There Are No Urban Design Courses on Race and Justice, So We Made Our Own Syllabus

Black students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design say there are no design courses that consider race and justice. Here’s an outline for one.

Image AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Children play with a basketball in front of a vacant home, left, and a restored home in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore on May 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

On May 12, Al-Jazeera America ran a story about a social justice-focused urban design conference hosted by the African American Student Union (AASU) of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, just days before protests in Baltimore turned ornery. This black student group made waves a couple of years ago when they brought the college-dropout-turned-honorary-Ph.D rapper Kanye West to campus, where he proffered his vision of how design will save the world.

The African-American design students are well-invested in that vision as well. They find it difficult to realize that vision, however, when their instruction has been based in the work of architects whose worldviews don’t give heavy weight to social problems. AASU president Dana McKinney told Al Jazeera that issues of race and justice are not only not discussed among designers, but neither does Harvard’s Design School offer courses that consider these things together.

Such class omissions would seem to leave these future urban designers ill-prepared in the face of escalating tensions around policing and city policies that produce racial inequities. For students trained as problem solvers, it has to be frustrating that their profession seems to have little impact on the prevailing problems of communities of color today. Part of the problem is that thinking about how race should intersect with design too often becomes the burden of citizens, if it becomes anyone’s burden at all.  

“Practitioners need to improve their proficiency with regard to working on social equity issues,” says Carlton Eley, an urban planner who works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He notes that there are professionals of color in organizations like the National Organization of Minority Architects* (NOMA) who are thinking critically about these issues, but are often overlooked by the mainstream design community.

Bryan Lee, NOMA’s 2014 “Member of the Year” and place + civic design director for the Arts Council of New Orleans, has been working to elevate these kinds of issues since he was in college—where he split undergrad time in between Florida A&M University, a historically black college, and Ohio State University. Neither school experience broached the topics of race, justice, and the built environment within his core curricula, he says.

“The issue is an ideology that finds its roots in architectural modernism, which eliminates ethnocultural and even sociocultural conditions from the variables that define quality architecture,” says Lee. “When we eliminate these essential considerations, we lose the ability for architecture to respond to the colloquial design languages of the people it serves.”

Lee faults the accreditation process for architecture schools in both HBCUs and mainstream universities for this. The National Architectural Accrediting Board sets the requirements that validate these architectural programs, but, says Lee, they “lack the representation of any group that would potentially speak to the cultural variables that are necessary in the buildings we design.”

Which means the NAAB determines whether race and justice merit any weight in the development of these emerging urban design leaders. Still, as Eley references, there are architects who are thinking through these things. They even have books—peer-reviewed and everything. I asked a few urban architects and designers what texts they would include in a syllabus for the kind of course that McKinney says her grad-school peers lack. I got back a list longer than could be published, even on the Internet. Here’s an excerpt of that list:

*CORRECTION: The original version of this story mistakenly referred to the National Association of Minority Architects. They are the National Organization of Minority Architects.

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