Architects Need to be Thinking About Social Equity: Here's Why

Above: Professor Mindy Thompson Fullilove, who will speak about her work incorporating social justice into green building.

I have been asking myself for a long time why social equity in our buildings matters, why we should care. We are not, after all, social scientists or politicians—we are builders, creating physical structures from brick and mortar. 

But there has always been this nagging feeling in the back of my head—aren’t there a lot of unintended consequences from our projects? And aren’t there more issues we have potential to address than we admit to? Think Qatar and the architect (who will remain nameless) stating: “I have nothing to do with the workers…It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.”

And, even if we are not always the decision-makers, couldn’t we create better outcomes for people that usually have little say in a project by influencing those who do?

SOLUTIONS FOR OUR TIME

We certainly can, and have, looked for better outcomes before—the AIA 2030 Challenge has already been hugely influential in bringing together a multitude of design firms and public and private institutions who have committed to sustainability. We now need to be prepared to do more—to offer solutions to the social problems that arise in our projects today.

If nothing else, this type of thinking could help us to avoid situations where community boards won’t agree to a plan and the project has to go back to the drawing board; where demonstrators protest the lack of diversity on a Living Building Challenge project; or where the press discovers that your building materials were produced unethically.

Once you dig in, it’s easy to start to see the issues that exist in many of our project areas and communities. These range from small things, like poorly placed access doors that result in congested travel routes for delivery or trash vehicles, to larger issues, like displacing people and affordable retail, or not advocating for the best affordable housing solutions. We have the information, capability and maybe even a moral imperative to improve the quality of life for those who have little say in the design process.

LEED AND SOCIAL EQUITY

I have been working with the USGBC’s Social Equity Working Group to identify the issues that can be addressed in a building project. Together, we have come up with pilot credits that put forth solutions that are readily implementable—both in existing LEED projects and as part of the planning and design process. USGBC and many other organizations are starting to address these issues of equality and justice. But so much more is needed.

I am excited to talk about these pilot credits and other strategies with Dr. Mindy Thompsn Fullilove at Social Equity in the Built Environment on February 22. She is an incredible academic and psychiatrist who has thought deeply about how we have created or exacerbated social problems in our neighborhoods and cities through actions and inactions. She is a professor at the New School and a former Public Director of the AIA. She has authored six books (including Urban Alchemy and Root Shock) detailing how we can repair cities by creating more civil, fair and thriving communities.

We could actually be raising the quality of life for more people with our work—join us next week as we discuss how.

About the author

Susan Kaplan
Susan Kaplan is the president of BuildingWrx, a consulting firm she began in 2011 to find collaborative, sustainable solutions to building/rebuilding better buildings, sites, communities and cities. She is a past chair of the USGBC’s LEED Technical Committee, as well as a past chair of Urban Green Council’s Board of Directors. She is a LEED Fellow and the founder and co-chair of the USGBC's Social Equity Working Group, which has created some of the first pilot credits to address social equity in the built environment.