Equity in ArchitectureApril 12, 2022
By James Martinez
Infrastructure provides the basic physical and organizational structures and framework for society to function – meaning society cannot truly operate equitably if infrastructure is designed and built without diverse voices and impacted communities participating from start to finish.
“The work we do directly affects economic opportunities, economic development, and community development because where you put a highway impacts who has access to jobs and the forthcoming opportunities that come from connection to other markets,” said G. Jerry Attia, vice president and managing principle of AECOM’s Michigan practice.
Locally, the construction of 375 freeway in Detroit – which demolished the Black Bottom neighborhood and its business center, Paradise Valley, in the late 1950s and early 1960s – stands out as an egregious example.
“When (I-375) was built, it took away a whole community in Black Bottom and that was a thriving neighborhood with Black businesses,” said Paul Ajegba, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). “Those business owners never got a chance to transfer those businesses to the next generation to build wealth.”
NEW APPROACH TO I-375 SHOWS INDUSTRY SEA CHANGE
Today, as work continues on a proposal to replace the mile long I-375, the organizations leading the project such as MDOT and City of Detroit are engaging the community neighborhoods in the planning phases, reflecting a broader sea change in the transportation planning industry.
Under the traditional approach, transportation professionals would have likely examined traffic flow, determined no major traffic issues, and decided to simply replace the project with minimal community input, according to Eric Morris, senior vice president and Michigan office leader at HNTB, which serves as MDOT’s lead consultant on the I-375 project.
The key he said is the industry needs to continue to think about transportation more broadly beyond just cars and streets, but including walkways, bike trails and overall community impact in a way that increases safety, livability, access, and quality of life – something that is occurring on the current I-375 project.
“If you really boil it down to its essence, it’s us as transportation professionals becoming better listeners and being better at asking questions,” said Morris.
That recognition underscores the voice unique infrastructure consulting firms such as HNTB and AECOM have in shaping a more equitable society.
“It’s about trying to use that (architect’s) skillset to inform clients and stakeholders of the impact, and then trying to quantify or articulate those impacts by looking at not just cost and return on investment, but also factoring in social equity issues in the areas that we work,” Attia said.
DIVERSITY AMONG TRANSPORTATION PROFESSIONALS KEY
Intertwined with a greater emphasis on social justice in infrastructure planning is addressing the pipeline issues that impact who is involved or working on projects at all levels.
“Elevating minorities, specifically African Americans in engineering and architecture in STEM fields is critical,” Attia said. “The more you elevate more diverse people, the more sensitivity you have to equity issues.”
For AECOM, those efforts include engaging high schools and institutions of higher education including historically Black colleges and universities to recruit, retain and engage Black students and professionals.
Expanding diversity also means larger companies bringing in smaller companies and minority-owned firms on major projects that help further establish them in the industry. That’s something HNTB is increasingly doing as it works through an array of internal and external equity initiatives.
“We are not the social organization and we’re not the nonprofit organization. What we want to do is to be the most effective and efficient at bringing a broad change in this area, but in what we do best,” said Regine Beauboeuf, HNTB’s senior vice president and director of infrastructure and mobility equity. •
James Martinez is editor of the Detroiter magazine and a content creation consultant.