The "Design and the Just City" installation that was featured at Harvard University Graduate School of Design this past spring Harvard University Graduate School of Design

Toni Griffin, one of the leading black women in architecture and design, is leading her students at Harvard in envisioning and designing the "just city." And it looks different in Boston than it does in Rotterdam.

The Chouteau Greenway competition in St. Louis called for proposals for an urban design project that would connect the 1,371-acre Forest Park, in the city’s west quarters, to the city’s famous Gateway Arch, on the city’s east edge by the Mississippi River. This line acts as an equator of sorts for St. Louis, dividing the city in half, and also by race and income—whiter and wealthier neighborhoods are located south of it; mostly African-American and less-wealthy communities to its north. This was a line worth crossing out, thought Toni Griffin, who, as part of the Stoss Landscape Urbanism design team, submitted a proposal that includes streets and pathways that criss-cross north and south across the east-west greenway corridor path, as a way of connecting historically marginalized locales to neighborhoods.  

Stoss Landscape Urbanism

While the jury for the competition stated that the “focus of the Chouteau Greenway project should be the main east/west connection,” Griffin was concerned that that kind of focus might only calcify the city’s dividing line and further entrench the inequities above and below it. The jury, in assessing her team’s project, considered the north-south ribbons a weakness of the proposal, but still picked it over three other entries as winner of the competition. Griffin’s team is now the lead designer for the greenway project.

As an urban planning professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, specializing in spatial and racial justice, Griffin is well aware of the historical role of design in perpetuating segregation in U.S. cities. She also knows St. Louis, a city already made infamous by its pioneering of red-lining policies, could not afford to now become a pioneer in green-lining—using a greenway to reinforce the line separating the city. Griffin’s disruptive approach to the Greenway project criteria is consistent with her ideas around designing “just cities”—a concept she’s been developing since she was a Loeb fellow at Harvard in 1997.

The “just city” concept infuses social justice concerns throughout the planning and design process. It’s a style Griffin has been honing over nearly two decades while practicing as an architect, designer, and urban planner, leading major civic projects such as the Washington Nationals Ballpark District in D.C. and the Detroit Future City master plan. She has formed a pedagogy from this as well, drawing on her field experience to become the founding director of the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York in 2011.

When black students in the Harvard Graduate School of Design decried a lack of courses dealing with race and design back in 2015, Griffin told them that she had a bunch of them at her school in Harlem. Instead, the students brought her back to Harvard (she had previously taught there from 2006 to 2011), where she now serves not only as a professor, but also as director of the Just City Lab, which continues the practicum she began at City College.

(Harvard University Graduate School of Design)

Griffin’s arrival at GSD comes as activism among the design school’s African-American students is ascendant. Since 2014, the GSD’s African American Student Union (AASU) has produced several programs, including two “Black in Design” conferences. At the most recent conference held last October, Griffin premiered some of the work from her Just City Lab project, which includes a toolbox for helping cities build out an equity framework for growth. The students also worked with Griffin to convert that work into an installation called “Design and the Just City” which was exhibited at the GSD building this past spring. Harvard’s Black Graduation Committee honored Griffin with its Richard Theodore Greener Academia Award, named for the first African American to graduate from Harvard, at its recent commencement to honor this work.

That Griffin’s team also won the Chouteau Greenway project in St. Louis using the “just city” framework is evidence that there is an appetite for this kind of justice-minded design work. Which means, while Griffin has been doing this work, in one form or another, for the better part of two decades, the “just city” party is finally taking off. CityLab spoke with Griffin about her work in more detail, and how it could come to your city next.

Your proposal for the Chouteau Greenway competition in St. Louis in some ways disregarded the rules to produce a more just outcome. Were you concerned this might disqualify you?

We recognized that continuing to move the greenway east and west reinforced a legacy of racial segregation in the city. It could potentially further send a signal that the amenities that are being produced in the city are not for everyone. They [the amenities] spatially are not located in places where those communities could really feel a meaningful sense of ownership and participation and inclusion in those amenities.

So our scheme intentionally breaks the grid and suggests that there are in fact assets north and south of the city, and that a greenway could really reconcile some of the spatial and economic divides throughout the city.

