Designing Cities That Are Open and Equitable

Working and living in the San Francisco Bay Area, we often look at the Golden Gate Bridge as simply a connection across a body of water, forgetting that for many, it embodied a symbol of hope — a gateway that welcomed them to a new country and a new life.

For both of us, our parents were first-generation immigrants who came to this country with a dream. It wasn’t a dream to be rich or famous, but rather, an aspiration to be around people who share all kinds of different stories and diverse backgrounds. Our parents saw the great possibilities that would come about simply by being part of a diverse city. They came to America with a dream that the sum of 1 + 1 would be more than two, and that the rich confluence of cultures could be as big as their imaginations. But mostly, they believed that it would be possible to make a new home, raise their children, and be part of a community. We are the lucky ones.

The senseless death of George Floyd and other acts of injustice against Black Americans are a reminder of the fragility of this ideal. Sadly, in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others, we are forced to acknowledge that the urban experience is not the same for everyone. Our neighbors just down the street might be living a very different life. In the face of the complex system of injustice, it can feel daunting to try to make a difference, but as designers we have the unique power to apply our solution-based skills and expansive creativity to craft a future with purpose. Now more than ever, we need cities that work for everyone and that cultivate opportunities to come together.

The inequity has to end. As designers, we are committed to dreaming and creating the places where we live, work, and play — and the truth is that we need to work harder to design spaces that are open, equitable, and safe.

The fact is, the tragic death of George Floyd has picked at the scab of a wound that has never really healed. We are hurting, and we are looking for spaces where we can come together and amplify our collective voice. Our separation as a result of the pandemic has only deepened our longing to interact and connect – recent unrest has reminded us that there’s more work to do to ensure everyone feels welcomed and safe in the public spaces where we choose to gather.

We might feel frustrated, or even angry that our cities feel inaccessible, but in fact, they are doing their work in serving as communal hubs for democratic action. Rather than conversations happening behind closed doors, we are able to experience calls for peaceful change throughout our public streets. Our cities are our platforms for change. It remains unacceptable that there are people who have been using this moment to create damage and destruction. But let's not confuse their destructive behavior with the enlightening and purposeful actions of the brave citizens who are exercising their right to peacefully assemble.

Too many of our cities don't provide equal access to housing, safe workplaces, and public space. Too many of our fellow citizens are made to feel uncomfortable or afraid that the public space isn't welcoming them to use it. We have an obligation to ensure that the public spaces we conceptualize and create are accessible, inclusive, and at the service of all community members who want to come together. We are driven by the challenge that design can create a better world – and we must accept that expectations for what that can look like will always be evolving.

The architecture and design industry has many organizations that we can look to for guidance as we orient our design ideas. In the aftermath of the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, the National Organization of Minority Architects and the American Institute of Architects shared their powerful visions for progress. But what active steps can we take to redefine our cities to be resilient communities for everyone?

First, we must embrace the idea that public space plays a significant role in facilitating both organized and spontaneous connections between diverse people.

Second, we have to recognize the power of our cities’ shared symbols — like the Golden Gate Bridge. These serve as proud and hopeful reminders that, despite our celebrated differences, we are part of the same community.

Third, we must commit to doing our part to make sure all community stakeholders are able to enjoy the same privilege of access and comfort in the spaces that make our cities so great. As designers, we can commit to applying our skills to impactful projects by partnering to support local organizations that focus on underserved communities.

Many outside the design profession may be asking what they can do to help. First and foremost, we all need to be informed allies, recognizing that people may have different experiences in the same public space or city. We all need to be willing to take the steps to educate ourselves and listen to what others are feeling and experiencing in order to support meaningful change.

You can also commit to donating time or money to organizations that you believe are creating a positive impact in our communities. Gensler has committed to making contributions to the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) and the Architecture, Construction & Engineering Mentor Program (ACE).

Since policy drives change, it’s key to exercise your right to vote in local, state, and national elections. You can also forge relationships with schools and educational organizations to help foster the growth of an equitable next generation of designers.

Finally, don’t forget to check in on your friends of color and ask them what changes would help make their experiences feel more inclusive.

It’s important to acknowledge that maintaining the status quo perpetuates disparities in how people experience public space. To create safe, inspiring, and welcoming spaces for all, we must all accept that we still have work to do. As stewards of the built environment, architects and designers have the opportunity to observe what the evolution of equitable design should include so that we can create spaces where we all feel free to breathe. The sum of our different cultures, lifestyles, and backgrounds is what ultimately enriches the urban experience, and it’s critical we celebrate these differences by creating gathering spaces where everyone is invited to participate, be themselves, and openly share their unique experiences.

Lisa Cholmondeley
Lisa is a principal and design manager who has played a key role in the delivery of several large, complex, mixed-use developments in the Middle East. A trained architect, Lisa has spent almost half of her career working on interiors, and strongly advocates for spaces that have a shared story between the exterior and interior experience. She is based in San Francisco. Contact her at .
Hao Ko
Hao is a principal and managing director at Gensler’s San Francisco office and focuses on building a dynamic practice through an open and collaborative culture. His portfolio features diverse architecture and master planning work in the U.S. and Asia, including projects known for their high level of innovation and quality such as The Tower at PNC Plaza, NVIDIA Headquarters, and Mercedes-Benz USA Headquarters. Hao is based in San Francisco. Contact him at .
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