Pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement highlight opportunities for more equity in architecture

Growing up in Hamtramck — a melting pot home to Polish, Bangladeshis, Yemeni, Albanian, Bosnians, and many more immigrant populations — where people shared similarities, Farhana Islam saw an opportunity to examine how the city catered to immigration populations t in the city.


“It has taught me to be fond of cultures, religions, and histories,” says Islam, a Bangladeshi American who was recently laid off from her job as project coordinator for Berardi and Partners in Detroit.


Islam did her graduate thesis on how culture impacts the built environment. “Specifically how the Bengali culture has impacted Hamtramck and neighboring parts of Detroit. I have always been awed by South Asian architecture. It has such deep roots of influence from its vernacular way of life, polytheistic and monthotheistic religions, conquerors and colonizers from different parts of the world.”

Farhana Islam

Islam does not come from a family of architects, rather she was exposed to the field through watching the reality show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.


“How desperately I wanted them to come fix the house my family was living in!” she said. The homes were not created for multigenerational households where oftentimes extended families live under one roof, she says. Growing up, her home was filled with relatives coming in and out of the house. “We grew up in a two-bedroom house and the second bedroom was always occupied by extended family,” she said.


These types of spaces have factored into the spread of the coronavirus, she says.


“Housing and architecture is one of the reasons COVID cases are so high amongst communities of color," she says.


The pandemic and systemic racism, which has been brought to the forefront with Black Lives Matter protests since George Floyd's death, have shined a light on uncertainty — and opportunities for building and designing more equitable and inclusive cities, from retaining more architects of color to advocating for policies that address inequities such as economic and health disparities, Black and architects of color say.

'Inflection point in society'


Architects should band together to build a desired equitable future in light of the pandemic and police brutality coming to the forefront, Kimberly Dowdell, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), said during a recent webinar hosted by the coworking group SpaceLab Detroit on the future of architecture. Dowdell has previously worked as a real estate developer in her hometown of Detroit, as well as in the city of Detroit’s Housing and Revitalization Department.


“We’re all in recovery mode. Particularly with the coronavirus it’s placed a magnifying glass on the disparities that we’re seeing in our cities in particular. Now more than ever, particularly in light of the tragedy of George Floyd and so many others and specifically Black Lives Matter. [It’s an] inflection point in society.”


As the president of the national organization that started off with 12 Black architects who came together at an American Institute of Architects convention in 1971, Dowdell seeks to inspire more Black and POC architects.


According to the Directory of the African American Architects, there are 2,325 Black architects in the United States, and 478 are women. Dowdell says there are about 150,000 total architects nationwide.


She says the work of architects goes beyond design. It involves policies and development to serve populations. “Architects have a tremendous level of authorship before that."


She says people should hire diverse architects who represent the people or values of the population they are serving to have better outcomes in the project.


For Islam, who is working on freelance projects and eyeing opening her own business, she never met architects and wasn’t encouraged by teachers to pursue the field.


She hopes to work for Detroit, Hamtramck, or Highland Park to work in affordable housing and possibly add on a degree in urban planning, public policy, or law degree to supplement her architecture degree.


Islam says architects are looking for jobs in similar fields. “A lot of young people holding architecture degrees may find themselves forced out of the built environment entirely,” she says, referring to seeking jobs in nontraditional spaces.


Another important facet of a more diverse and inclusive workforce begins with voting for elected officials who represent the community and staying involved in the political process to advocate for policies that promote equity in design to create safe and healthy living spaces, Dowdell says.


For example in Detroit, where the coronavirus has killed over 1,210 Black people, who account for up 82% of the deaths in the city, the issues of redlining and lack of affordable housing are factors for densely packed neighborhoods, which in turn create health disparities for Black and minority communities.


She points to the heightened density in cities and the role diversity places in building and developing more equitable cities.


How we design for "dignity and for peace and harmony ... a lot of that is tied to economic opportunities," she says.


Architecture plays a role in these health disparities, says Andre Perry, author of, “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities,” said during the webinar with Dowdell. Perry researched housing and police brutality as part of his book.


“There’s nothing wrong with Black people that ending racism can’t solve,” he said. “COVID doesn't discriminate but our past policies have...lead, poor housing quality, lack of investment, going back decades impacts health today,” he said.


