Blog Post

A Wider View of Social Justice

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

Published November 18, 2009

(2009, November 18). A Wider View of Social Justice. Retrieved from

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November 19, 2009 - 5:37 am

Alright folks, time to intervene. Can we keep this civil, please?

I posted Raphael's response to my article because I respect his opinion. The connection between social justice and the built environment is complex and multifaceted, and there are a lot of discussions to be had. Buildings are not going to solve the social inequities in this country or anywhere else, but neither is calling each other names.

If you can't see the original article, let me know and I can email you a link. Also, please see my other blog on this topic:

My argument in the original article is that we need to take social justice concerns beyond the "usual suspects" of affordable housing and other socially conscious projects. Every designer has an opportunity to think about social justice in every project. Let me put my activist hat on for a minute (setting the objective journalist hat aside) and say that we must start addressing social issues in the way we think about the built environment. Green high-rent condos are great, but so are green affordable housing units. Private, gated communities may have their place (I'm not sure on that), but so does urban renewal and open neighborhood design. When I talk about social justice and green building, I talk about thinking beyond the building's actual design to its location, its purpose, and its connection to the community.

I was hoping this would be a forum for civilized debate. Please be aware that your comments in this forum are read by other human beings. That, after all, is where social justice starts—remembering that we're all human.

November 19, 2009 - 4:26 am

I understand Andy's comments. Raphael comes across as a ranting, idealistic individual with the simplistic view that if everyone just cared more we'd live in a utopia. I'd suggest getting your head out of the clouds and on the ground with the rest of us. Most of the topics you go on about will in no way be affected by building new buildings.

The schools in the US do a horrible job at educating our children. The educational system is what is causing this, not our buildings. Has the rapid construction of green schools nation wide improved our children's education? Or does it just make us feel better so we can say we did something?

I do not see what homelessness has to do with this debate. Your view of the causes of homelessness is too simplistic. Simply building more homes will not solve this problem. We already have enough houses. And speaking of social justice, who would pay for these homes you want. I do not see the social justice in forcing me and others to pay for someone else's home. No one else is paying for my home. What legal grounds would this be based on? Or do you expect green buildings to be forced to add housing attachments onto the sides of their new buildings? Free and open housing for all. I'm sure these will become highly desirable places to live for the homeless. Note my sarcasm.

And now we're expected to reach across racial lines in our design of buildings. Aside from interior decorating I don't see much disagreement between racial lines on the design of buildings. But I'm sure it makes you feel better about yourself that you're helping society by thinking about racial differences.

"the un-sustainability of having our built environment and its planned development owned and controlled by a small, wealthy elite" What is this wackiness. Sure it would be great if everyone was a billionaire and could afford building green skyscrapers. That would be sustainable.

November 18, 2009 - 1:39 pm

Hi Andy,

Your post is puzzling. By saying "I've never seen the big conspiracies that Raphael sees," you seem to be saying that you have seen no failure in this country to provide dignified housing and school facilities (to cite the examples in my letter). Every American city I've lived in or visited seems to pretty readily display the lack of dignified housing because we have people sleeping on the streets, and news reports of American schools without functional bathrooms are recent and not hard to find. I find your response hard to understand: are these merely individual failings? Is there really a debate to be had about whether these conditions are unjust when the resources manifestly exist to address them? Am I somehow asserting that there is a conspiracy to create homelessness and to degrade the condition of American school buildings? If you want to discuss the meaning of economic equality and civil rights, I am happy to participate - ADPSR is an NGO registered with the United Nations and we would refer to the International Declaration of Human Rights as the basis for our use of these and other terms.

Additionally, as ADPSR is an open membership group, I find your assertion that "you are not allowed to belong to the groups he mentions if you disagree..." to be basically false. Given your tone, I can see you would not desire to be a member of ADPSR, but that is a different question. To the best of my knowledge no one, yourself included, has been denied ADPSR membership because of differences in political viewpoint.

Lastly, while I can't speak for the editors of BuildingGreen, as a fellow reader I hope you'll recognize that when they publish a letter such as mine they are not presenting their own opinions. Therefor it is not fair for you to say they are showing bias by printing my letter; perhaps you'll consider an apology.

November 18, 2009 - 1:00 pm

And who decides what is social justice and injustice, Raphael, me, who? The condemnations are arrogant and outright wrong in a number of instances.

A dialogue is wonderful but let's have a dialogue and not an idealogical driven tirade. I support societal and individual responsibility and have never seen the big conspiracies that Raphael sees.

Additionally, you are not allowed to belong to the groups he mentions if you disagree with or want to discuss even the meaning of economic equality and civil rights.

Great to hear that HE IS A NATIONAL BOARD MEMBER. I bet my wife and I do more to help economic equality and civil rights in our community that he actually PERFORMS.

You do your reader's and society an injustice with this bias.


