The legacy of Whitney M. Young Jr.: Participatory community design

Whitney Young, MLK, LBJ

Martin Luther King Jr., President B. Lyndon Johnson, and Whitney M. Young Jr in the oval office

This essay is one of a series commemorating the 50-year anniversary of Whitney Young Jr.’s remarks at the 1968 AIA Convention in Portland. Visit our page honoring this historic speech to read more.

For AIA and the profession, one of the most far-reaching outcomes of the civil rights movement was the rise of participatory design. The civil unrest of the ‘60s injected a new and urgent vitality into local democracy. Citizens demanded a role in the shaping of their communities.

As the executive director of the National Urban League, Whitney Young was keenly aware of the marginalized, especially the urban poor. Having laid bare the profession’s glaring lack of diversity, Young turned to the role of architects in the “renewal” projects that were tearing apart America’s cities.

In the panel discussion that followed his presentation at the 1968 Convention, Young got to the heart of why even the best intended urban renewal schemes were doomed to fail. There were architects who felt the same sense of urgency. Pioneering professionals such as Jules Gregory and Max Bond challenged the profession to ask those who lived in inner cities what their perceptions and goals were. Positive change, they believed, could not be imposed from above. It had to be inclusive. It had to be generated from within the community.

Understandably, Young was not fully aware of the countercurrent running against the prevailing top-down urban planning strategies, because these architects were working in isolation. This was beginning to change in the ‘60s with the rise nationally of the community design center movement, and within AIA through a new idea that came from an unexpected quarter.

In early 1967, James Bell, president of the Rapid City, South Dakota, Chamber of Commerce, was in Washington. Having some time on his hands, he dropped by AIA to visit with Andy Euston, then the AIA’s Director of Urban Programs. Was there something, Bell asked, architects could do to help Rapid City with some serious problems?

Out of that conversation, Jules Gregory, FAIA, suggested that a small group of experienced professionals go to Rapid City as volunteers and confer with local government officials and citizens on site. That was the beginning of the AIA’s Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team program (R/UDAT).

Since the formation of that first team, AIA’s Centers for Communities by Design has provided over 200 localities with pro bono design assistance and community-driven planning processes. Paired with the programs of components, cities, universities, and other organizations that have replicated similar models, the number of communities improved climbs to over 1000. What they share in common is an inclusionary approach to building community by design.

The civil rights movement gave impetus to an inclusive approach that continues to enrich communities large and small. Whitney Young’s call for the architectural profession to give marginalized citizens a voice in shaping their own destinies came at a uniquely auspicious time when there was a small group of architects prepared to respond to his challenge. Together, they transformed the future of architecture and urban design.

AIA is dedicated to bringing architects and communities together through our public awareness campaign, Blueprint for Better. AIA is also committed to broadening equity, diversity, and inclusion to create a stronger profession and promote Equity in Architecture. AIA seeks examine and support a diverse workforce through initiatives such as the  Diversity Recognition Program and Diversity in the Profession of Architecture Survey and build a stronger pipeline through K-12, Higher Education, and Emerging Professionals programs.

Image credits

Whitney Young, MLK, LBJ

Library of Congress

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