A school designed wit living-centered design principles by Cannon Design COURTESY CANNON DESIGN

Harnessing Community for Climate Justice

A Perspective: Sustainability panel finds common ground between sustainable design and social justice.

African Americans are more likely than the general population to live in substandard housing and near toxic manufacturing plants and waste facilities; to be homeless; to be incarcerated; and to borrow from Jacqueline Patterson, have “the wrong complexion for protection.” In a provocative keynote speech at the September 29, 2021 Metropolis Perspective: Sustainability session, this community organizer and foundation head pulled no punches.

“Our nation started on notions of extraction, exploitation, and domination,” Patterson, founder and executive director of the Chisolm Legacy Project, said. “The land we’re on right now was stolen from indigenous people. Blacks were stolen from their native lands and transported as cargo.”

“It’s our ethical and moral obligation to educate clients.”

Eric Corey Freed, director of sustainability, Cannon Design

But she sounded a note of hope: “We must evolve from an extraction economy to one that is equitable and regenerative. There’s a false sense of scarcity when in fact there is an abundance. The whole notion of design needs to be at the center of thinking about climate justice and social justice.”

Starting off the panel discussion, Metropolis editor in chief Avinash Rajagopal stated: “There’s a deep intersection between sustainability and equity and social justice. Don’t use the excuse of doing things the way they’ve always been done. We have a burden educate the younger generations.”

Eric Corey Freed, director of sustainability, Cannon Design, averred that there have been “decades of bad decisions—redlining cities and so on. We can make up with it in a number of ways. It’s our ethical and moral obligation to educate clients. Like the notion that the more diverse the ecosystem, the better.” This ties in with the imperative of social diversity, he added. He even invoked the name of teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who recently scolded her elders by saying, “Just do it!”

The United Nations’ push for “17 Sustainability Goals” is an ambitious world-wide call for environment and social amelioration. Roxane Spears, vice president of sustainability for North America at Tarkett, stated: “It’s a call to action for a global partnership for change. Healthy products don’t have to cost more. Families shouldn’t have to make a choice between cost and healthy materials.”

Corey Martin, principal, Hacker Architects, said: “We are working with public sector clients who come to us with a mission about social justice. You must talk to clients early. The conversation must be mutual, and the passion shared.”

Rajagopal ended the session as it began, with provocation. “What power are you willing to give up to achieve social equity?” he asked the panel.

For his part, Freed said, “as far as power, it’s not a zero-sum game. ‘In order for you to succeed I must fail.’ That’s not our approach.” Martin chimed in that for his firm, “it’s a tumultuous period of self-examination. As an example of our collectively giving up power, the evidence shows that we’re moving toward diversity in our office. You have to mentor, and the definition of what success is needs to change.”

Hacker Architects put the Gilkey International Middle School in Portland, Oregon on the path to net zero, by making the most of its forest site, harnessing natural light, fresh air, and biophilia. COURTESY BRUCE DAMONTE

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