Andy Hoover

November 19, 2009 - 11:31 am

Hi Bill,

Thanks for clarifying your comments. I’m surprised that I come across as ranting, although it’s good to know that my ideals are on display in my writing – I’m not sure when idealism became a problem – I thought that ideals are what aim for as we make more pragmatic decisions in the day-to-day. I don’t know where I project “the simplistic idea that if everyone just cared more we’d live in a utopia” – but I do believe that lack of caring about others makes our society that much further from the best it could be. Caring about others is a necessary but not sufficient condition for improvement in the general level of well-being – it will certainly take a lot of hard work and a lot of money to achieve that improvement, not just caring. Schools are a good example of this – even though many management, teaching, and other changes are necessary to make a world-class educational system, high-quality facilities are also necessary. You can’t run a reasonable school, let alone an excellent one, if children are afraid to go to the bathroom because the facility is so poorly maintained. Because ADPSR represents design professionals, we tend to focus on the physical facility dimensions of the issues we discuss – of course we recognize that there are much larger issues in many cases. I am not suggesting that design professionals alone are responsible for causing or solving these problems, just that we should do our part of making things better.

I also don’t think it’s fair to write off my comments as “wacky.” Noting that a small proportion of individuals and corporations own most the real estate in the United States is a simple observation of fact. While the United States has a very high percentage of home-owners, larger residential, commercial, and industrial parcels are highly concentrated in ownership, and property owners are (basically by definition) wealthy. Property rights laws in the United States by and large give those owners the sole ability to plan real estate development (subject to zoning approval). This is just a description of business in the United States, not wackiness. What I find unsustainable about this situation is that property owners do not in general protect the public interest, and can in fact cause great public harm through pursuing their self-interest with their parcels. The recent mortgage crisis demonstrates that home builders (a small and generally wealthy subset of the population) overbuilt their inventory in a frenzy of speculation, and now we are all paying the price for their stupidity. Externalizing environmental impacts is another unsustainable part of business as usual—for example, tract home developers are not required to mitigate the air-quality and CO2 emissions their projects create in contrast to infill development. In general, large groups with a broader set of interests tend to make better-informed decisions; in real estate development, this principle is largely ignored. The cumulative impact of private, for-profit, single-parcel development for the owners’ interests has destroyed and degraded farmland, natural systems, and human health all across the country; and the resulting built environment we have consumes more energy, water, and natural resources than it can regenerate. That is unsustainable, not (I hope) wacky.

Lastly, if you don’t see how homelessness is related to the debate about “social equity” I’m at a loss of how to explain it better – although I very much agree with you that we need to look at economics as part of social justice. Proponents of social equity and social justice tend to agree that there is a general framework of economic rights that people in developed societies can expect, and that decent housing is one of those. To respect this right in a wealthy country, if people are incapable of providing housing for themselves then it must be provided for them. Yes, it will be paid for by other people in some system – government, non-profit, private philanthropy, etc. For people who earn money but not enough to afford housing today, I agree that finding a way to construct housing that they can afford is a step towards the solution I am looking for. And I am also dismayed that the new home industry in the U.S. always seems more interested in providing bigger, more expensive housing rather than affordable housing. Perhaps we don’t disagree as much as it seemed at first. To me, this is a question of justice because in a complex society we are all connected. In particular, the ability of individuals to accumulate wealth is secured by social forces such as contract law, property rights, labor conditions, policing, etc. that we all participate in. I don’t mean to suggest that all these arrangements should be changed, but I am saying that those who have profited the most by having them in place also owe the most for the benefits they have received.

November 19, 2009 - 7:43 am

I thought I was being civil, 'idealistic' and 'wackiness' could have been phrased in much worst terms. I am aware others read my comments. Are disenting opinions not given the same level of respect?

I also complain about lack of affordable housing when I'm house hunting. Cities encourage higher end residential construction because it increases the city's tax base. Developers have higher profit on high-rent condos then on low income housing units. If you want to address social justice you have to address the economics. Guilting people into helping others is not a solution. Developing a business model that is profitable to construct low income housing units is a step towards the solution you seek. Aside from the current economic down turn, new home construction has always gotten larger and more expensive in the US.

November 24, 2009 - 8:08 am

I just saw an article in the March 2009 issue of Architect magazine about a study done in Chicago. The author of the study looked at three offices and came up with several architectural aspects that made those offices friendlier to women. Safe siting (and good lighting), open-plan offices that discourage traditional hierarchical thinking, private areas with comfy chairs for nursing or quiet contemplation, and flexible work hours with remote access.

It was a good reminder that design DOES impact social justice and equity issues. Physical spaces send messages and effect how people interact with each other. It's only one part of work towards social justice, but it's an important part.

November 27, 2009 - 3:41 pm

I feel compelled to let Raphael Sperry' know that there is a reader (and architect) who agrees with what he had to say in his blog.