chaos and the resource wars that proliferate in its wake. Therefore policies that ease migration and amplify economic advancement must be understood as climate policies. With regard to housing: the exploding cost of housing everywhere exacerbates the disproportionate suffering visited on poor and marginalized communities by storms, droughts, floods, and fires. The absence of real housing solutions pushes the most vulnerable among us into locations at higher risk of destruction and at lower priority when it is time to rebuild. Housing justice is climate justice.

What can designers do? Tell better stories. Climate inertia is itself a story, spun and sold by those who benefit from the status quo — a story that tells us that meaningful action to keep planetary warming within two degrees Celsius will require painful renunciation. To counter this story, we need not only to communicate the urgency of action — the disastrous consequence of inaction — but also to articulate visions of the abundance that awaits us on the far side of an energy transition.

Narrative Change for the Green New Deal was a virtual conference held in March 2021 and sponsored by the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
“Narrative Change for the Green New Deal” was a virtual conference held in March 2021, sponsored by the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Of course, a just transition must center the dignity of workers and prioritize the communal over the individual. From studio briefs in design schools to the t.v. shows we stream, from the “solutions journalism” that celebrates local accounts of climate heroism to advocacy campaigns that mobilize the disaffected, we must demand and create stories that harness the power of narrative to put people and principles ahead of corporate and statist profits. We need to use protest and policy change as means to an end, not as ends in themselves. Protest galvanizes the collective and demonstrates the importance of climate action to the global majority. Policy change can redirect the incentives that govern powerful interests, to align climate action with other pressing challenges affecting the most vulnerable.

But the goal must be more than the rage, and more than the law that (we hope) responds to the rage. The goal must be that abundant world on the other side. Design activism must be about navigating these phases of the journey, while always envisioning what kind of new world we want to build.

Cassim Shepard

Historically, BIPOC folks in America and around the globe have experienced many of their calamities in a vacuum, until the next disaster creates another need for response and recovery, which reaches the level of media relevance when occurring on a scale too large to ignore — for example, in recent weeks in Pakistan. As of September 5, 1,300 Pakistanis had died, and millions have been left homeless. The crisis was triggered by years of floods, which had already brought vulnerable drainage systems to the brink of failure

This is happening seventeen years after Hurricane Katrina and the corresponding infrastructural disaster led to the deaths of 1,800 individuals — and five years after Hurricane Harvey submerged the fourth largest city in the United States (including its freeways) — and a year after Hurricane Ida led to almost 100 deaths, nearly 20 percent of them associated with carbon-monoxide poisoning from portable gas generators in homes with inadequate ventilation. Unprecedented floods and freezes in Texas and now Mississippi make it clear that we need to focus more comprehensively on hard and soft infrastructure justice.

Freedmen's Town, Houston, Texas, 2014.
Freedmen’s Town, Houston, Texas, 2014. [Patrick Feller via Flickr under License CC 2.0]

If you are experiencing these challenges in your own life, the need to address them is always urgent. I say you because such mass events are often abstracted through news coverage of a distant, victimized other. However, increasingly, the “other” is one of “us” — the designing and planning class living and working disproportionately in coastal cities. Consequently, I speak both to the “you” labeled socially vulnerable and to the rest of us, in denial about how these categories will change and blur over time. Our ancestors have always been adept at designing for a certain degree of resiliency, creating social and physical infrastructures that allow for survival and the ability to rebuild afterward. Such infrastructures — for example, the Black church, benevolent or mutual-aid societies, and places like the 19th-century Brick Streets in Freedmen’s Town in Houston — hold and transfer knowledge throughout communities. This approach to designing for resilience must be foremost in professional designers’ minds, and central to any manuals they — we — reference.

Designers, planners, and residents should be equipped to think holistically about place preservation, in ways that center people over structures.

What’s required? Integrating humanities and social science approaches to understanding adaptation. This entails a willingness to engage in ethnographic study, not when disaster strikes but constantly. The most ecologically vulnerable among us are adapting as skillfully as they can; but which of these at-risk infrastructures are already buckling beneath the weight of government neglect, underinvestment, and White supremacy? See Marccus D. Hendricks’ citizen-science approach to infrastructure-equity research. As scholars who speak to the bridging of hard and soft infrastructure, he and I argue that this moment requires tapping into both design innovation (materials and production) and culturally-based adaptation strategies (communication and memory transfer). For too long, governments have operated in endless response mode, lacking proactive study of systemic and historic underinvestment in rural and BIPOC communities. Preparedness-focused research, planning, and practice are essential to addressing the large-scale unrest and multidimensional disaster that will be unleashed over the next two decades because of climate change. When someone is crying out for potable water or scrambling to get to higher ground, it is too late to plan.

The Texas Freedom Colonies Project, founded and led by Andrea Roberts, is an ArcGIS, StoryMap-based platform containing a map of historic Black settlements.
The Texas Freedom Colonies Project, founded and led by Andrea Roberts, is an ArcGIS, StoryMap-based platform containing a map of historic Black settlements.

