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Planning For (In)Justice: Toni Griffin’s Mission to Foster Equitable Cities

Griffin founded the consultancy Urban Planning for the American City, which she complements with her pedagogical work at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

toni griffin just city lab
Planner and educator Toni Griffin walks down her block in Harlem Courtesy Naima Green

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Since its emergence with the cultural turn in the 1970s and ’80s, spatial justice has become a rallying cry among activists, planners, and plugged-in architects. But as with many concepts with academic origins, its precepts often remain elusive and uninterrogated. Though some of this has changed with the advent of city- and place-making discourse, few are doing as much to lend articulation, nuance, and malleability to spatial justice as Toni Griffin. A Chicago native, Griffin practiced architecture at SOM for nearly a decade before leaving the city to work as a planner in Newark and Washington, D.C., among other municipalities. In 2009, she founded the consultancy Urban Planning for the American City, which she complements with her pedagogical work at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. There, she runs the Just City Lab, which, through research and a host of programs, aims to develop, disseminate, and evaluate tools for enhancing justice—and remediating chronic, systematized injustice—in America’s cities. But what form could justice take in the U.S. context, and how can architects and designers help? Metropolis spoke with Griffin about how focusing on inclusivity and embracing interdependence and complexity are parts of the answer.

Akiva Blander: You’ve been developing your concept of the Just City for some time. How did that focus start?

Toni Griffin: Maybe about ten years ago, I became a bit more reflective about the impact of my work. I was coming off being the director of planning and community development for the city of Newark under Cory Booker and had just completed about a decade of work in the public sector. It was coming into focus that I was confronting the same types of issues in all the cities that I had worked in.

I was continuing to see concentrated and generational poverty, parts of cities that are still suffering from histories of racial and economic segregation, areas steeped in social and human capital vulnerabilities, lacking investment, facing sporadic gentrification—conditions that continue to leave parts of our cities on the margins of economic and social inclusion.

So my work in formulating this agenda around the Just City, beginning when I was at the City College of New York, has been an exploration of interrogating design disciplines broadly around the impact that they’re having on those types of issues.

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Toni Griffin’s desk reflects the breadth of her work. She directs the Just City Lab at Harvard’s GSD, where she created the Just City Index—a resource that communities can draw from in discussing urban conditions. Courtesy Naima Green

AB: How can your research agenda ameliorate some of those conditions?

TG: This work has to be rooted in a transparency of data so that all participants in the work of building and revitalizing cities operate off the same information, but also recognizing community members as experts in the conditions of their own environment.

We’ve also been seeing how values and outcomes—and our prophecies for better cities and communities—could be different. Oftentimes it’s hard to get people from different socioeconomic sectors to come together to not only discuss future possibilities but also reach agreement on current issues.

I’ve been experimenting with tools to help people arrive at a common understanding about their aspirations through the idea of value. So we’ve created the Just City Index, an index of 50 values, which we offer to communities to use to help set a shared direction before moving into the more technocratic work of developing plans, strategies, and proposals.

One person’s or one city’s sense of community may be very different from that of another. Conditions of injustice in Gary, Indiana, are very different from those in El Paso or Miami. So the index is a way to get closer to the root of the challenge as well as the proposition for the aspiration. Using the index as a participatory tool—through classes, workshops, conferences—we’ve found that it creates dialogue to get people to a language that they can agree on.

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She also teaches courses and leads studios based on her research and practice. Courtesy Naima Green

AB: You’ve done substantial work in planning offices, and you also advise municipalities, such as Detroit and Memphis, that have experienced disinvestment. What did you accomplish with these governments?

TG: When I was in the public sector, what was very important to me was rebuilding a professional planning office. That means ensuring that planning is proactive and not only regulatory. We wanted to work more outwardly and with different parts of a city—whether it’s downtown, waterfront neighborhoods, commercial corridors—and set the expectations with members of those communities to identify challenges and opportunities.

