Design Needs a Social Conscience

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Design Needs a Social Conscience
Architecture for Humanity San Francisco chapter member Garrett Jacobs (left) and a Detroit chapter member look onto decommissioned rail tracks that are in the process of being converted into bike paths.

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Design Needs a Social Conscience
Architecture for Humanity San Francisco chapter member Garrett Jacobs (left) and a Detroit chapter member look onto decommissioned rail tracks that are in the process of being converted into bike paths.

On a bright April weekend, a group of committed, passionate, accomplished designers and their collaborators from the Americas and elsewhere gathered in downtown Detroit to speak about socially responsible design. It was the 15th annual Structures for Inclusion conference. The convener, Bryan Bell, is the architect behind the nonprofit organization Design Corps, and the spirit behind the SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design) rating program.

What better place to connect on the issues of social responsibility than in this once prosperous, beautiful city of creative people—the home of the American auto industry and Motown. But the heyday of those eras was a time when investment in cities, their people, and community was still part of our ethos. Then came outsourcing, disinvestment, abandonment, and decay. Here, in this slowly reviving place that put “urban farming” into our consciousness—hundreds of abandoned buildings were torn down to make way for subsistence farming—there are signs of new life. But there’s a lot to be done, as one local audience member pointed out. If you “go to Martin Luther King and Third,” he said, you still find “a fourth-world place.”

Over the weekend, we listened to the inspiring stories of many real-world projects—from Rio to Oklahoma, Mexico to Rwanda. We heard about a new master’s degree in public-interest design and design/build programs in architecture schools that address local community needs while researching building materials and process. []

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