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Architecture, Design, Action: Daniel D’Oca on Dismantling Systemic Racism in Pedagogy and Practice

Illustration of Dan D'Oca, Associate Professor in Practice of Urban Planning, with text

Daniel D’Oca, Associate Professor in Practice of Urban Planning

As an urban planner working in the realm of social equity, how do you think design can be used as a tool of racial justice? What experiences stemming from your own practice at Interboro speak to this idea?

The first step is to understand how design has been used as a tool of racial injustice. My office, Interboro Partners, wrote a book called The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion in part for this purpose. It’s an encyclopedia of sorts of the policies, practices, and physical artifacts that have been used by planners, policymakers, developers, real estate brokers, community activists, and other urban actors in the United States to draw, erase, or redraw the lines that divide. In it, we tried to very plainly call out, name, and visualize the violence that is done to maintain segregation. For too many, this violence is experienced day in and day out. But for others, the violence is not so easy to see.

Thanks primarily to the Fair Housing Act, the traditional weapons of racial exclusion—racial covenants, racial steering, racial zoning, mortgage discrimination, etc.—have been outlawed. But if the removal of traditional weapons of race-based exclusion from the battlefield has made it more difficult to divide along race lines, it certainly hasn’t made it impossible. In the book, we show how the post–Fair Housing Act era has seen an extraordinary proliferation of loopholes and counter policies and practices that effectively neutralize anti-discrimination laws with remarkable (and remarkably sinister) creativity. For example, we look at how, in recent years, white communities have proposed “blood relative ordinances” that require tenants to be related by blood to their landlords; kinship ordinances that require tenants to secure a letter of recommendation from an existing resident; and “exclusionary amenities” that members of a community pay to maintain because the willingness to pay for it is an effective proxy for other desired membership characteristics (for example, race). Racism has proven remarkably resilient.

So one thing we do in the book is try to show that things aren’t always what they seem. A rather hackneyed example is the superfluous armrest on a bench: the nominal purpose is to make you more comfortable, but the actual purpose is to make you much less comfortable so that you don't, say, lie down. There are a lot of examples like this in the book, from superfluous fire hydrants (installed to keep people from parking near a beach), to fake garages (which result in fake curb cuts, which result in no-parking zones), to classical music–blaring speakers (installed to keep skateboarders away), to fake parks (to keep sex workers away), to a street hockey rink in a white community that was built on the ashes of basketball courts that had been popular with people of color from a neighboring town. We’re very interested in these artifacts of exclusion—in these things that are out there in the built environment that you can read as a sort of Rosetta stone.

One of the best things designers can do for racial justice is to undesign—or dismantle—this machinery of racial segregation. Segregationists popularized the phrase “forced integration,” but it’s really segregation that was forced. Segregating the population along race lines necessitated an arsenal of exclusionary weaponry, a massive army, and a government that was ready, willing, and able to declare war. Yes, we have to be proactive by, for example, promoting fair housing. Yes, we have to design public spaces that make Black people feel welcome. But demilitarization is essential.

How can public exhibitions and exhibition-making, as a form of transient information design, be used to convey complex issues of systemic inequity to a broad audience?

I probably put too much stock in the agency of exhibitions, because I put too much stock in the agency of artfully arranged data. That said, exhibitions have their place. The most memorable one I organized was in Baltimore in 2010-2011. I had the good fortune to work with 30 or so amazing MICA students to produce Baltimore: Open City, a student-led exhibition about the causes and consequences of racial segregation in Baltimore. To make a long story short, we found an old abandoned market space, fixed it up, and had a student-produced, student-curated exhibition. Our goal was to explore the legacy of racial segregation, and also stimulate a discussion about how to make a more open city in which more people would have more access to more places. 

We had lots of great events in the space, starting with an opening party, in which the neighborhood marching band paraded through the space. We also used the space to raise money for local nonprofits that were combating racism. And we had historians lead tours of historic sites of segregation in the city. The work itself was varied. We had a timeline of segregation in Baltimore. There was a map that showed current NIMBY battles being fought across the city. One student did portraits of “Open City” heroes—people who fought for integration in Baltimore. We encouraged people to become activists, either by helping us build a house out of predatory “We buy houses” signs that we asked people to remove from poles around the neighborhood, or by getting involved with local groups combating segregation and inequality. 

There was a public component too: one student—Andrew Pisacane—made amazing murals of planners on the infrastructure they planned, along with some incriminating quotes about why they planned it. The goal wasn’t to turn the students into planners (although it did turn photographers into architects, sculptors into urban planners, and painters into geographers), but to infuse their work as artists with a spatial and racial conscience, which is something it definitely did.

