Black Design Matters

An emerging platform for design activism braces for the future.

By Jennifer Reut 

It can be difficult, even in the face of powerful evidence, for designers to accept responsibility for the role the profession has played in reinforcing the boundaries of race and class that shape urban lives, not just the spaces in which they’re lived. “As designers and planners, we have neglected these communities,” says Lindsay Woodson, a recent graduate of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) in urban planning.

Woodson is talking about neighborhoods like Sandtown in Baltimore, or Ferguson, Missouri—historically segregated communities that are disproportionately affected by police violence. In 2014, Woodson and fellow Harvard graduate student Marcus Mello began a project that would illuminate the systemic crosshairs in which black urban residents literally and figuratively find themselves. Titled Map the Gap, the project and report, which was recently published online, is an example of mapping as activism. Woodson and Mello, with contributions from other GSD students, mapped every fatal encounter in Baltimore, Boston, and Saint Louis from 2000 to 2015 and overlaid it with census data to analyze historical patterns of urban renewal, transportation access, and educational attainment. They found that disadvantaged communities unequally bear the brunt of police brutality. “The goal,” Mello says, is “to get people to question why these sorts of fatalities are happening.”

Stephen Gray, an assistant professor of urban design at the GSD and Map the Gap’s faculty adviser, calls the mapping Woodson and Mello have done “gut-wrenching.” But it is part of a larger effort to build knowledge that can be used for action. “The way in which we are building our cities and communities can have a better outcome, and as designers we can really focus on all the issues,” Mello says. As part of the African American Student Union at the GSD, Woodson and Mello were also involved in the organization’s signature event, the Black in Design Conference.

This October, the conference is in its second iteration at Harvard. Subtitled Designing Resistance, Building Coalitions, the program includes Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, and Walter Hood, ASLA, and the urban design leaders Toni L. Griffin and Mabel O. Wilson, among others. The organizers want to maximize the reach of the conference by livestreaming from the conference website and sharing via social media outlets. Natasha Hicks, a current student in the urban planning program and a co-organizer of the event, says the emphasis will be on developing coalitions and networks. “In the first conference, we were exploring the different scales of design,” she says. “Hopefully, through this conference, we can come to some actionable conclusions.”

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