Designing Our Future: engaging students on how to plan with an environmental justice mindset

~3122862[1]About the Author: Kofi Boone is an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at North Carolina State University. His work focuses on the changing nature of communities and developing tools for enhanced community engagement and design.

Communities negatively impacted by city planning processes are most often the communities that lack the opportunity to participate in designing the environment around them. Whether it be the placement of amenities like parks or access to public transportation infrastructure, the narrative tends to be the same: low-income and minority populations aren’t involved in the design-making.

But I think that this problem presents an increasingly important opportunity for students interested in designing and planning for environmental justice.

Last year, North Carolina State University’s Department of Landscape Architecture offered its first “Environmental Social Equity and Design” environmental justice course.  With this course, I sought to illustrate that the alignment between social justice and design, though not new, is nevertheless still imperative.

Click on the photo to read the strategies on "Creating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities."

Click on the photo to read the strategies on “Creating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities.”

EPA regards this intersection, also known as equitable development, as an approach for meeting the needs of underserved communities with policies and programs that reduce disparities and foster healthy and vibrant communities.

I assisted students, from a range of disciplines, to gain experience with the issues and opportunities melding the worlds of environmental design with equity and justice. Frequently, questions were raised to challenge the students, such as:

How did “equity” become the most common contemporary term used when discussing these challenges?

How does “equity” differ from “justice” – or its predecessor, “environmental racism,” particularly in regards to the roles designers and planners play in these situations?

To facilitate the course, guest speakers shared their real world experiences working in communities. Dr. Danielle Spurlock, Anita Brown-Graham, and Randy Hester spoke about environmental justice and design in an academic context while practitioners like Vernice Miller-Travis, Alisa Hefner, and Carlton Eley of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice provided the insights they learned through project implementation.

Mr. Eley spoke to the significance of the course in saying that teaching environmental justice isn’t new. However, teaching environmental justice in the context of planning and design represents an important milestone. The bulk of course activity was the action-based research, which pushed students beyond the comfort of the academic setting and into active hands-on environmental work. These projects helped to illustrate to students that there is often an extreme contrast between the design work that receives mainstream attention and the social and environmental inequities that continue to plague communities.

Tia Hall, Cultural Alchemist at Spirithouse, leads a discussion on transportation equity. Students researched the social impacts of changes in the route of the Bull City Connector: a free Durham city bus that no longer connects routes throughout the city to the Durham Station.

Tia Hall, Cultural Alchemist at Spirithouse, leads a discussion on transportation equity. Students researched the social impacts of changes in the route of the Bull City Connector: a free Durham city bus that no longer connects routes throughout the city to the Durham Station.

Students were matched with several local groups to provide technical assistance in their on-going efforts. These included working with Spirithouse Inc. on transportation equity issues ranging from disparities in access to Durham’s free circulator bus to perceptions of safety in a local urban trail. Students worked with the Duke Durham Partnership’s Quality Of Life Project to document ten years of strategies to stabilize a near downtown neighborhood by embracing growth and minimizing displacement.

Another group of students provided inventory and analysis to support an informal downtown public space, Chickenbone Park, as a democratic space. Another group explored street economy and produced short video biographies showing the daily lives of people, such as Joe’s Story, working in informal urban sectors, like the Food Vendors in Durham.

These opportunities provided students the ability to discuss land use and community design strategies with community-based organizations, local and regional decision-makers, developers, and other stakeholders who are all striving to build healthy, sustainable, and inclusive neighborhoods. Much of this framework was borrowed from the EPA’s framework on “Creating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities: Strategies for Advancing Smart Growth, Environmental Justice, and Equitable Development.”

The overall reception of the course by students and local groups was overwhelmingly positive. I am certain that due to the continuing demand by students for more exposure to these issues it will soon be the expectation, rather than the exception, that design schools incorporate the tenets of environmental justice and equitable development in their curriculums

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