How Equity Intersects with Sustainability in Design
Unquestionably, the reality of climate change is on the world’s doorstep. More severe storm events, widespread drought, and higher-than-average temperatures are just some of the impacts we are currently experiencing. As designers and engineers, it must be in our DNA to design using principles of resiliency, which can be defined as “the capacity of a system to deal with change and continue to develop.”1 It is also a responsibility to ensure that these solutions are equitable.
What is an Equitable Project?
Climate change has the largest burden on communities that are the most vulnerable, including physical, social, and economic risk factors. Otak believes in taking a truly integrated approach to our design and sees the value in aligning with the unique needs of all stakeholders to create memorable places for future generations.
Otak is also invested in the concept, as climate and community activist Majora Carter says, that “No one should have to leave their community to live in a better one.”
That investment includes identifying and learning from community experts, whose lived experiences can inform our design. Engaged communities, where everyone feels safe, valued, and empowered, are vital to creating a thriving society. Our internal investments in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion bolster our staff with skills that can carry over to our project work.
What Does Equitable Design Mean at Otak?
From work with the National Park Service (NPS) where LEED silver is standard in their design, to the Portland Building where Minority and Women-Owned Business (MWBE) utilization exceeds expectation, our projects take shape with these values in mind in a variety of ways.
Particularly within the AEC industry, as the field becomes more gender-balanced and places an emphasis on sustainable elements such as daylighting, energy performance, and water use, the results quickly become tangible.
Equitable design is an essential component of environmental justice. For too long, sustainability and the design that accompanies it have placed heavy burdens on our most vulnerable populations. Poor communities, people of color, the disabled community, the elderly, and other populations have been harmed by a lack of progress in sustainability. Worse yet, our infrastructure often reflects past racist, classist, and ableist policy decisions. A look at current environmental and health crises in Mississippi, Detroit, and New York City exhibit the need to think about the intersections of design, policy, and justice.
History tells us that these communities were made vulnerable through intentional and targeted policies that benefited a few and burdened many. For example, the current crisis in Jackson, MS can be traced to white resistance to school integration in the 1970s. The choice to open segregated academies and the flight to outlying areas resulted in segregated communities, shrank the tax base, and crippled any investment in crumbling infrastructure.
Equitable design that is intentionally focused on outcomes for these and other vulnerable populations reflects an understanding of justice and how we can design and deliver projects that are transformative by design. Environmental justice necessarily centers communities and the expertise that resides there.
It is our job to translate that expertise into design that centers the needs of vulnerable populations.
References and resources:
- Resiliency definition: SRC+Applying+Resilience+final.pdf (stockholmresilience.org)
- FEMA: Building Alliances for Equitable Resilience (fema.gov)
- Majora Cater Group: Majoracartergroup.com