Designing For Social Justice: 4 Lessons From Chicago Architects

“I’m a fundamental believer that design is either for or against the common good,” Timothy Swanson, a designer and urban planner, says. “You’re enhancing and empowering experience for all, or you’re limiting it.”


[Photo: courtesy CannonDesign]

From our streets and our zoning codes, to the rules governing public space and public housing, inequality is embedded deep into the fabric of our cities. Our cities are designed to exclude and to segregate, and the effects of discriminatory policies, like redlining and displacement, are very much evident in health and economics of neighborhoods. In many, but not all, ways social justice is an urban design problem.

Swanson, who is 35, leads the Chicago office of the multidisciplinary architecture firm CannonDesign, which, under his leadership, has taken on a number of projects that aim to rectify some of the deep-seeded social justice issues in the city. But while urban design may have been at the root of some of the problems, can better design today make up for it?

[Photo: piccaya/iStock]

Check Hubris, And Know What You Don’t Know

Chicago has one of the largest racial wealth gaps in the country. Decades of disproportionate investment in education, transportation, and public services have favored its downtown and the wealthier (and whiter) north-of-downtown neighborhoods over the southern and western sides of the city, whose neighborhoods are lower income and more ethnically and racially diverse.

A combination of political and social forces turned Chicago into a city of neighborhoods, especially the Federal Housing Administration’s redlining policies–which classified neighborhoods’ risk for mortgage lending–and racial restrictive covenants that forbid African-Americans from buying, using, or occupying certain parcels of land. This contributed to segregation in the city.

Meanwhile, the city displaced and destroyed communities of color through urban renewal programs, like Cabrini Green, a Chicago Housing Authority development that promised better housing for thousands of people but in reality concentrated poverty and further isolated communities. This pattern was repeated time and again with developments like the Robert Taylor Homes and the University of Illinois, Chicago, campus. Policymakers and planners celebrated the city’s blight-busting experiments, which was code-speak for Chicago cannibalizing its disenfranchised neighborhoods to benefit privileged citizens.

“There’s a history and heritage of isolation that we can’t get past, and when we do make those efforts we don’t always get it right either,” Swanson says. Combating the history of well-intentioned urban design failures is one of the biggest hurdles for architects who want to change Chicago for the better, especially since many of the people in the most underinvested areas are skeptical that any development will help them.


“The implication in all of that is that good design is not for certain people,” says Emma Cuciurean-Zapan, an architect at CannonDesign Chicago who works on civic-minded, socially driven projects through the firm’s Open Hand program, a pro bono architectural services initiative that’s like the design equivalent of Legal Aid. “We have to dispel that. Instilling the idea of design as an equitable thing is the key and that’s trickier for neighborhoods that have been promised things in the past and it hasn’t worked out.”

Swanson and his colleagues believe that, as builders and designers, they play an essential role in envisioning and realizing a more equitable future; however, they’re also keenly aware that the hubris of architects in the past exacerbated the problems of today. Unless that’s checked, the cycle of promise and failure is doomed to repeat.

“Recognizing what we don’t know is key; it’s not trust me, I know,’”  Cuciurean-Zapan says. “The notion of admitting what you don’t know and bringing in certain partners is key to the success of something.”

[Photo: courtesy CannonDesign]

It’s Not Just About Design

While there’s no recipe for designing social justice, Swanson and Cuciurean-Zapan believe that a successful, enduring project involves a mission-driven end point, a cross-disciplinary approach, collaboration with policymakers and lawmakers, and significant involvement with end-users. 

“In the United States and Chicago, we have serious things to deal with that aren’t policy alone, not design alone, and not education or job creation alone–it has to be all of them,” Swanson says. “We have to be honest about that.”

Malcolm X College, a new health sciences campus on Chicago’s near westside, was the product of close collaboration between the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC), local businesses, and the city government. The challenge for the designers? Creating a building that addressed the project’s mission of driving economic mobility, along with programming that fulfilled the needs of local industries–all while being better for students.


Reducing unemployment is a key part of improving a city’s livelihood, and that means making sure students are equipped to join the workforce. Education and health care are two of Chicago’s fastest growing “supersectors” with respect to new jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the city is predicting a shortage of health care workers in the future.

[Image: courtesy CannonDesign]

Malcolm X College responds directly to some of those larger macro economic forces in the city. CannonDesign led multiple sessions between the school, students, and CEOs from the health care industry to figure out how to completely redesign the school and its program so that matriculating students are ready for job placement. For instance, the new campus includes a teaching hospital with full-scale simulation labs.

The city has been working to incentivize higher education and get students interested in going to college. For example, the CCC offers free tuition and books for students in the public school system that have a certain GPA. To Swanson, design can also be a powerful incentive, too, by making the school a desirable place to be. Details like a rooftop garden, day-lit interiors, and ample study and communal space in the building make it comfortable and welcoming.

“Design had a difficult and important job, which was to say [to students]: ‘You are working your ass off to make your life better and the city better and you deserve a dignified environment.’”

