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How cities became more equitable in 2018

Architects, politicians, and community leaders tried to design a fairer, more equitable place to live

Cities are using public spaces like the Porch, a pocket park near Philadelphia’s 30th street station, to advance equity and improve quality of life.
Courtesy of GGLO Design; Courtesy of ArtPlace

Is it possible to design a fairer, more equitable country? Here’s how architects, politicians, and community leaders tried to do just that in 2018.

Architects are centering the conversation about equity on housing—and leaders in government are, too. This month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill to the House of Representatives that would create three million new affordable housing units and help close the racial wealth gap, doubling down on a Senate bill she introduced in September with the same policies. And earlier this year Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Cory Booker debuted housing bills. None are likely to pass; however, the bills likely augur campaign platforms for the 2020 presidential election and much-needed investment.

The wheels of federal policy move slow—and cities aren’t waiting around to take action. In Detroit, Cass Community Social Services is extending homeownership to residents in need by developing a neighborhood of tiny homes, which are affordable to people earning less than $10,000 a year.

Across the country in 2018, civic leaders turned to a strategy called “food-oriented design” to create job opportunities, preserve local culture, and anchor communities. Specific initiatives include small business loans for restaurants, opening community kitchens and gardens, and bringing fresh food to corner stores. The end goal? Healthier and more resilient people and cities.

Public space is factoring into the health equation, too. Throughout the past year, cities installed pedestrian and cycling networks, planted trees and greenery, worked to improve public transit, and rezoned for diverse land uses to provide opportunities for physical activity and civic engagement. While these interventions make for more beautiful and livable places, cities believe they serve an even higher purpose: increased voter participation.

An emerging equity challenge played out in 2018, invisibly, through the rise of automation. Facial recognition technology is becoming more common in public space. Tech companies are aggressively marketing their services to law enforcement, which could amplify existing racial biases.

Achieving equity also rests on reorienting history. A wave of new museums confronting the history of slavery and civil rights opened this year; New York City surveyed its monuments to assess how symbols of hate permeate public space and what to do about it, which led to removing a statue of J. Marion Simms, a gynecologist who experimented on slaves; and the Cultural Landscape Foundation created a list of sites significant to the history of civil rights in need of urgent preservation, like Susan B. Anthony’s childhood home, sites of Japanese internment during WWII, and a West Virginia battlefield where miners fought for labor rights.

In 2018, the architecture and design professions also examined their own practices to achieve equity within their ranks. Architecture’s longstanding gender-equity problems became high profile after five women publicly accused Richard Meier of misconduct. In the months after, architects amplified calls for better protections against harassment, misconduct, and discrimination.

There were some glimmers of optimism: a report from NCARB showed incremental improvement in racial diversity and the representation of women this year; the AIA hosted an exhibition curated by Sekou Cooke that proposed reading architecture through the lens of hip hop; and organizations like the Black Artists + Designers Guild helped increase awareness of the amazing work from a more diverse group of people.

No single intervention will solve deep-rooted inequalities, but as this year’s efforts show, progress is taking place.