Pattern-making is a tool for meaningful change in Toni L. Griffin’s pursuit of justice in American cities

Photograph by Zach Funk

About four miles from downtown Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River, the neighborhood of Hazelwood suffers acutely from forty years of economic decline following the collapse of the steel industry. Its once-beating heart, LTV Coke works, is a two-mile-long industrial complex that at its peak provided around six thousand jobs. LTV downsized drastically in the 1980s and closed for good in the 1990s. As a result, high unemployment, closing schools, and crumbling infrastructure proliferate in a neighborhood that has lost about half of its peak population of 13,000. Meanwhile, impoverished populations priced out of nearby gentrifying neighborhoods have moved in, compounding Hazelwood’s need for resources.

Though LTV’s 188-acre riverside tract is long since bulldozed except for a few isolated structures, a consortium of Pittsburgh’s leading non-profit foundations is redeveloping the site. Now renamed “Hazelwood Green,” the sustainability-driven and community-minded masterplan by architects Perkins + Will imagines a densely-built district of office buildings, housing units, green infrastructure, and a connective street grid. But the first project for a warehouse-turned-high-tech-lab is only partially complete, separated from the rest of Hazelwood by acres of still-blank remediated brownfield. A build-out will take years.

The underserved neighborhood with the vast post-industrial acreage adjacent make a compelling urban design case study, and Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Professor in Practice of Urban Planning Toni L. Griffin is studying Hazelwood as one of four Pittsburgh neighborhoods with students in her master’s level design studio, Patterned Justice: Design Languages for a Just Pittsburgh. Her studio is underwritten by The Heinz Endowments.

Even with the Perkins + Will plan in hand, Hazelwood Green is irresistible for speculation. More typical urban design studios might respond to the clean slate with utopian megastructures beyond the dreams of the real estate market. By contrast, Griffin and her multi-disciplinary studio frame the design process as an issue of justice, rather than strictly a project for real estate or form-making. Its aim more broadly is to confront America’s history of legislated and de facto segregation and make visible its associated discriminatory real estate and banking practices. Griffin’s definition of justice extends beyond racial and class parity to concerns of “economic recession, health and environmental issues–women’s health in particular–women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, [as well as] violence against black bodies.”

A graduate of Notre Dame, Griffin practiced architecture and gradually moved into urban planning and design over a ten-year career in S.O.M.’s Chicago office. After a Loeb Fellowship in urban planning and design at Harvard, she held a series of urban planning and design positions on the East Coast: Vice President of Planning for the Upper Manhattan Development Zone; Deputy Director of the D.C. Office of Planning; and Director of Community Development for the City of Newark, New Jersey. These provided additional material for her developing approach.

“What drove investment to some parts of the city, and what didn’t?” Griffin recalls questioning. “I kept seeing these patterns in every city that I worked in the United States, [which] I began to frame as conditions of injustice.” She cites Newark, where policies of municipal disinvestment and real estate discrimination have led to severe ghettoizing, as a reinforcement for her developing conviction “that the issues of a place and people were distinctly intertwined.”

As an educator, Griffin has refined her inclusive view of justice. She began teaching at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 2006. From 2011 to 2016 she taught at City College of New York, where she was the first director of the J. Max Bond Center for Design and the Just City. Now back at Harvard, she has founded the Just City Lab, where a cadre of student research assistants translates the ideas that underpin Griffin’s pedagogy and design practice into exhibitions and publications, such as “Design and the Just City,” which was on display at New York’s Center for Architecture, or the upcoming publication of her St. Louis studio, Urban Disobedience: 99 Provocations to Disrupt Injustice in St. Louis. Griffin’s professional practice also thrives. Her consulting with the City of Detroit culminated in a comprehensive city-wide plan, Detroit Future City Strategic Framework, and she is on the team that recently won the Chouteau Greenway competition in St. Louis.

