We are living in a truly unique moment, one that gives us reason for hope. There is a sense that change is afoot, that we have awakened to the fact that things cannot go on as they were. We have begun to realize the damage we’ve done—and are doing—to our only home, taking responsibility for the ecological catastrophe we’ve wrought. This crisis is finally getting the attention it needs; it is high on the agenda in political debate and is making front-page news on a regular basis. The same is true of the entrenched social inequity that has so stained our nation…. Responding in earnest, people who have never done so before are taking to the streets and demanding change, their impatience and frustration transformed into an unstoppable force. There is a sincere feeling that maybe this time it will mean something, that change can occur.
With the pandemic having completely overturned the world as we knew it, with our unsustainable lifestyles and societal injustices exposed, this time of upheaval has offered a pause in which we have the opportunity to reflect on how we want to live and where we want to go from here. Many have realized we must do something to change the direction in which we were headed. Many have already begun to bring about much-needed environmental and social change; the groundswell is being felt around the world, particularly by some political and corporate leaders who sense their entrenched ways of doing things is over. The adversity many have been facing—and are still grappling with—is motivating many to work more closely together to try to overcome the challenges and explore the possibilities for a better future. A blossoming sense of hope is being felt, but fundamental change is far from assured. Yet, we’re beginning to see attitudes and approaches to issues that seemed insurmountable just a few years ago turn a corner. They’re not yet collectively large but momentum is there. Change is in the air. We have collective decisions to make, critical ones that will impact all life on this planet for some time. And we have very little time to decide whether we’ll confront the challenges ahead and fundamentally change how we live. We have a lot at stake and each of us has a role to play.
Making such a commitment doesn’t have to feel selfless. To be an effective means for change, motivation should begin out of self-interest, since self-preservation no doubt is a primary human driver. You might simply desire a better future for yourself. That hope might then extend to those with whom you are closest. Your love for them might come in the form of your willingness to give a bit of your time and energy for them, for your children and grandchildren, whether you have them now or plan to in the future. The needs of everyone else may not seem as vital as your own; most of us aren’t as altruistic as Gandhi or Mother Theresa. But that’s all right, for when working to better our lives, and those we cherish, others inevitably benefit, whether they’re on the other side of the planet or some of the untold future generations. This is because the problems we face are not local, regional, or even hemispheric; they are global in scope, and for centuries and they will affect everyone. We all breathe the same air, drink the same water, eat food from the earth in which it grows, and, regardless of what side of the tracks you and your neighbors live on, we all share in the desire to make a better community in which to live. So, working to improve your local environment, even if the effort you put into it is meant for you, benefits everyone. It’s okay to be a bit selfish. In the end, all of us gain from your activism. Contrary to that overused axiom, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. Each bit of it is a world of its own, inexorably intertwined with dominions upon dominions, each affecting the other in impactful ways that are sometimes knowable but more often hidden and mysterious, ever-changing and ever-growing. Each of us is one tiny part of that which impacts many others, all parts of equal value. When even the smallest measure is improved, all segments benefit likewise. What you do matters; the actions you take ripple out into the world in untold ways. As Robert F. Kennedy expressed: “Each of us can work to change a small portion of the events [of our world]. Each time…a man acts to improve the lot of others…he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy…those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls…” What do you want your future to be? What kind of world do you intend to live in forty, fifty, and sixty years from now? You have the power to shape the future for all the world. Gather your courage and summon the will to become one of those waves of energy.
This book has spotlighted the work of dedicated design students and the community outreach work they have achieved. Shifting the focus from them as individuals to the broader community of design educators and practitioners and how they might get involved, it must first be underscored that we also have the responsibility—the capacity—to help blaze a new ethical path. Our discipline engenders the unique skillsets that help us effectively tackle many issues on many scales, even something so overwhelming as the climate crisis. We employ what’s come to be called design-thinking, nimble skillfulness to successfully respond to outsized problems. As designers, we are pretty good at defining and then finding balanced responses to countless messy issues. Designing a building and getting it built is a monumental undertaking; it requires the combination of technical, social, ecological, and aesthetic capabilities. That effort is seldom a linear process but instead an ever-moving target, full of multiple shifting conditions with unpredictable manifold parts. Designers must have the ability to concurrently address the wishes of our clients; the demands of municipal governments, trade unions, and craftspeople; and the ethical and social needs of the community in which the building is built. We must attend to the comfort and safety of our building’s users, not to mention the lasting beauty that we are expected to achieve. We’re practiced in grouping multiple issues into manageable assemblages, breaking them down and finding appropriate responses. We’re accustomed to planning for unpredictability and then acting accordingly. We have learned how to imagine inventively and put that creativity into play. Designers have unique capabilities that can collectively think and act beyond the building norms that have brought us to the edge of calamity. By no means comparing what we are capable of to the scale of the problems the world is facing socially and ecologically, we are nonetheless adept at solving problems, often for years, sometimes decades, and even longer. Each effort we make, no matter its scale, goes toward repairing the damage. We are at a unique moment in time. We can gather the courage needed to effectively employ our many-faceted skills and respond to the complex social and ecological issues at hand, or we can continue narrowly focusing on issues that are increasingly irrelevant. Dare we use our wealth of imagination and help the human race craft a new ethical foundation that is grounded in compassion, empathy, and inclusion? We have the capability; when will we begin?
