The Color of Equity at the Bruner Loeb Forum

The question of equity–who needs it, what does it look like, how do we achieve it, what role can design play?–was the focus of the 2014 Bruner Loeb Forum, which took place over a day and a half in Boston last week.

Leveraging the creativity of Rudy Bruner award winners, Loeb Fellows and distinguished practitioners, thinkers and policymakers from across the country, the annual forum promotes a local and national dialogue about what’s important and transformative in the built environment and about the social, environmental and economic impacts of design. This year’s event was produced by Enterprise Community Partners in partnership with the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation and Fairmount Indigo Line CDC Collaborative. Following a durable model perfected over the past 12 years, the forum began with neighborhood tours of Dorchester.

Tour leaders Gail Lattimore of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation and Jeanne DuBois of the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation showcased achievements by their organizations and their partners in the FILCDC Collaborative in improving housing security and access to jobs, services, schools, transit and community. The key, according to DuBois, is “the 3-legged stool of housing, economic development and organizing.”

The signals of the neighborhood’s growth and attractiveness are also its greatest dangers: gentrification and displacement of low income residents, as Lattimore made clear in her remarks in the Great Hall at Codman Square Health Center, the gathering venue for Day 1. “This is a serious issue for us, right here, right now.”

She cited some of the lessons learned from the Fairmount Line transit oriented development project:

  1. Organizing and collaboration work. Advocates present the moral face of the community, and community stories keep equity at the center.
  2. It’s essential to implement equitable development strategies.
  3. Education, economic resilience, jobs, training and business opportunities go hand in hand.
  4. Design can ensure the community has public meeting spaces; advocacy and voice-raising make sure they are sensitively designed.

Other speakers during the forum brought a national perspective rooted in the local, offering case studies from Larimer neighborhood in Pittsburg, Cully in Portland, Oregon, and Santo Domingo pueblo in New Mexico. The current crop of Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellows teased out common themes from their work designing farmworker housing in Yakima, rethinking and greening infrastructure in Detroit, repurposing outmoded infrastructure in Boston, planning transit oriented development in St. Paul and innovating senior housing in Vermont.

Speakers made a distinction between transactional development and transformation. India Lee (LF ’09) asserted that transformation occurs through sustained long-term effort in a single area, and she and the Cleveland Foundation are demonstrating it in the University Circle neighborhood. Roger Cummings (LF ’09) of Juxtaposition Arts in Minneapolis and Christine Gaspar of the Center for Urban Pedagogy (founded by Damon Rich, LF ‘07) described two distinct approaches in which art and design contribute to meaningful civic engagement and propel community transformation.

Alexie Torres-Fleming (LF ’14), urged the audience to demystify the language of systems and planning. She decried the language of “bringing people to the table." Instead, she urged, "trust their wisdom, experience and knowledge to create their own tables."

On Day 2 at Villa Victoria, working groups, tasked with defining “Equity” and mapping a pathway from “Here to There,” took a broad view but achieved much consensus. The principle of inclusiveness is paramount, supported by the assurance that everybody brings value to the table. Equity includes freedom of choice and movement and the freedom to make mistakes, with equality of consequences for the same actions. Peer support can come from within and without the community: the measure of validity comes from being in the trenches. Ownership and stewardship are nurtured by means of common goals, coalition building and the accretion of small wins.

During the final keynote panel at Old South Meeting House, Rick Lowe (LF ’02) summed up an important principle for the design process. “Engagement is more than participation; it’s the authentic partnership of co-generation: a community understanding what it needs, creating the solutions and amassing knowledge.”

Torres-Fleming concurs, “Understand that equity is not simply what we see; it’s the legacy of dignity, voice and self-determination. When the people lead, the leaders follow.”

Learn more about Design for Equity: Bruner Loeb Forum 2014. Read "Design by Community: the Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellows at the Bruner Loeb Forum" and "Designing the Just Community: Bruner Loeb Forum Keynote Panel."

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