One of Griffin’s most important innovations is also one of her most concise. The Just City Index is a roster of “50 values that we have intended for use by different communities and cities to develop their own visions for what it would take for their locales to be more just.” The Just City Lab mission statement describes the Index’s purpose: If a community articulated what it stood for, what it believed in, what it aspired to be—as a city, as a neighborhood—it would have a better chance of creating and sustaining healthier, more vibrant places with more positive economic, health, civic, cultural and environmental conditions.

Other such frameworks circulate in architecture and urban design as measures of community success, most often with fewer criteria. Griffin finds those too limited. “If you are not those ten or 15 things, then you are not living up to the aspiration of [their] framework,” she says. With its 50 entries, the Just City Index aims to cast a wide net and let participants choose and prioritize the values they think apply to their particular condition of injustice. The real difference is the starting point. Most such frameworks begin with the designers. The Just City Index instead empowers its users, allowing them “to assign themselves the values that are most important for them and that are needed to address the conditions of injustice on the ground at that moment in time.” Just City Lab researcher Natasha Hicks comments: “The beauty of the index [is that] it’s an accessible tool that communities can use to create a shared values system.” The Just City Index is a foundational tool for study in Patterned Justice: Design Languages for a Just Pittsburgh, and plays an increasingly integral role in Griffin’s work.

The other tool for Patterned Justice: Design Languages for a Just Pittsburgh is Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language, an eccentric classic first published in 1977. It identifies conditions that make spaces more welcoming, comfortable, and useful. Alexander’s patterns are vignettes of common-sense design–active shopping streets and houses with sheltering roofs; offices with windows and benches with good views–rather than complex or prescriptive forms. A Pattern Language covers scales from large to small–“towns and neighborhoods, houses, gardens, and rooms”–with nested interrelationships from one scale to the next. With 253 chapters, it is more effective as a reference than a narrative, but the language, says Laura Greenberg, a Master’s student in the Pittsburgh studio, “is easily accessible to people. It’s not in any kind of design jargon.” Alexander’s late-hippie egalitarianism meshes well with Griffin’s emphasis on inclusivity and diversity. “[T]owns and buildings will not be able to come alive,” Alexander writes, “unless they are made by all people in society, and unless these people share a common pattern language, within which to make these buildings.”

Griffin’s Pittsburgh studio engages four different sites: The Hill District is a traditionally black community that has a rich history, but has faced decades of struggle after being decimated by urban renewal projects in the 1960s. East Liberty and Garfield are neighborhoods where rapid redevelopment is causing gentrification. Beechview is a traditionally white working-class neighborhood where the Latinx population is growing but redevelopment is slow. And Hazelwood, with the massive Hazelwood Green redevelopment just beginning, is about to undergo significant change.

The combination of the Just City Index and A Pattern Language leads to expectedly principled-yet-amorphous patterns at a variety of scales. In a studio of twelve students, each one is responsible for producing four or five patterns. Greenberg’s are exemplary for their variety. She documents “a pattern of school vacancy which looked at closings of public schools from 2006 through 2012 and noting that nearly 70% of public schools in majority-black neighborhoods were closed, versus 20% in majority-white neighborhoods. There is still a large number of schools that remain vacant, especially in black communities, and the ones that have been redeveloped tend to be targeted for luxury condos, and don’t replicate the public good that a public school creates.”

Another pattern arising from the studio is that of the so-called “porch stigma” faced by residents in Hazelwood and other Pittsburgh communities who may have less of an ability to maintain their porch, or who use their porches in ways that run counter to dominant standards of urbanism. These factors leave residents vulnerable from a legal perspective to 2006 and 2009 porch furniture ordinances, as well as the stigma that surrounds a porch that doesn’t adhere to institutionalized norms.

By May, these patterns will take their final form, a pattern book describing policy, program and design strategies. Though she has a portfolio of tangible projects, evidenced in the “Design and the Just City” exhibit, Griffin emphasizes the roles of process and enfranchisement as true determinants of meaningful change. She says, “When I can step back and see that there are multiple types of leaders of the community having real ownership of both the process and the outcomes, that is success.”

On Thursday, April 11, 2019, Toni L. Griffin will join Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation, and urban planner and designer Maurice Cox in a discussion about the complex design, economic and political innovations required to create transformational change for Detroit.