In October, we published an article on social justice and green building. We've gotten several responses, including a letter from Raphael Sperry of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (below).
Sperry makes several good points, and is right that a proper discussion of social justice and the built environment includes much larger inequities than any single building can fix. But designers have an opportunity to make a difference with every project they touch--not just the buildings for socially conscious clients--and most need practical guidance on where to start. Our goal with the article was not to end a discussion, but to start one that we hope will continue for some time to come.
This blog post and its comments section are the first step in that conversation. Stay tuned for more!
Your October feature on "Integrating Social Justice into Green Design" contains some good first steps for designers who may be unfamiliar with the issue, but leaves the most important topics in this area undiscussed. Providing healthy interior spaces and shared community amenities are a good start, but "social justice" generally refers to redressing the major inequities in society today, especially socio-economic disparity and discrimination against minority groups. For example, the amply-documented abominable treatment of construction workers in the Persian Gulf states on projects striving to be "green" raises serious questions about the ethical place of green building. Back at home, the ongoing failure of our country to provide dignified housing, school facilities, and other basics of community life to all its residents is a major social justice issue with clear implications for the planners of physical facilities. These disparities have increased in recent years as our country, including much of our green building movement, has built more and more for the haves and less and less for the have-nots. The injustices exposed around hurricane Katrina and the foreclosure crisis gripping the country are only two recent manifestations of the major failures in social justice we continue to experience.
To leave readers with the impression that social justice can be approached on the basis of design details without looking at the hard facts of inequality in our society does not give a realistic understanding of the issue. For example, USGBC's Social Equity Task Force recently noted the need for USGBC as an organization to consult with disadvantaged communities and reach across social and racial lines. At the deeper level, as green building evolves to address social justice, more of our practitioners and more of our projects will have to address the un-sustainability of having our built environment and its planned development owned and controlled by a small, wealthy elite whose interests do not overlap with that of society as a whole.
Fortunately, architects and planners have experience working to further social justice through (among other things) building affordable housing, practicing community design, and advocating for greater economic equality and civil rights. That the article failed to mention the efforts of groups such as the Association for Community Design (or any of the 100+ community design centers that are its members), Design Corps, Public Architecture, Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (where I am a national board member), or other like-minded groups does a real disservice to your readership. Members of these organizations constitute the largest base of expertise within the profession in dealing with social justice issues. I urge EBN to continue to learn about, and educate readers about, the larger questions of social justice as they are part of green building, and of making the world a better place in general. I hope future efforts will include more voices, including those who have taken the issue to heart for the longest time.
Raphael Sperry, AIA
National Board Member
Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility