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

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.

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A woman at a homeless encampment in Anaheim, California

    The Unhappy States of America

    Even with the economy humming, Americans are feeling more anxious, depressed, and dissatisfied with their lives than they did in 2009.

  2. A self-driving Volvo SUV in Scottsdale, Arizona. The company has halted testing of its autonomous vehicle program in the wake of a fatal crash on Sunday.

    How the Self-Driving Dream Might Become a Nightmare

    What will happen if we just accept that a certain number of pedestrian deaths are an inevitable part of adopting autonomous vehicles?

  3. A young refugee from Kosovo stands in front of a map of Hungary with her teacher.

    Who Maps the World?

    Too often, men. And money. But a team of OpenStreetMap users is working to draw new cartographic lines, making maps that more accurately—and equitably—reflect our space.

  4. Equity

    The Austin Bombings Were Terrifying. But Were They 'Terrorism'?

    Absent a motive, the serial bombing attacks in Texas hadn’t been labeled with the term. Now, police say the suspect has been killed.

  5. POV

    The Gateway Project Doesn't Need Trump's Approval

    The $30 billion rail tunnel project may be a victim of President Trump’s feud with Democrats. But New York and New Jersey could still save it.