I use that as an example to say designers, even when we're given a design brief, if we're really interested in meaningfully dismantling conditions of injustice, I think it's incumbent upon us to challenge proposed strategies in ways that we feel might have more meaningful and readily beneficial impacts for dismantling injustices. This was an opportunity for us to physically break the grid of the project and make connections that we thought would add more value and authenticity to the project.

How can other cities engage with your Just City Index—do you go out and promote it, to recruit cities for enlistment, or is there a way for them to come to you?

Our intention for the index, which is 50 values that we think promotes greater justice in cities, is as a tool that we want communities and cities to use to craft their own manifesto for what justice means to them. We created this because we often saw that frameworks around sustainability and resiliency usually have a set number of principles that suggest, no matter what context you're in, you have to achieve these principles in order to be resilient or sustainable. We think that a just Boston is different from a just Rotterdam, which is different than a just Gary [Indiana], or a just St. Louis, and that given those different contexts, those communities should actually put forward values and principles that are most meaningful to them in the moment of time they're in and given their specific conditions. To date we have used the tool with designers, but it's our intention to use it with a broader set of community neighborhood groups, civic leaders, government, and philanthropy to help create a shared vision for the city, believing that if we start from a values-based approach then we might advance a greater urban justice.

(Harvard University Graduate School of Design)

There are several organizations and programs that purport to do something similar to what you just outlined for cities. What sets yours apart?

One is, we're specifically interested in the way design planning practice as a strategy and as a discipline affects conditions of urban justice. We think equity is just one of many values that communities and cities are looking to advance and achieve. And often equity is thought of in a more distributive model where you're trying to distribute material goods. We're also interested in the distribution of non-material goods, such as power, rights, and decision-making. You have to think about representation, and accountability, empowerment, and trust. And those are values for which the way in which you would create metrics or indicators for them is not something you can sit at your desk and get quantitative data on. These are things that have to be measured qualitatively, which means using the experience of people on the ground as data points.

Our model takes into consideration that oftentimes those are the most important values, other than just the equitable distribution of transit, or parks, or investment. The third component is allowing communities to really co-create their own shared narrative around what justice means to them. And I do think justice is different than equity. I think justice requires equity, and perhaps you can say the same thing the other way around. But there are cities, communities, and individuals who feel that there has been a great injustice—a sense of something not being quite fair or quite balanced. So we intentionally wanted to be a bit more provocative, foregrounding that there are conditions of injustice, and unfair treatment, and unfair access.  

Is there a racial justice goal in this work, producing outcomes that privilege people of color, or even African Americans or Latinos in particular? Or is this something that is meant more to transcend race?

I think it potentially transcends race. There are a number of marginalized communities that are commonly deemed as “other” or feel as if they are the “other” in cities. There are moments in time when that's women. There can be moments of time when that’s African Americans broadly, or Latinos, immigrants, foreign-born population, LGBTQ communities. If you've watched the news the last several months, there is an assault that's happening on any one of those populations at any given time and space in these cities. This is why it's important that each city and each community has its own principles and values of justice as it relates to how those who are on the margins and who are not fully participating in the most healthy and vibrant ways of the city, are able to do so on a more level playing field.

We're also in this moment when white lower-income communities feel like they are suffering from injustice and they're voting and influencing policy accordingly. How would the Just City project address those communities?  

Well, I think to the extent that you're dealing with populations in poverty on the lower end of the economic spectrum in communities that are in cities that have not seen real investment in many decades, or have declining economies, certainly they too have a need for greater justice as it relates to their environment and their conditions for healthy living. So, yes, it could possibly be used in those contexts. I think with any of these frameworks, any group can argue a rationale for itself, as we're seeing, and it's creating really polarizing conversations. So I think that the other thing that's been interesting as we've been looking at this work is the ways in which forms of justice happen at different scales. You could have a set of metrics and indicators that say a city as a whole is more just or most sustainable or resilient, but then you can go to 10 different neighborhoods within that city and likely get very different readings of some that are just, and some that are not so just. That's a really interesting nuance, which may never be fully rectified, but it suggests that there's always unfinished work to be done in cities and in communities to strive for more just, equitable, sustainable, and resilient outcomes.

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