While millions were participating in or watching the large-scale J20 and Women’s March demonstrations over inauguration weekend, a quieter riot was brewing among urban designers and planners. The Design As Protest nationwide day of action brought together architects, artists, community organizers and activists in nearly a dozen cities. Their mission, as stated on their website, is to “use design as a means to speak out in support of the disinherited and marginalized communities at risk during the next administration.”
Bryan Lee, a New Orleans-based, African-American architect, helped coordinate the national Design As Protest network, and presided over projects in his home city. Last November, Lee was behind a stand that black architects took against the American Institute of Architects’ CEO Robert Ivy, whose congratulatory letter to Trump after his election led to major controversy. He’s also been working to build a “design justice” movement that better infuses social justice into the work of urban architects and planners. That work began well before Trump was elected, but is now spreading to cities such as Seattle, Detroit, Oakland, and Cleveland—all of which participated in the Design As Protest activities last weekend. CityLab caught up with Lee this week to talk about a design response to the Donald Trump agenda.
What led to the launch of the #DesignAsProtest movement and direct actions that took place over inauguration weekend?
Design in the built environment runs across the entire spectrum of social justice issues, so we’re not pinpointing any particular issues. We deal with food injustice, housing injustice, safety, security and police brutality—all these things are interconnected with physical space. What we’re saying is, when it comes to the way that we think about justice issues in general, we need to think about the physical environments that hold those injustices up or allow them to be perpetuated.
Alton Sterling and Eric Garner were both murdered in front of convenience stores, which in black communities, can be safe spaces to kind of hang out and chill in front of. When you create unsafe space in previously safe spaces, you end up destroying opportunities for people to come back, because they know someone was hurt in that environment.
So how did this play out in the various cities where #DesignAsProtest projects took place?
We asked people in each city to think about four core questions. The first was, “What is the social justice issue design we should be thinking about?” For that, we ran the gamut from gentrification to mobility to education to affordable housing, and, mind you, we’re in rooms with designers and architects, community activists and community members.
The next question was, “Who does it directly or disproportionately impact?” The third question was, “How does it manifest in the built environment?” and the fourth question was “What is the design resolution?” It was about fronting the justice issue before everything else. Before we get to the architectural solution, we need to understand the justice implications.
And then we had additional ideas we wanted to make sure people were connected to, such as making sure we understand exactly what the policies are, and the procedures and practices that define how the physical space is manipulated. Then people were prompted to design something that either mitigates or eliminates the social injustice issue they addressed.
Was AIA or the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) involved in this in any way?
No, this was a separate effort, just because they are not organizing entities. They all have bureaucratic structures that tend to get in the way of trying to get something done pretty quickly. So, while I appreciate both, I think it was necessary to pull this together outside of any particular agency and just have a people’s summit essentially. There were local NOMA chapters that ran projects and local AIA chapters that hosted them, and they’ve been pretty supportive across the board with the overall mission.
We have a standard in the architectural profession that says we are deemed to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Most architects understand what the health and safety parts mean because we have codes and regulations that define those two things. It’s hard to pin down what the welfare standard is.
Essentially we must design for the positive and demonstrable physical and emotional well-being of the people. And that in itself is a really tremendous statement, but it doesn’t carry through in terms of codes and regulations that define what that means. So that’s where the AIA falls short, it’s that they don’t take a stand on these issues—they’re the Aaron Burr of this particular Hamilton play.
There has been a shift lately in that language, though, towards a more social justice orientation, but it’s not fully there and it’s not embedded in all of our work yet. We’re attempting to get there as organizations and I think at some point that will happen. Some organizations like ASLA (Society of Landscape Architects) do have new guidelines around justice and are out in front of these issues.
Do you see this integrating with some of new movements it collided with this past weekend, like the Women’s March?
I think that's one of the issues that are prescient and necessary to discuss when it comes to physical space and safety. I don’t think we’re completely detached. When we talk about women’s healthcare or women’s safety on the streets, those things have tremendous obligations for the design profession. There is a specific orientation for #DesignAsProtest to think about the ways the physical environment has an impact, so we will stay in our lane in that regard, but we will be open to any justice-leaning organizations that are attempting to define these types of spaces.
So for your project “Who’s Gerry” in New Orleans—can you talk about that?
The group I facilitated in New Orleans helped develop ideas around the injustice of gerrymandering at large and its incongruity with normal logical processes. When people see gerrymandering, they understand it as a faulty system. The idea is to first start talking about what a gerrymandered district looks like, and they want to do that by creating murals or spray-painted sets across a city or district to shows people what their district looks like.
The second part is creating postcards and booklets that show districts of particular shapes and sizes as a messaging strategy for illustrating how this is an unjust system. Another element is building actual physical spaces based off the outline of what a gerrymandered district looks like, but at a scale where people can walk through it and experience how ridiculous it is.
One idea that I think has a ton of potential is to show the change in particular districts over time, by layering existing districts drawn without input from the public, and then showing what people’s district would look like, based off public input. There are a bunch of different options for drawing district lines— a bunch of people are doing algorithm-based district re-mapping. A lot of those tend to exclude cultural contexts, though, that end up avoiding Voting Rights Act protections. So we have to find a way into thinking not so much about race, but also the cultural context of race and using that to help define the variables of those boundaries.