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Engineering LibreTexts

1: Introduction

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    View of downtown Minneapolis and the Mississippi River
    Photo by Nicole Harrington

    San Francisco, Portland, Austin, Madison, and Minneapolis are considered some of the country’s best-designed and most politically liberal cities. Mention of each brings to mind public parks, ample bike lanes, eclectic music scenes, colleges, creatives, and craft beer. Each has focused public funds on livability investments like transit, public spaces, arts, and entertainment. Each has said that equity—fair and just access to opportunities and resources for all of its citizens—is a central concern of its place and policy-making. But as David Dahmer asks in his article titled “The Harsh Truth about Progressive Cities,” (Dahmer, 2015) why are these cities some of the most unjust in the U.S.?

    My own hometowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul have, in the last ten years, topped the charts for livable neighborhoods and beautiful parks. A 2015 article in The Atlantic, titled “The Miracle of Minneapolis,” said that “No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well” (Thompson, 2015). But what the article did not point out—though many readers immediately did—is that, livability awards aside, and official rhetoric about the importance of equity aside, the Twin Cities is still one of the worst places in the country to be Black or Native American. That’s right, one of the worst. And this is on important measures like education, health, and jobs.

    This comes as a big surprise to many white Minnesotans. We are used to looking at statistics in aggregate, not separated by race or ethnicity. In aggregate, we look pretty good. So we pat ourselves on the back and assume that those aggregated statistics hold for all Minnesotans. We assume we are good people with good leaders. We assume “those problems” don’t plague Northern cities. Cities where NPR is well funded and politicians, at least until you hit the suburbs, are mainly left of center.

    Why doesn’t “good” design and planning mean better lives for everyone? So why do such affluent and liberal cities have some of the biggest racial disparities in the country? And why do other left-leaning cities like San Francisco, Portland, Austin, and Madison sit right there at the bottom with us?[1] Why doesn’t “good” design and planning mean better lives for everyone? We know the built environment has a huge impact on health, mobility, jobs, safety, and social networks—but why are these impacts so unevenly felt across a city?

    These questions aren’t new, not even in the design fields. They are, however, receiving renewed attention in several public interest design programs across the country where students, faculty, and practitioners are teaming up to address the gap between our professional pledge to serve “the public good” and the reality that the public we have been serving best is mainly white and often affluent. These programs are partnering with non-profits and municipalities to build community gardens, rethink transit systems, and advocate for better and more affordable housing. Not all of these programs are new. Many, in fact, can trace their roots back to the 1970s, as designers tried to chart their paths within larger social justice movements.

    What should we advocate for? What skills do designers need to have? What do they need to know? Although it’s exciting to me that the pendulum towards socially responsible design education and practice has swung back, I worry that unless we start to have some difficult conversations with each other and with our students, decision makers, and clients, this resurgence will fall flat and, in the process, do more harm than good. The pendulum will swing again and sheafs of well-intended designs will gather dust in flat files, reports, and hard drives. Instead of having transit that connects people to jobs and home, parks and public spaces that are well maintained and active, and housing that is affordable and safe and beautiful, we will be left to explain why nothing tangible came of the design process. How do we make sure this doesn’t happen? What should we advocate for? What skills do designers need to have? What do they need to know?

    This book, originally created for a Public Interest Design (PID) course at the University of Minnesota called Design Equity, was written with the hope that it will become a resource for professional designers, non-profit and government partners, and community members. In conversations about how we want to ground the entire PID program, the word equity became a way to wrestle with what we mean by public interest. Equity means fair and just access to opportunities and resources and, in our minds, should be a fundamental goal of all public interest design projects and programs.

    In the past few years, unfortunately, the term equity has become ubiquitous and its definition murky. It seems like every government report or new foundation initiative has incorporated the word into its title. In “Is Equity the New Coconut Water?,” Vu Le comments on the term’s overuse in Seattle: You can’t walk down the street without hearing someone saying something like, “Equity. Equity, equity, equity. Blah blah community engagement Seahawks equity” (Vu, 2014).

    If the term has lost its intended meaning, should we, as Vu Le asks, put it back on the grocery store shelf next to the kombucha? Does it still have value to designers working for social justice? I think we need to keep it (or take it back, depending on your view). It’s prevalence presents ample opportunities to spark conversations about its real meaning. Each time the word is spoken—in a public meeting or behind closed doors, in a foundation report or a design proposal—there is an opening, a moment when an important and difficult conversation about systemic racial disparities could occur.

    But equity does not mean equal because the playing field is not level. We don’t start from a point of equality. There is value in the specific and surprising turn of phrase required in defining equity. We see the word equity and think equal—everyone receiving the same amount of benefits or suffering the same risks related to any new policy or project. That seems fair. But equity does not mean equal, because the playing field is not level. We don’t start from a point of equality. Throughout our history and up to today, unfair policies have privileged certain groups of people over others. Privilege exists when one group has something of value that others do not because of the groups they belong to, not because of what they have done or failed to do.