He said the devaluement of Detroit properties and people, along with the perception of the space affects neighborhoods. Low property values put less back into the schools and businesses. Mixed with racism, this causes detrimental effects in cities and neighborhoods.


With the coronavirus and police brutality in the spotlight, it’s a unique time to bring forth policies and federal funding to hold people accountable to address equitable living, he said.


“Black architects have been in this long-standing battle to claim space ... to make space reflect who we are and what we are about,” he said. “Now we have power that we have never seen before,” referring to allies. “If we want the kind of transformation that Detroit deserves ... we need the same type of infusion of cash after the Depression and other economic shocks,” he says.


Donald Wrencher, director of housing for the City of Detroit who was also on the webinar, said the city doesn't have enough money for the needs it has to provide affordable housing, however, it has a policy for new development to incorporate “some sort of affordable housing to the project.”


Two years ago the city created a $172 million Strategic Neighborhood Fund to develop 10 neighborhoods outside of Midtown and downtown for walkable spaces, parks, and playscapes to provide “access to amenities in close proximity to where they live … [to] drastically impact and change the health of individuals in those neighborhoods,” he said.


Those plans are rolling out soon.


Designers as 'social interveners'


Kemba Braynon, associate at Quinn Evans, works as a historical preservation architect for the City of Detroit. She says the pandemic has shed light to uncertainty and opportunities.
Kemba Braynon


“My introduction to historic preservation took place during the last Great Recession, when I left a solid architectural career in Chicago and moved back to Michigan where there were no architecture jobs available,” she said.


She says the pandemic will change how packed places are designed.


“I think it will have a lasting influence on the redesign of typically rigid and oftentimes crowded spaces, such as restaurants and K-12 schools, finding ways to creatively accommodate flexible spaces and outdoor environments,” she said.


Her recent projects span from working with Amtrak to restore 15 historic train stations around the country, and working with the Department of Natural Resources and the Belle Isle Conservancy to restore buildings on Belle Isle. “This summer, we are starting the construction phase of the Belle Isle Sawmill and the assessment of the Belle Isle Music Shell,” she says.


Braynon is the Detroit chapter president of NOMA. She says in 1997, there were only 50 Black women architects in the country — now there are almost 500. “Most firms I went to I was the only Black woman who wasn't an admin or working in the mailroom.”


“[It’s] so important for me to make the needle move forward a little,” she said. For example, today interns have the option to be mentored by Black mentors versus only white ones.


Kiana Wenzell, director of culture and community of Design Core Detroit, a nonprofit housed in the College for Creative Studies, has had similar experiences of being the only Black woman in the room. She said growing up in Rosedale Park, and early exposure to arts and design in middle and high school inspired her to pursue the field.


She says as a Black woman she’s conscious of the spaces she’s in and how that may affect the projects she works on. “[I’m] always thinking about the user of the space. And how they would be impacted in it. I just feel just being involved in the process, adding my opinion can help the team notice a bias too,” she says.


Wenzell says the COVID-19 has allowed designers to provide services to society to protect health and well-being. She says designers work behind the scenes to create mobile testing vehicles, equipment, and system development.


“COVID has shined a light on the role that designers play in serving as social interveners, particularly in regards to re-opening businesses and creating the products to help keep citizens safe,” she says, referring to creating masks and new ways to adapt to social distancing measures.


Wenzell is planning for the second annual Detroit Month of Design festival, a multidisciplinary festival that gathers designers to showcase work Sept 1-30 throughout Detroit. In 2015 Detroit became the first and only UNESCO City of Design in the United States, joining 39 cities around the world to showcase equatable design, she says.


Wenzell, who serves on the advisory board for NOMA’s Detroit chapter, hopes people will be more open to listening to multicultural voices in light of the current civil unrest.


“Designers are always needed," she says.

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Read more articles by Nargis Rahman.

Nargis Hakim Rahman is a Bangladeshi American Muslim writer and a mother of three kids. Nargis graduated from Wayne State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and a psychology minor. She is passionate about community journalism in metro Detroit. She hopes to give American Muslims and minorities a voice in the press. She recently took part in the Feet in Two Worlds/WDET 101.9 FM food journalism fellowship. She writes for Haute Hijab, Brown Girl Magazine, Metro Detroit Mommy, and other publications.