Story by Laura Scherb | Staff Writer
In 2009, Detroit was at the center of hard times: poverty, bankruptcy, increased unemployment rates, and not enough money to maintain the city.
That’s where Toni L. Griffin came in.
Griffin was called upon to serve as the project director of Detroit Works Project’s long-range planning initiative.
At 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, Griffin will describe her time spent working in Detroit and how that has led her and her practice, Urban Planning & Design for the American City, to evolve to a more value-based approach to urban planning.
Designing a “just city” is a process, according to Griffin, who also serves as a professor and director at the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City at the City College of New York’s Spitzer School of Architecture.
She breaks the system down into 10 key elements: equity, choice, access, connectivity, diversity, ownership, inclusion and belonging, participation, beauty and creative innovation.
“Part of the complication of achieving a just city is rooted in an important question that designers and planners need to ask, which is, ‘Who are we designing and planning for?’ ” Griffin said. “That’s where the intersection between designing in a more value-based way and hoping, aspiring, getting closer to urban justice becomes hard work.”
Urban justice is made up of two components: social justice, which is evaluated based upon economic, health, cultural and civic well-being, and spatial justice, or the way in which those elements play out in urban form — for example, the health of a neighborhood.
Everything, from neighborhood cleanliness to the aesthetics of the construction materials to the distribution of city services, can play into this concept of urban justice.
These factors will influence attempts to establish an environment in which urban justice can flourish.
Though Griffin no longer works directly in Detroit, the plan she spent three years formulating has been implemented by what is now the Detroit Future City project.
“I think that we were able to set up a framework that can allow the work toward greater urban justice to begin, and I think that we set out a strategy that we believe aimed for that greater urban justice,” Griffin said.
Since then, Griffin has used her experiences to change her philosophy toward design and inform the work that she does through her practice and through the Bond Center. She “wears two hats” because she both works for a research-based center and gets to practice the methods that she teaches in her personal consulting practice.
At the end of the day, all of the work is, thematically, the same.
Griffin describes her work at the Bond Center as an “exploration of whether or not we could create a methodology and approach to examining design’s impact on social justice.”
After 10 years of studying architecture before discovering her passion for urban justice, she works to make her students understand their potential as designers.
“I’m trying to reveal to my students, through my work and the curriculum, the ways in which designers can have agency,” she said. “We can have impact beyond being the person who sits behind a computer screen or has a pen in their hand designing the plan for the city. We can be public officials who can shape the way cities look through policies, regulation, and investment.”
Griffin has dedicated her work to helping cities with social and spatial justice issues start forming solutions by playing to their strengths and to teaching the architects, designers, planners and officials of tomorrow’s cities to dream bigger for the urban areas in which they live and work.
Near- and long-term plans for restoration and revitalization are at the core of these two missions, and Griffin said she believes Detroit is a fantastic example of a how a city can come together to examine its complexities and come out stronger.
Griffin’s lecture will kick off a week of discussion on livable communities, and in thinking about where urban justice fits into that, she urges the audience to draw upon their personal experiences to reflect upon their sense of communities and their biases — including those of Detroit.
“I want people to walk away feeling optimistic about the future of Detroit,” she said. “It’s different than what they’ve read in the paper or heard in casual conversation, and I hope that prompts discussion and debate about what it means to create a just city.”