by Jake Minden, Student ASLA
The Applied Research Consortium (ARC) is a new program within University of Washington’s College of Built Environments that links graduate students, faculty members, and firms to research a topic collaboratively. Now in my final year of UW’s MLA program, I am leading a year-long research project through an ARC Fellowship. The research is focused on racial equity within built environment design practice. More specifically, I am looking at how perceptions of workplace culture within design practice affect employee retention and goals around equity and inclusion.
To better understand existing perceptions of workplace culture, I have created a short, anonymous survey aimed at design professionals. Through this survey, I hope to learn what aspects of workplace culture need the most improvement and provide a set of recommendations for how workplaces can positively shift their culture.
Your help is needed! The survey closes at the end of March. I am seeking participation from landscape architects to reach the respondent goal. Please feel free to share it widely with your professional networks. All responses are completely anonymous and highly valued.
The research project began in September 2020 with goal setting, a literature review, and scoping process. One of the goals that emerged from this early phase of the project is to widely share the findings, and subsequent recommendations for an industry-scale impact. In the spirit of sharing research, I would like to share a few key takeaways thus far:
The Built Environment is Racist
The built environment is a physical manifestation of our nation’s cultural and political history, and that history is racist. Some well-known examples of racism in the built environment include exclusionary redlining policies, the targeted siting of urban renewal projects, toxic industrial sites, and waste sites within communities of color, oppressive architecture of low-income housing projects, and inequitable urban economic development policies.
Layered Barriers to Equity
There are many barriers to a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable design practice. These barriers exist along a spectrum of life experience from early primary education through to retirement. Some examples include the low visibility of design professions in primary and secondary education, the prohibitive cost of post-secondary education, the infamously white culture of academia, skewed hiring practices based on homogenous social networks, unclear promotional criteria, and a further decreased diversity in leadership.
There are also barriers to equitable practice that are more insidious. For example, a less visible barrier to equity is toxic workplace culture. Every workplace has a unique culture and individuals experience that culture in different ways. A negative workplace culture can be harmful and traumatizing to employees, decrease retention rates, tarnish a reputation, and ultimately be bad for business. One indicator of positive workplace culture is an alignment around the description of that culture. If everyone in an office names and describes the culture in a similar way, that demonstrates a transparent and inclusive culture that is experienced evenly.
A Movement for Positive Change
Our country’s recent reckoning with anti-Black police violence following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd lit a proverbial fire under the seats of many white design professionals. Additionally, momentum has been building in the last decade as the design professions slowly began to shift towards more equitable practice.
While some actions spurred on by 2020’s uprisings are dangerously performative, many are earnest. Below is a short list of authors and organizations doing important and positive equity work within the field of design practice:
- ACE Mentor Program – A national, free, afterschool program aimed at engaging high school students (69% minority students and 1/3 female students) in the fields of architecture, construction, and engineering.
- Dark Matter University – A design collective and network with a mission to create new forms of knowledge and knowledge production, new forms of institutions, practice, community and culture, and design.
- Bryan Lee Jr. – Founder and principal at COLLOQATE, and author of the essay “America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress,” Bryan Lee Jr. provides important commentary on race in the built environment.
- De Nichols + Design as Protest – The DAP Collective, co-organized by De Nichols, Bryan Lee Jr., Taylor Holloway, and Mike Ford, aims to hold the design professions accountable to past harms done to Black communities and a future of anti-racist practice. De Nichols is “an arts-based organizer, social impact designer, serial entrepreneur, and keynote lecturer.” Listen to De on The Nexus, a podcast from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design community on the intersections between race and design.
- Destiny Thomas – Dr. Thomas is an Anthropologist Planner from Oakland, CA, and founder of Thrivance Group. She writes about urbanism and placemaking and its complicity in racism.
Jake Minden, Student ASLA, is a class of 2021 MLA candidate at the University of Washington. He is currently completing a Fellowship with the Applied Research Consortium in collaboration with Mithun. At the UW, he has served in multiple JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) leadership roles and at the departmental and college level. Upon graduating this spring, Jake plans to find work that meaningfully integrates justice and equity with design practice.