By Krisann Rehbein
In 2014, I became a writer. Having spent more than a decade as a design educator, I started writing about the intersection of design, urbanism and parenting. Before I had a child, I adventured all over the city but a baby hampered my mobility and changed my relationship to it. Feeling suddenly constrained, I thought the solutions for the modern American city were dependent on accommodating my family, and families like mine. I was wrong.
Our daughter is now three years old. She has questions and opinions about things that I can mostly explain. “Those stuck-together houses are called town homes,” I tell her. “Most people don’t paint their houses pink, but we might see one!” I want to raise her to pay attention to the city and to understand that design decisions impact nearly every aspect of our lives—that what we see is the result of intention. I want her to ask the right questions and listen to the multitude of people who offer answers.
One answer I know I can provide is that the city doesn’t work for us unless it works for everyone.
August 2014 brought issues of equity and access to a boiling point in the U.S. Michael Brown, who was unarmed, was shot and killed by police officers. The shooting, and the painful public events that followed, made starkly clear that free mobility in our cities is an illusion—a privilege for the few. Thousands took to the streets to remind the nation, in part, that they needed to be respected in urban space. For those who never experienced racial prejudice firsthand, Ferguson—and countless other victims such as Eric Garner, Dontre Hamilton and Tamir Rice—forced us to question who the world is really designed for. #blacklivesmatter.
Meanwhile, in the pages of glossy magazines, critics and practitioners of architecture debate whether the profession is relevant to lives of “regular” people. One camp says that avant-garde buildings alienate the public and that schools should stop training “starchitects” when most graduates will go on to shape the fabric of everyday communities—banks, libraries, office towers, schools, malls, prisons and parking lots. The other says that wealthy patrons who pay the bills are entitled to iconic buildings that represent contemporary taste and values.
They are having the wrong discussion. Architecture won’t be relevant until people understand how and why they are impacted by design. That design is at the heart of their commute, their crappy cubicle, their trip to the mall. That there are so few housing typologies despite so many family structures. That our parks can be safer, and our communities more livable. That they are, or can be, agents in design decisions.
After all, most projects operate in the space between public and private: more often than not, market housing requires zoning changes, retail corridors rely on TIF money, and stadiums make private deals for public land. And people have a right to understand how the world is shaped when the decisions impact them directly.
But the design profession, even when it explicitly engages the public, when we try to engage the public, is tainted but the pretense that architects can figure it all out, that the design process is universal panacea.
This simply isn’t true. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that it takes a great deal of work and time to cultivate empathy, to see life through the eyes of another. It took me three years to understand my daughter’s perspective. Listening and actively seeking out answers, even when they are uncomfortable, or not what the clients want to hear, is the real challenge. There are opportunities to teach, but even greater ones to learn.
Alas, this isn’t what we talk about when we talk about architecture.
If designers don’t participate in larger conversations about a fair and equitable society, design will remain inaccessible and irrelevant to most people. This conversation is not outside of the bounds of the profession; it is at the very heart of it.
After a year of using this Designy Mom space to find my voice, I realize I don’t speak for all parents who raise their children in the city. Those parents should speak for themselves. In the coming year, I will use this space to invite conversations with all kinds of mothers who raise their children in the city, and with children who are being raised or were raised in the city.
These voices include people like Yamani Hernandez, architecture school graduate and current executive director of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, and a mother of two boys. And voices like Brenda Gamboa, a graduate of Lane Tech High School’s architecture program, and Harold Washington, currently an architectural intern at Landon Bone Baker and lifelong resident of West Humboldt Park. And, hopefully, many other voices.
We should work like hell to make sure people feel empowered. Our relevance depends on it. So does our city. The question facing our cities isn’t whether or not my family will be accommodated, but whether we can be accommodating to all people. This is a lesson I feel comfortable teaching my daughter.