Practically, this is about creating visibility for people and places, to permeate planning and design processes that perpetually ignore and silence BIPOC and rural folks until disaster strikes. An effective manual for design activism should offer guidance not only for responding to crisis but for equipping local engineers, landscape architects, activist planners, and long-term residents to think holistically about place preservation in ways that center people over structures. This is a practice of mapping not only for risk but for place cultures and ecologies.

The Texas Freedom Colonies Atlas, for example, maps places in an effort to force any designer concerned with infrastructure justice (or equity) to see the ecologically vulnerable (or advantaged). This conception of preservation requires a maintenance (and stewardship) manual. Such a handbook would not fetishize buildings or romanticize an imagined risk-free past. Instead, such guidelines would call for recording the ongoing neglect and cultural erasure while also spatializing the imprints of Black agency, resilience, and place persistence that have survived in the landscape.

Andrea Roberts

As architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning have expanded in ideological scope, the spatial reach of design curricula has expanded too. While this corrective has been sorely needed, I’ve seen students struggle to reconcile what they understand to be their role as designers with the lack of agency they feel. And so, after years of teaching studios centered on systems-level projects — atlases, expansive ecological diagramming, toolkits — this year I’ve turned back to the scale of human experience; this year my students have produced a garden, a bench, a pathway. And in doing so they have been guided by an ethic of care and repair.

I want to stress that this is not a rejection of the complexities of 21st-century existence. Rather, it’s a way to understand how the materialities of social justice (and injustice), of climate crisis and pandemic, manifest on the ground. A small site can encompass big ideas and have a big impact in the day-to-day lives of its inhabitants. But this won’t happen unless we understand the (literal) dimensions of their surroundings.

Pop-up "cooling part" in Chelsea, Massachusetts, created by students in Sara Jensen Carr's landscape architecture studio at Northeastern University in collaboration with GreenRoots, Inc. and the Boston Society of Landscape Architecture. The project is designed to mitigate significant heat island effects.
Pop-up “cooling park” in Chelsea, Massachusetts, created by students in Sara Jensen Carr’s landscape architecture studio at Northeastern University in collaboration with GreenRoots, Inc. and the Boston Society of Landscape Architects. The project is designed to mitigate significant heat island effects. [Sara Jensen Carr]

My students are learning how to participate in their local environments, to see small sites as lenses through which urgent issues are refracted.

This approach is commensurate with a shift in methods. In recent years, I’ve asked students to map the sensory inputs from a half-mile walk; to conduct oral histories; to document perceived edges, barriers, and portals. These exercises are not in themselves radical, but the meanings we draw from them can be. In studio, when reconstructing the history of a site, we do not start from an arbitrary historical moment and trace its ramifications to the present; rather, we project out from our current moment. We start with individual experiences, find recurrent themes and codes, and piece these experiences together in order to identify systems in situ before locating them within a larger web of sites, economies, and histories.

In the age of digital tools and endless remotely accessed information, my approach to teaching design activism starts with students learning how to be active participants in their immediate environments, reframing small sites as lenses through which urgent issues are refracted. It has been gratifying to see these young designers connect the dots in real time, to see them empowered as they grasp the potential of urban landscape not only to redress past and present injustices, but also to uplift, to nurture, and to be a source of joy.

Sara Jensen Carr

I don’t have a shovel-ready proposal; nothing actionable, nothing urgent. Design activists face deep structural problems that take time to understand. It also takes time to assess the opportunity costs and long-term consequences of any action. We’re in it for the long haul.

But we could get going on closing the design schools.

Faced with the resilience of anti-progressive structures, activists have long championed new schools: Vkhutemas, for instance, or the Bauhaus, the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm, SCI-Arc — or, more recently, Lesley Lokko’s African Futures Institute. But perhaps design schools are inherently anti-activist. As Tressie McMillan Cottom has taught us, postsecondary education has deepened and perpetuated inequality. Design schools conserve, curating and passing on traditions from one generation to the next. They reproduce the systematic inequalities that design activists look to remove. Moreover, as technology makes human effort in design more efficient, there is less need for time-consuming labor in creative work. The response in education has been to make creativity “ineffable,” and to tie success to reputational networks rather than skills.

Design activists face deep structural problems. But we could get going on closing design schools.

Economist Albert O. Hirschman’s influential schema of “exit, voice, and loyalty” helps here. It’s a framework for thinking about how best to achieve change in a degraded institution: is it better for members seeking change to voice concerns, or to exit the organization? Is it better to be loyal to the institution, and articulate criticism from the inside? Or is it better to be loyal to the institution’s stated ideals, and leave? Design activists have long been loyal to design schools. But it might be that the international system of design education should no longer command this allegiance from designers who could be loyal to activist goals. Time to exit?

David Theodore

Brandi T. Summers, Jeremy Till, Peggy Deamer, Jeffrey Hou, Daniel A. Barber, Dahlia Nduom, James Graham, Nora Wendl, Cassim Shepard, Andrea Roberts, Sara Jensen Carr, David Theodore, “Field Notes on Design Activism: 2,” Places Journal, November 2022. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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