Justice Seeking Design

Children’s collective drawing of their perceived neighborhood with traditional small stores. The pilot project explored the opportunities to empower small business owners and local residents to revitalize their neighborhood (Chung-Hun Market), Anyang City, South Korea. image: DURI (Design & Urban Research Institute), South Korea
Children’s collective drawing of their perceived neighborhood with traditional small stores. The pilot project explored the opportunities to empower small business owners and local residents to revitalize their neighborhood (Chung-Hun Market), Anyang City, South Korea.
image: DURI (Design & Urban Research Institute), South Korea

Hyejung Chang is Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Clemson University. She received a PhD in Design from North Carolina State University after completing an MLA at the University of Minnesota and a BSLA at the University of Seoul in South Korea. Hyejung has practiced in the US and South Korea. She is interested in landscape aesthetics and ethics as shared values to promote healthy communities and human well-being. We are happy to have Hyejung write the following article highlighting the importance for environmental justice.
– Julie Stevens, ASLA, Environmental Justice PPN Co-Chair

Justice forms an ideal of a democratic society, yet it becomes harder for designers to address in a contemporary environmental context. I propose an ethical framework with four guiding forces that are mutually supporting in theory, yet often confusing in practice: Democracy, Participation, Public Value, and Moral Obligation. The framework should help landscape architects be more decisive and effective in achieving justice through their work.

As the principal force, Democracy establishes a context for the other three forces, allowing their subordinate ideas, values, and beliefs to unfold. Participation, the second force, is a fundamental modality of engaging people and of making decisions as a public, collective process in accord with the moral ideal of democracy. Public Value, as the third force, means moral aims, qualities, and values related to justice that all designs are supposed to address and achieve. In doing so, the final force, Moral Obligation, provides guidance on how to reflect upon our professional duty and moral responsibility, and to reconsider the effectiveness of our design education for future landscape architects.

Four forces for justice image: Woo-Jae Shin
Four forces for justice
image: Woo-Jae Shin

1. Democracy

Democracy guards equality as a moral principle. Difficult ethical dilemmas arise regarding issues of fairness in design. The scarcity of environmental benefits and recourses drives us into a fierce competition for survival, and limits our individual rights-to-access to a common good. The principle of equality is also important in matters of cultural diversity; to enrich diversity, we should not ignore inherent differences in all individuals. However, professionals and politicians often overemphasize differences rather than commonality, thus feeding unjust discrimination and breeding hatred. Healthy diversity can be “tempered by the limit of locality,” [1] because local action on local projects is the domain of landscape architects, and our role is critical to achieve healthy diversity. Diversity gains legitimacy only when “people adhere to a common core morality, an agreed-upon political process.” [2]

2. Participation

Participation is the mode of democracy; people are the media of democracy. Participation is a public process to address shared problems and common interests that lead to a series of decisions. The media of individual votes and collective actions define what constitute a good community. Therefore, participation “demands power to perceive and recognize the consequences of the behavior of individuals.” [3] Over decades, landscape architects have developed techniques to measure individual choices, empower a community to make decisions, monitor the consequences of actions, and establish the criteria for a ‘good’ place.

  • People: Which participants form a public? How do different participants engage in public decision making process? Who is left out?
  • Process: What are ‘appropriate’ tools to justly measure actions? How do we distinguish the measure (internal validity) of people’s needs, wants, desires, likes, and preferences? Can our techniques distinguish the essential qualities of the community? How fair are such decisions made in any process?
  • Power: Do democratic designers have the capacity to embody the ideals of democracy and empower people? When do designers support ‘people power’ and when do they exercise their own power? What kinds of decisions shape a moral action?
A local business owner struggles to survive in competition with supermarket chains with prices that are below her own costs. image: DURI
A local business owner struggles to survive in competition with supermarket chains with prices that are below her own costs. image: DURI

3. Public Value

Values such as justice, beauty, and morals are perceived, appreciated, reasoned, and judged from an action within its context. Often landscape architects create this context in explicit form. Valuation requires a response (participation) involving both an analysis of reason and a reflection upon action, beyond our ‘private’ (as opposed to public) attitudes or desires. Valuation thus asks us to understand both public and private attitudes and desires as a fundamental reason for engaging the public in design, although determining the public value is never easy. Many communities under financial crisis struggle to raise a market value of community assets. Is it right or good to increase the market value of community? Who profits? Who does this push out as gentrification occurs? We often have “no overarching conception of the good…to guide public policy, aside from aggregate choices and preferences [that are] in fact often routinely manipulated and underinformed.” [4] This is one of the problems embedded in democracy, raising a question on how the public and experts across different disciplines can reach a consensus on public values in designing both local and global communities. And even if they reach consensuses, is justice kept when so many parts of the public are left out?

A local store driven out of business by urban gentrification. image: DURI
A local store driven out of business by urban gentrification.
image: DURI

4. Moral Obligation

Achieving environmental justice is an enormous and increasing challenge to landscape architects. Today, we often influence the fates of entire disenfranchised neighborhoods, homeless encampments, religious practices of marginalized natives and new immigrants, single endangered species and creatures, or the ecological integrity of entire watersheds and flyways. Therefore, how we define a designer’s role working with different clients, stakeholders, policy makers, and individuals of a community in each design process makes a substantial difference in matters of justice. This requires us to make a responsible definition of the role and the aim of our design education, making sure that our curricular and pedagogical goals serve a greater public value and are consistent or complementary to each other. What kinds of knowledge and skills give us a more persuasive power in our projects and decision making processes? What methods and strategies are available and effective in each discipline? How exactly can we best influence environmental justice?

Tony the cat: In a child’s drawing the cat has a name and the right to live as a member of the community. image: DURI
Tony the cat: In a child’s drawing the cat has a name and the right to live as a member of the community.
image: DURI

Justice by Design and Design by Justice both dignify us as landscape architects, humanize what we do, justify how we do it, and reflect on why we do what we do. Justice by Design cannot offer a universal panacea for all intractable environmental problems on the planet, but at least it urges us to think about what is a ‘just and right’ thing to do when facing difficulties in making our public environment, to share a sense of justice as a public sentiment, and to participate in open debates for establishing a just democratic society. [5] This simple framework—Democracy, Participation, Public Value, and Moral Obligation—can help guide us to good, right, and beautiful design.

References

[1] Randolph Hester, Design for Ecological Democracy (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 171.
[2] Louis P. Pojman, “The Challenge of the Future: Private Property, the City, the Globe and a Sustainable Society.” In Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application, ed. Louis Pojman and Paul Pojman (Thomson Wadsworth, 2008), 727.
[3] John Dewey, “Search for the Public.” In The Public and its Problems, 3-36, first published in 1927. (Athens: Swallow Press, 1954), 32.
[4] Laura Westra, “Environmental Risks, Rights, and the Failure of Liberal Democracy: Some Possible Remedies.” In Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application, ed. Louis Pojman and Paul Pojman (Thomson Wadsworth, 2008), 685.
[5] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971).

by Hyejung Chang, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Clemson University

2 thoughts on “Justice Seeking Design

  1. Paul Tesar, Professor of Architecture Emeritus September 5, 2015 / 10:06 pm

    Great piece! I love that neighborhood map drawing – leave it to the innocence of children to articulate a vision of a fair and just world and to remind us of the true human values that should drive our urban design policies.

  2. Kofi Boone September 9, 2015 / 2:33 am

    Strong and well written.

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