Architects Increasingly Seek to Improve Lives and Facilitate Equity through Design

When looking to solve any problem, there can be a temptation to make assumptions on what would be best for those impacted. For optimum results, however, the first step is to listen and understand the needs of a community and, most importantly, of the people for whom a building is being designed.

“It is great when architects and designers share their skills in places of need, but going in with good intentions does not always lead to solutions that help communities,” Agrawal says. “Issues, such as environmental, racial, health or social inequities, that impact communities are often systemic, and the built environment is just one part of the system. Addressing these inequities with architecture may not address the root cause of these issues. Solutions have to be systemic, and those closest to the issues are often closest to the answers. It’s important to lead with listening, understand the impacts on communities, and not go straight to the design at the beginning.”

The first step is to listen and understand the needs of a community and, most importantly, of the people for whom a building is being designed.

Equity and Justice

It was with an eye toward creating a different level of awareness among building professionals that Open Architecture Collaborative launched a new initiative, Pathways to Equity, whose mission is to educate building professionals about ways to engage with communities and eliminate injustice through design.

Agrawal explains: “Many of the social issues and inequities we see today are not accidental, they are by design. For example, the lasting consequences of redlining and eminent domain still show up today, affecting the quality of life for those communities that have been negatively impacted by these practices. We learn about the history of architecture, but we don’t necessarily understand the history of exclusionary practices in architecture. When we start to understand the history [of exclusionary practices], it helps us bring about a different mindset.”

Pathways to Equity seeks to guide building professionals into a different point of view to be most effective and help the populations and communities they are working to serve.

“Pathways to Equity is about architects taking leadership. It aims to provide professionals working in the built environment with foundational knowledge of bringing racial equity to engaging communities,” Agrawal explains. “It’s about building teamwork and taking a systems design approach to achieve equity in all practices. Biases in our systems are so pervasive that designing without an equity lens risks perpetuating the inequities.”

To best address humanitarian design, architects and building professionals must look both inward, to identify cultural and built-in bias, and outward to the communities they serve. Working on these terms can be unfamiliar territory.

“Working in communities is very different from working with clients. It’s a different power dynamic,” Agrawal says. “It’s important for us to understand that the community holds knowledge and we hold knowledge and we can benefit from listening to each other. This results in better problem-solving.”

By listening to those impacted by design and incorporating concepts of equity and justice in the early stages, any project, whether a retrofit or new construction, can be better aimed at addressing some of those systemic, underlying issues. And there are resources from which building professionals can draw. But the first step is intent.

“The best resources are your own sense of empathy, design skill and hands,” Winn says. “Humanitarian architecture is really the first thing we all learn in school. It’s about creating spaces and places where people live their lives. No architect sets out to design something that diminishes the quality of life. I believe this mode of thinking should be universal: one that fights privilege and does not strip the Earth of its ability to sustain us all. To care about people or the environment should not be a luxury or relegated to aid work. It should be the primary focus of every project we work on.”

PHOTOS: Pathways to Equity


Pathways to Equity is a program committed to centering equity and racial justice in architecture and design practices. Its goal is to create transformative learning experiences, shifting the field toward anti-racism and equitable outcomes. Pathways to Equity is taking applications for its next virtual program.


The Community Design Collaborative provides pro-bono preliminary design services to non-profit organizations in greater Philadelphia. It creates engaging volunteer opportunities for design professionals and raises awareness about the importance of design in revitalizing communities.

About the Author

Jim Schneider, LEED AP
Jim Schneider, LEED AP, has worked in the design and construction industry for almost 20 years. He writes about architecture, sustainability and construction from Denver.

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