Toni Griffin: Quest for the Just City

Toni Griffin: Quest for the Just City

Now that the term has ended and the graduation dust has settled, Cara Michel (MUP ’16, LOEBlogger, activist, 2015 Doebele Fellow) caught up with Toni Griffin (LF ’98) to see how her first year on faculty at the GSD has gone. It seems Griffin is the right person at the right time to catch the zeitgeist.

This spring, Toni Griffin has returned to the Harvard Graduate School of Design as professor in practice of Urban Planning. She has her eye on social justice, adding to the momentum built by the African American Student Union’s Black in Design Conference and Map the Gap: Visualizing Institutionalized Racism, various initiatives by Women in Design and WorkingGSD, as well as new courses such as Power in Place, the MLK Way, and Elizabeth Hinton’s intensely popular Urban Inequality after Civil Rights (recently cross-listed with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences).

Professor Griffin sat down to speak with me about her path from architecture to urban planning, the Loeb Fellowship, founding Design for the Just City, and being a black woman in the design profession. Griffin says that as a student and as a young professional at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, she felt the most solidarity with other female architects, all working in spaces where they were the isolated few. But as her work expanded into urban design and planning, her identity as a black woman became more pertinent. Now that she is wearing the hat of urban planner and professor, she no longer has to turn off her identity in order to succeed, because that identity and that unique perspective can now be acknowledged as important.

When Griffin began working at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, she was contributing to projects in London, with most of the design work taking place in Chicago. But during the economic recession of the 1990s, SOM experienced massive layoffs and the company ceased rotations to London. Griffin remembers that 200 to 800 people would lose their jobs every Friday. In the inevitable structural shifts, SOM moved her to its Urban Design and Planning wing because “when architecture and construction stop, we start planning.” SOM’s work focused heavily on Chicago during that period, allowing Griffin to do planning work in her hometown for the first time in five years. The opportunity to do work for the South and West Side of Chicago meant a new level of investment for her. She could do more and more site visits for local projects, talk to stakeholders, and work in black communities for the first time in her career.

Soon afterwards, Griffin was assigned to open and run the Detroit office for SOM because of the General Motors headquarters project. Though it was an architectural project, she and her team were also looking at adjacent sites, leading to an analysis at the urban design scale. But this also meant questioning who was making the decisions in Detroit and exposing herself to the larger dynamics of city building, something that led Griffin to apply for the Loeb Fellowship.

Griffin used the Fellowship to explore different curricula of planning, design, and policy. It was also a chance to affirm what she had learned in professional practice, supplement her existing knowledge, and answer questions about what else was at play–other than design–in the city building process. This cemented connections between social and spatial issues, history, and theory. Equally valuable for Griffin was the exposure to new people and networks, and she credits the Fellowship with helping her land her first job after leaving the GSD.

After finishing her Loeb year, Griffin continued to ask herself increasingly challenging questions about city building and equity. She worked in Harlem, DC, Newark and Detroit, inciting her friends to joke that she was always searching for a challenge. But in fact, she was interested in going to places where her unique combination of capabilities and expertise might not already exist and where she could lend her skills to help solve problems.

However, the more she worked, the more she questioned whether her work was having any real effect on social justice or equity outcomes. Those questions converged with the opportunity to create an agenda and run the J. Max Bond Center at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at City College of New York. She wanted to devote attention and space to evaluating equity, inclusion and participation in design. Having a center with no funding, she felt the best way to accomplish that goal was through a class where she could teach and cultivate a type of intelligence about social justice in the city and how designers might evaluate it. That class became an initiative called Design for the Just City.

The class has lived at CCNY, Berkeley, and now the GSD, and it continues to evolve. The new minds and voices that encounter Design for the Just City have brought an increased emphasis on the importance of distinguishing between multiple scales of the city, as well as the acknowledgment that within a just city, you may have unjust neighborhoods. “Can you have justice without injustice?” is a persistent question. In addition, students have come to understand that the process of making and measuring justice in a city has to be an inclusive, participatory one that is also site specific. Knowing who decides on the value proposition for a particular context matters, as does an effort to expand that “who” to be more equitable and inclusive.

After five years of teaching the class, Griffin is still questioning whether or not we can really measure the social justice impact of design. We know that design plays a role in creating a more just city, but it cannot solve issues of inequity and systemic injustice alone. Those doubts highlight the importance of the cross disciplinary work we need to engage in (and sometimes lead) as designers, says Griffin. Designers have the potential to be excellent facilitators with the ability to problem solve at a spatial level and an inherent awareness of other external influences.

Now that DFJC has moved to Harvard, Griffin senses a heightened potential for cross disciplinary interaction. Her seminar this spring attracted students from across the GSD (from Urban Planning, Architecture, and the MDes Risk and Resilience and Art, Design and the Public Domain concentrations), in addition to students from the Business School, the Kennedy School, the School of Public Health and MIT. Griffin is eager to seek out collaborators from other disciplines as she launches her Design for the Just City laboratory at the GSD next year. She thinks that this is an opportune time for establishing the lab here because meaningful conversations are beginning to open up: about social justice and design, driven by the intersection of student activism and evolving professional interests. As the momentum continues, she hopes Design for the Just City will be adopted by the school as a concentration or permanent area of focus.

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