[Photo: Alex Iby/Unsplash]

Architects Must Be Community Builders

When Swanson imagines the type of turnaround Chicago could stage, he points to Medellin, Colombia, a city that was once the murder capital of the world in the 1990s and is now a thriving business, medical, and tourist hub. (Vogue even named it as a top destination for Colombia’s cool kids.) Significant investment in architecture and public works–including better transportation and participatory budgeting, a practice where the community decides where public money is spent–were both part of the city’s plan to reverse its reputation.

A key element of the reversal was the government’s willingness to reassess every part of its policy to reach the end goal of a safer city, and not let established ways of thinking get in the way of progress. They completely remade the city’s urban fabric by building parks, public squares, and new metro lines. Additionally, the city created a new financing structure that routes profits from utility companies into developing new schools, parks, and plazas. The New York Times called it in an “architectural renaissance.”


In Chicago, Swanson sees an opportunity for a construction-first approach, in which architects could be more directly involved with lawmakers, developers, and potential clients. In short, architects have an opportunity to knit together a community through the projects they design.

“The reality in the world of stakeholders is oftentimes architects, because of risk aversion, will remove ourselves from the equation,” Swanson says. “Once politics are set, once money is there, then call in architects. We’re pretty good at creating solutions we need to come to–like the notion of designing a building and designing a space–and as an architect or designer, our role is to leverage that at a bigger scale.”

Swanson would like to see architects today act more like architects in the Middle Ages, when their role as master builders involved rallying towns around cathedrals, which could take multiple generations and hundreds of years to complete. “They relied on a coming together and being a facilitator of coming together,” he says.

[Photo: courtesy CannonDesign]

The architect as community facilitator approach led CannonDesign’s work for the Boys & Girls Club of America. The organization initially came to the firm with a brief involving moving its headquarters from downtown to the same building as one of its neighborhood clubs. This got the architects thinking about how the headquarters’ design should shift away from a corporate office to become more of a community gathering point. The Boys & Girls Club also wanted to double the number of youths it serves and attract more high school students, and through the design process it decided to partner with other local organizations with similar goals and which already had programs that were working–instead of developing new programs from scratch. This strategy is being articulated in the design, which is still in its early stages. “It’s creating a space for people within the community to create opportunities,” Swanson says.

Some other ways that the “facilitator architect” could materialize today? Architects working with the city’s Department of Buildings to modernize building codes, engaging local government to come up with protections to curb the effects of gentrification that new projects often bring, showing private developers how to think about social impact with their projects, and connecting stakeholders that might not ever talk to one another. It’s using everyone’s expertise to create a comprehensive vision for the future.

“Until we do that, all we’ll come up with are one-offs that are nice and shiny, but they’ll miss the point,” Swanson says. The overarching goal, for Swanson and his team, is a city that’s equally beautiful and equitable for every person in Chicago, regardless of their zip code.


[Image: courtesy CannonDesign]

Design Can Restore, And Serve As A Pledge

Many of the projects Swanson and Cuciurean-Zapan have completed or have on the boards are using a multidisciplinary approach to help mend the city. But they also have aspirations to impact the system at a larger scale, including criminal justice.

For instance, in a recent pro bono project, CannonDesign collaborated with Cook County and the Civic Consulting Alliance to redesign the courtroom where bond hearings take place. Located in a criminal court building in southwestern Chicago, the courtroom is open seven days a week. It’s a place where defendants receive judgment on whether or not they can post bail and get out of jail while they await their trial. The original room was disorganized, had poor acoustics, and didn’t function for the people who used it. Originally designed for regular trials, it was converted to a space for bail hearings, which are quick, involve many more people, and don’t include a jury.

Judges in the courtroom can see up to 200 cases every two hours, and the constant flow of people often interrupted hearings. Judges complained of not being able to hear defendants, and family members commented that they could not hear the rulings. It was a dehumanizing experience all around.

[Image: courtesy CannonDesign]

The architects spoke with judges, lawyers, prosecutors, former inmates and their families and guards to better understand the problem and come up with a more functional and dignified design.

“When you ask them about space and place, every group identified the same issues of that it’s a room that looks like a Walgreens more than a courtroom,” Cuciurean-Zapan, who was a project lead, says. “Our design process wasn’t to go make something pretty. We observed, talked to 9 or 10 different agencies, and heard their concerns on why the space might not help them.”

The new design, which won a Fast Company World Changing Ideas award, improves circulation and sightlines, reduces noise, and makes the space more efficient. The entire effect was that the room became more humanized. “The front door should treat people as innocent until proven guilty and with dignity,” Swanson says. “After we presented the design, Chief Judge Evans, said, ‘Now we need to think about what the entire court system looks like if this is the front door, where if you walk into a room where security and advocacy are coequal.’ Sometimes that’s what it takes: to allow design to be the pledge and statement to humanity.”


Swanson believes that for Chicago to truly make a dent in the equity and social justice issues that have negatively affected the city for decades, it has to take an approach similar to what Malcolm X College, the Boys & Girls Club, and Cook Court implemented: a coming together of architecture, policy, and community to build the future they want to see.

“The big ills that face Chicago can be resolved when we look at them in harmony,” Swanson says. “Design then becomes the icon of belief and commitment. If buildings can serve as that pledge, maybe that can serve to be the true power of architecture.”

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