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Black in Design

Harvard Graduate School of Design
Cambridge, Massachusetts
October 9 and 10, 2015

Whose role is it to build “just and equitable spaces at every scale,” and how do you do it?

In 2015, a year in which a national conversation on race was reignited with renewed urgency, the African American Student Union at the Harvard Graduate School of Design provided a platform for a dialogue on race and design that was decades overdue. Designers working at every scale — from beds to buildings to cities—highlighted the contributions of black architects, urban planners, and interior designers, and they created a vibrant portrait of contemporary design practice. The vibe in the standing-room-only auditorium transcended identity politics.

Perhaps more important than product and place were discussions of process. American cities face enduring, extraordinary tensions around who has access to power and who is making what decisions and for whom. Even in cities like Boston — cities with enlightened, open leadership — there is a residue of distrust and fear, hardened by years of neighborhoods or audiences being ignored, misunderstood, or feeling excluded entirely from the planning process. These tensions become especially acute today as housing costs soar.

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View the entire Black in Design conference on YouTube

This sense of alienation was underscored two months later at a daylong discussion “Design, Development, and Democracy,” which dove headlong into these tensions. Architects and planners, community advocates and activists, and academics and city officials focused a series of discussions on how we might drive a more inclusive development process in our city.

“I’ve been fighting the [Boston Redevelopment Authority] for 30 years,” charged Chinese Progressive Association’s Lydia Lowe, by means of introduction. The longtime Chinatown organizer shared the stage at the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Roxbury with BRA board member Ted Landsmark ASSOC. AIA and South End Technology Center’s Mel King, frequent collaborators who have tackled equity issues for decades but who found themselves on opposite sides of the current power equation.

In a heated discussion, at times raw and deeply felt, the vast gap between decision makers in power positions who are striving to do well and the on-the-street activists who feel that their voices are muted and their concerns are ignored, was palpably evident.

If we hope to shape an equitable city, what will it take to change both reality and perception, especially attitudes several generations in the making?