Reflections on Design and Social Justice

By Michael R. Davis FAIA posted 09-23-2020 03:13 PM


We love to tell stories about how design assistance teams from the AIA’s Communities by Design use the participatory design process to help communities see through intractable problems or find better ways to imagine their futures. But we – the people who participate in these service grants – often come out with life-changing lessons of our own. This truly happened to me on the AIA SDAT in West Louisville, Kentucky, in 2015.

Our team was brought to Louisville by Louisville Central Community Centers, Inc, a faith-based non-profit in Russell, a neighborhood in the heart of West Louisville. Also known as Louisville “West of Ninth”, the several neighborhoods that made up West Louisville are predominantly African American but (at the time of the project) were experiencing much higher levels of unemployment, crime, property vacancy and much lower net worth per household than the rest of the city. While urban neighborhoods east of Ninth Street like Museum Row, “NULU”, Baxter Avenue and Bardstown Road were seeing development and business opportunities flourish, the West of Ninth neighborhoods remained blighted. Our team’s assignment was to find a way to connect what was the once-vibrant “Little Harlem” of the 1940’s (and childhood home of Muhammad Ali) across Ninth Street to the economic growth of the rest of Downtown Louisville.

What we came to understand was that Ninth Street – a divided six-lane surface road with a huge planted median and bermed shoulders – was more than just an unfortunate obstacle to growth and tourism. It was an intentional barrier . . . a barrier of extra-legal segregation.

As late as the mid-1950’s 9th Street was one of a series of city streets that was part of Louisville’s orthogonal grid system. In 1969, 9th Street was re-designed as an off-ramp from Interstate 64 to ostensibly create better vehicular access to Downtown. In addition, several properties east of 9th Street were re-planned under the umbrella of “urban renewal” for courthouses, parking garages, police stations, and other government office buildings, essentially removing these sites from private ownership and eliminating street-level commercial uses. Given the timing of these land use decisions – very shortly after the passage of the 1964 Civil rights Act and the erstwhile end of “Jim Crow” laws – we came to realize that the hypersegregation caused by these extra-legal barriers was intentional. Even though there were no zoning acts or commercial lending practices on the books to support these actions, the pre-existing racial division of this municipality had been solidified by infrastructure.


As a late-career white male design practitioner from the Northeastern United States, this project was my introduction to institutionalized racism. It changed the way I thought about urban environments and gave me real insight into the relationship between design and social justice. I was a firm believer in the participatory design process before my West Louisville SDAT . . . but I now have an even greater understanding about what participatory design is for.

To learn more about the Louisville SDAT process, watch the short video below or read the full project report