Design thinkers can certainly recognize social inequity and environmental injustice; sometimes we even contribute to the systems that create them. It takes courage to recognize that no matter how progressive we think we are, we contribute to the inequality and we need to own up to it. We can’t change long-practiced prejudicial acts alone, but we have leadership skills and can use them to motivate others, so that they recognize the implicit biases facing minorities and take action to prevent practices such as redlining or placing petrochemical plants or garbage dumps in Black and Brown neighborhoods. Through our professional work and community activism we must insist on respecting each and every person, no matter how unlike us they are. Likewise, the work we do as architects depends on millions of investment dollars, often over the many years it takes to realize our designs. What we propose can make others’ lives better but can also bring inequity and environmental harm; we’re no small participants in the neo-liberal economic system that operates on the assumption that greed is good. Our participation in that—maybe unknowingly—supports the notion that increased productivity and capital growth greases the wheels of success. Those who suffer most from our tacit inaction to challenge this idea are people of color, the disenfranchised, and the poorest among us. We need to find substantive ways to unhitch ourselves from a financial system designed for those who already have the most. We have the imagination to influence attitudes about how capital wealth can be reshaped.
As educators who teach design thinking, we can do a much better job when it comes to teaching young designers how to focus on inclusion, just what ethical design can really do, and how to put social equity and environmental justice above all else. We can teach them that getting your building on the cover of Architectural Record is not nearly as important as helping a neighborhood get the clean water it deserves. There may not be courses in architecture school that teach students how to be socially compassionate, but we can insist that these ideas become part of a school’s foundational curricula. We don’t typically offer seminars on basic empathy and social responsibility, but we can teach such courses if we choose. Inclusive design thinking helps the future practitioner recognize social inequity and equips them with the power to bring about change. As designers and educators, we can help negotiate the shifting sands of dynamic global change by discovering new ways to teach communities how to help themselves; how they might live sustainably and become more resilient. And by sincerely acknowledging the storm cloud of climate disaster and massive habitat destruction that looms over us all, we can see that effectively responding to it is not an insurmountable task. Through building relationships in the communities where we work, we can teach others to respect themselves and their communities, and to become better stewards of the environment.
These things will not be easy; it will take courage. It will take courage to accept the fact that nothing is more important than teaching our students new ways to think and design that help offset the harshest impacts of climate change, while finding ways to protect those most vulnerable to the effects of that dynamic change. It will take the courage to commit to the sea-change that is required, if we really want to prepare students for a future shaped by climate catastrophe. In doing so, we can broaden how we define ourselves as architects and designers. We can expand our communal responsibilities, so that in twenty-five years we hardly recognize what architecture schools have become. They might be reshaped to seamlessly integrate building community relationship, biology, forestry, social science, anthropology, law, and engineering, so that we become much more generalists instead of the specialists we try to convince ourselves we are not. Architecture schools might begin by asking students to reimagine our societal role. Instead of just designing buildings, we can expand our design horizons to support food growers in urban spaces to eliminate long-haul food distribution. We can help forests rebuild themselves so that they are diverse once again. We can develop programs geared toward community empowerment, self-sustenance, and health. We can design buildings to support kelp and algae farms that will supply their communities. We can design better living systems—what we used to call cities—so they integrate with their local ecologies. We can reshape our teaching methodologies so that they embed students into the communities in which they contribute their design skills, so that their field work focuses on learning to effectively communicate, empathize, and advocate. Designers can, and should, play a role in long term responses to the ecological catastrophe unfolding before our eyes. For each of us, environmental activism by (through) design can mean designing our lives in ways so that we become more fulfilled, so that satisfaction is achieved through helping fulfill the lives of others and making a better world for them. That is the pond in which we might cast a stone that would activate the overlapping ripples of hope, the “million different centers of energy” in which we define who we are. And, in that, there is real reason for hope.
This article originally appeared in the 2023-2024 edition of Platform, “Civics and Placemaking.” To view the original version, including end notes, visit: https://soa.utexas.edu/publications/platform/platform-civics-and-placem…