Why is it particularly important for GSD faculty to advocate for spatial justice and to stand up against racism in their pedagogy and practice?

To riff on the report of the Kerner Commission, planning and design created, maintained, and condoned racial segregation. And racial segregation has been absolutely devastating. A few years ago, I taught a studio about St. Louis’s 3rd Ward. The ward—which is 94 percent African American—has some of St. Louis’s lowest home values and median incomes. Physically, block after block after block appear abandoned. We compared St. Louis Place (a neighborhood in the ward) with the neighboring white suburb of Ladue. People born in Ladue are twice as likely to survive infancy and six times more likely to graduate college; they will live in households that earn over $75,000 more every year and live in a house worth more than 10 times as much. People born in Ladue live, on average, 16 years longer.

Myron Orfield and Will Stancil had a great op-ed in the New York Times that suggested that the same sort of disparities fueled the George Floyd protests. The gist of it is that the Minneapolis region was once racially integrated, in part because of a progressive “fair share” program that prevented wealthy, white suburbs from excluding low-income residents. When that program was effectively disbanded, the city resegregated. To quote from the article, “The population of segregated census tracts, where more than four-fifths of the population was nonwhite, grew 108 percent between 2000 and 2018; the number of K-12 schools more than four-fifths nonwhite grew nearly 200 percent over the same span.” 

With increased segregation came increased Black-white welfare gaps, which in Minnesota, are some of the widest in the nation. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, it is “a very tragic thing for young people, children, to grow up [in] association, communication [with] only people of their race. Prejudices develop from the very beginning because of this. Narrow provincial views emerge because of this. I think the only way to break this kind of provincialism is to bring people together on a level of genuine inter-group and interpersonal living.”

It’s important for GSD faculty to advocate for spatial justice and to stand up against racism in our pedagogy and practice because 1) the abovementioned disparities are far from OK, and 2) the disparities are, in part, a result of bad planning decisions made by our professional predecessors. I think most people in design and planning today acknowledge the racial violence that was done in the name of planning, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the profession who longs for the days of Harland Bartholomew and others who made these bad decisions. Fewer are willing to ask: how do we reckon with the past? How do we make amends?

What role does the architecture and design culture play?

I’ll mention two things. One: elitism. Let's face it—architecture and design culture can be a little elitist. What we do impacts everyone, but we sometimes behave as if it only impacts Gund Hall. Why do we so often speak in esoteric gibberish? Why don’t we strive to make drawings that non-designers can understand? Why don’t we have more exhibitions in Gund Hall that engage the average Cambridgian passerby? Why don’t more option studios deal with everyday problems? There’s an idea that “hard to understand” means “good,” or that, conversely, “accessible” means “unsophisticated.” This idea is unequivocally false.

Two: the fetishization of nonstop work, which is unrealistic for all but a few individuals who don’t have to work additional jobs or have families to take care of. I believe Dean Whiting has taken some progressive measures to undermine this aspect of architecture culture, which is great.

What changes need to be made to architecture and design pedagogy at the GSD? Which skill sets should students leave the GSD with? 

In the GSD’s Urban Planning Department, students have been a key voice. An example is the student-led Equity Curriculum Initiative, drafted by the 2019-2020 Harvard Urban Planning Organization (HUPO) co-presidents Ayesha Mehrotra, Evita Chávez, and Emily Klein in consultation with faculty and alumni. It calls for the GSD to hire more tenure-track faculty of color, the teaching of power and privilege workshops, and that students graduate with awareness of the racial violence that has been done by planners in the past. It’s an important document; we will strive to implement many of its recommendations.

I also think it’s imperative that students at the GSD openly, earnestly, and respectfully engage with people whose ideas they dislike or even find offensive. I’ve frankly spent too much time in an ideological bubble, and probably haven’t done enough to challenge my own beliefs and those of many of my students who share them. 

I’ll add that it’s really important that we encourage students to not spend all their time in Gund Hall; students need to get out, go to community meetings, and be good citizens. They need to learn how to communicate with—and make work that’s relevant for—people who aren’t their critics.

We should teach students to be politically literate and understand that the built environment is a major cause of inequality and a driver of a lot of the systemic injustices that people are protesting right now. Our students should be able to grasp the role design disciplines have in shaping the built environment, and understand that the built environment is a result of decisions that people made and that could have been made differently. And regardless of their chosen discipline, students should leave the GSD with a working knowledge of the tools they have at their disposal for building more equitable and just cities.

Daniel D’Oca is an urban planner. He is associate professor in practice of Urban Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and principal and co-founder of Interboro Partners, a New York City–based office that has won numerous awards for its participatory, place-based planning and design projects.