So in a lot of cases, it was about creating a culture of engagement and involving different members of the community—whether that’s a business, institutional, residential community—in the process of making a plan.

Outside of government, as a consultant, I’m bringing those methods to cities and clients that are interested in tackling some of these long-standing conditions of what I call injustice—whether that’s looking to break down racial disparities in a city like St. Louis through an economic development strategy; or in Memphis, which is looking at its deep generational poverty alongside the growth of wealthy suburbs; or in Milwaukee, which is recognizing that growth downtown could have unintended consequences of displacement for surrounding neighborhoods.

At New York’s Center for Architecture in January, Griffin presented local projects that promote community participation and address urban injustice, including the mixed-use East Harlem Center for Living and Learning, by Perkins Eastman and SCAPE. Courtesy Courtesy Center for Architecture/Just City Lab

AB: How can we talk constructively about revitalization and gentrification? And in terms of managing investment, what kinds of practices are conducive to equitable development?

TG: I have found that my students over the last several years would come into the classroom having a singular point of view about gentrification: that it was bad. But I wanted students to have a firmer understanding of neighborhood change and decouple it from a singularly negative position, or that it was only about tensions between races.

What’s critical is to lessen the vulnerability of households and businesses in parts of a city that are on a path of revitalization. Long before it starts, how are we lessening those vulnerabilities? For me, central to that is increasing various levels of ownership—of homes as well as businesses.

We often talk about who are and who are not gentrifiers. But there’s complexity to neighborhood change; it operates on a spectrum, and there are moments on that spectrum when change creates a trend of either value creation or tensions on affordability.

I wrote an article a few years back for the Huffington Post called “Confessions of a Gentrifier,” because I am, in fact, a gentrifier who moved into Harlem in the last ten years. But I am also an African-American woman, so the complexities of how people talk about gentrification and race as well as income reveal that the trend is more than just one thing.

AB: Race is such a salient, but often unspoken, feature in discussions of gentrification and equity in America. How does race fit into your work?

TG: When we take a look at disparities in U.S. cities, it’s hard not to see them through the lenses of race and class. It’s hard not to see that some urban and social conditions are steeped in this country’s legacy of racial segregation.

We are trying to create a language and conversation that will allow for race to be centered, for people to not be afraid to enter into the conversation, and for us to recognize that it’s a factor that we still have to decouple from policies and practices today. If we don’t talk about the elephant, the elephant never goes away. And we end up creating strategies and outcomes that ignore the elephant. The reason we created the Just City Index is so that as a society, we can get more comfortable talking about this.

Through my curriculum and through the Just City Lab, I ask each student to examine their own experiences and biases, and to understand their multiple identities and to use those in conversations about aspects of city building that are still intertwined with issues of race and class. I think it’s fundamental that the design community develop competencies that facilitate conversations across these issues.

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Griffin near her home in New York. With researchers at her Just City Lab, Griffin has developed the Just City Index, which encompasses 50 values— including empathy, diversity, beauty, access, adaptability, and safety—meant to help communities have conversations about current and aspirational urban conditions. “We’re beginning to create a framework that allows us to examine the ways that economic, racial, and gender justice show up in the public realm,” she says. Courtesy Naima Green

AB: But what are some of the limitations and constraints of the design community in addressing something like systemic racism, or the continual peeling back of social and economic protections?

TG: The only constraint that the design profession has is if it works solely within its discipline. In projects, we have the opportunity to redefine the problem and push solutions that can address more than one set of issues. It’s a reason why I moved my own career from architecture to urban design and planning. In my architectural practice, I saw a set of issues around my site, but I wanted to engage in a broader conversation and be sure my design solution was addressing issues embedded in the context.

Design by itself will not be able to do this. That’s the limitation. The opportunity, though, is for much more trans-disciplinary collaboration, where design is a part of problem setting and policy making—not just designing for the outcome. That to me equates to design having an effect.

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