    This disjuncture between equity as equal and equity as fair can fuel the conversations needed to make San Francisco, Portland, Austin, Madison, and Minneapolis/St. Paul into places where everyone has the chance to flourish—conversations that acknowledge and examine the history of this privilege and its specific impact on people in each city.

    Equity is an ethical principle, a position on what is good and right. It can be defined as “fair and just access for all,” and refers to the fair distribution of impacts—both benefits and costs. To quote Braveman and Gruskin, two health equity researchers:

    …equity…is the absence of systematic disparities…between groups with different levels of underlying social advantage/disadvantage—that is, wealth, power, or prestige. Inequities…put groups of people who are already socially disadvantaged (for example, by virtue of being poor, female, and/or members of a disenfranchised racial, ethnic, or religious group) at further disadvantage…. (Braveman & Gruskin, 2003, p. 254)

    Equity does not mean numerically equal. It does not mean, for example, that the same amount of transit should be available to all people. Why? For low income families, who spend 45% of their income on transportation, a change in routes or schedules can mean less time at home, and missing the bus because of inconsistent scheduling can mean losing a job. For these families, the costs and risks are higher than they are for me. I have direct access to two cars, know lots of people with access to cars who could help in a pinch, and won’t get fired if I’m late for work.

    Another reason to take hold of the word equity is that if we don’t clearly define and deploy the word, it will be usurped by those with the most power—usually those with the least interest in making better outcomes for people who historically and presently have the most at stake. It’s not just professionals or government officials who say “equity” but mean equal; it’s also community members involved in public participation processes. Depending on your implicit definition of equity, you are going to argue for very different design and planning approaches. [2] Ones that either benefit everyone or benefit a few.

    …we tend to define environmental design by its end products, not its processes. One challenge to creating equity-driven design strategies is that we tend to define environmental design by its end products, not its processes. We see parks, streets, sidewalks, plazas, housing, neighborhoods, and transit systems. We don’t see who had a say in the decisions, where the money came from, and which people the project does or doesn’t benefit. We can, however, train ourselves to see these “hidden” outcomes in the present by looking at examples from the past. Environmental design history can also show us how we got into this inequitable state.

    In the next chapter we will examine decades of design decisions that helped create today’s uneven playing field. The history of environmental design shows us how the physical qualities we see in our cities, combined with what we don’t see—the laws, policies, and processes—have allowed disparities to grow.

    …one of the biggest challenges of creating equitable cities is that we are afraid to talk about institutional and personal racism. Why do these disparities persist? Why is it so hard to achieve equity? I think one of the biggest challenges of creating equitable cities is that we are afraid to talk about personal and institutional racism. If we can’t talk about racism, we can’t talk about equity. By focusing on racial equity I don’t mean to ignore or downplay issues of gender, disability, or age. Instead I strive to get at the issues that have led to such shameful statistics in my own and many other U.S. communities. In Chapter 3 we will look at how personal and institutional racism work, why these discussions are so difficult, and how we can learn to get over our fears and engage in effective conversations.

    Next we will dig into some of the equity fields that are most related to environmental design, like health, information, and transportation. How is equity understood in these fields? How does each field relate to environmental design products and processes? What solutions have been developed in these fields to bring us to equity? Is there a role for designers in their work?

    Finally, we will bring our conversation back to design practice. How, given all that we have learned about equity, can environmental design help create equitable cities? Where are leverage points for generating more equitable outcomes? What is possible? What are the pitfalls? How does equity-driven design work differ from traditional design practice? How do we pay for it? How do we evaluate it? And most importantly, how do we sustain it over the long haul? Our cities didn’t become inequitable overnight. Remaking them as places of opportunity for everyone is going to be a long haul.

    Additional Resources

    Works Cited

    Braveman, P. & Gruskin, S. (2003). Defining equity in health. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 57(4), 254–258. Available at

    Dahmer, David. (2015, September 3). The harsh truth about progressive cities. Retrieved November 11, 2018 from

    Le, Vu. (2014, September 8). Is equity the new coconut water? Retrieved November 11, 2018, from

    Thompson, Derek. (2015). The miracle of Minneapolis. The Atlantic (2), 30–32. Available at


    1. See “The Harsh Truth about Progressive Cities” at
    2. For instance, researchers studying post-Katrina planning efforts found that some residents advocated for equity as a way of acknowledging and addressing ongoing patterns of discrimination which “left different groups of people with much less.” Others advocated for equity as equal and supported projects and policies that did nothing to address fundamental historic disparities. (Brand 2015), 249.