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GAME CHANGERS: Architect Zena Howard Is Using Design as Urban Healing

The head of Perkins+Will’s cultural practice in North Carolina, Howard is bringing change to historically African-American neighborhoods from Miami to Vancouver and Los Angeles.

Zena Howard game changer
As the head of Perkins+Will’s cultural practice in North Carolina, Zena Howard has spearheaded an effort to address decades of community marginalization, posing design as a collaborative tool for change. Courtesy Perkins+Will

Transforming urban centers can be slow going when the process is rooted in community engagement. But within the next five to ten years, historically African-American neighborhoods in Charlotte and Greenville, North Carolina; Miami; Vancouver; and Los Angeles will experience major change, thanks to architect Zena Howard, who leads Perkins+Will’s cultural practice in North Carolina.

A 1988 graduate of the University of Virginia, Howard worked for a decade on cultural projects under the mentorship of Phil Freelon at The Freelon Group, an architecture firm based in Durham, North Carolina. During Howard’s job interview, Freelon expressed his belief that great design should be for everyone. “That resonated and stuck with me,” says Howard, who is African-American. “At the time, The Freelon Group was doing a lot of work with communities where African Americans and others were not involved in the design process.”

In 2008, when the firm teamed up as architect of record with lead designer Adjaye Associates on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., Howard served as senior project manager. Her influence expanded as Perkins+Will acquired The Freelon Group in 2014 and, in 2017, named Howard managing director of its North Carolina practice.

Zena Howard game changer
Essential to Howard’s project to address urban design’s historical harms is ensuring that such damages are remembered. In Greenville, North Carolina, a beloved Baptist church was destroyed during a period of “slum” clearance in the 1960s. A series of public meetings identified the clear need to memorialize the church, which Perkins+Will’s design does. Courtesy Perkins+Will

Central to her body of work are what Perkins+Will refers to as the “Remembrance Projects”—a term she coined for community-driven design that infuses historical context into built form. Working with small teams, she finds inspiration in specific contexts by engaging stakeholders. The goal, she says, is “a design experience rich in a distinct sense of authenticity and sensitivity to culture.”

A big part of this work happens at public meetings, as in Greenville, where an entire neighborhood—including a community church—was obliterated in the 1960s when the city deemed it a slum. For this project, Howard helped guide the conversation with residents in a design direction. “We were trying to establish a monument that would commemorate the community and the church that was destroyed,” says Lillian Outterbridge, a Greenville resident. Following discussions, Perkins+Will developed plans for what will be Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza, near the site of the demolished church, which is expected to break ground this year. It will feature 22 walls—one for each of the church’s founders—whose arrangement, in plan, recalls musical notation, while a “swept yard” will evoke African-American gardens, and a memorial tower will reference the foundations of the razed bell tower.

The Greenville project is typical of Howard’s initiatives. Three others also seek to both recognize and repair damage left in the wake of sweeping urban renewal projects of the Robert Moses era. “It happened across the country—a one-two punch that decimated urban communities,” she says. First came redlining: cutting off access to funds that allowed minorities to invest in and maintain urban properties. Then came federal urban renewal policies, which enabled governments to declare vast areas slums so they could be destroyed, making room for highways.

Zena Howard game changer
When the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza is completed, the site will be home to a public park with elements that reference the church’s walls, windows, and bell tower. Courtesy Perkins+Will

When I-95 plowed through Miami’s Overtown neighborhood in the 1960s, it carved up the largely African-American community, which had 40,000 residents at the time. Today, Overtown’s population has dropped to 5,000. “It’s a shadow of itself,” says Michael Stevenson, who leads Perkins+Will’s urban design practice in North Carolina. A master plan will reestablish Overtown as a cultural destination.

Similarly, a project in Vancouver addresses what Howard calls “decades of hurt” arising from the 1971 construction of two viaducts in Hogan’s Alley, a historically black neighborhood. Howard organized multiday workshops, gathering stories from former residents and identifying themes to emphasize in the redevelopment. These include the area’s former “porches and passages,” which brought a certain character and scale to the neighborhood fabric.

While Howard emphasizes “remembrance,” her work also reimagines a city’s future—and its residents’. In L.A., for example, a 1.3-mile stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard is slated to be integrated into a transit project running from LAX to downtown. A vocal Crenshaw community demanded its own Metro stop and sensitive development that would serve its residents. “They stood up and said, ‘Make the station an invigorating force,’” says Malcolm Davis, a cultural practice leader at Perkins+Will who worked with Howard to facilitate public meetings and coordinate public arts programming. These led to plans for an “outdoor museum” with 11 parks, plus sidewalks, lighting, landscaping, and permanent art exhibits, in addition to the Metro stop. “It was meant to be a pass-through, and now it’s a destination,” says Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who serves on the Los Angeles City Council.

“Zena has come forward as a bit of a spiritual leader at Perkins+Will, globally and for the disenfranchised,” says her colleague, design principal Kenneth Luker. The firm has recognized her unique vision, selecting her to serve on its cultural projects practice council, which advises Perkins+Will’s global cultural portfolio.

“She is brilliant,” says Harris-Dawson. “I’ve worked with a lot of architects in my day, but she operates on a different stratosphere. She’s a seasoned politician, with the grace and instincts of a social worker and the panache of a great artist.”

You may also enjoy “With a New Design Museum Exhibition, David Adjaye Focuses on Monuments and Memorialization.”

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