Social justice--it's a topic of conversation throughout the green building industry, but what does it mean, exactly? And how does it relate to buildings?
I worked with the following definition while writing this month's feature article
Social justice ensures that all people have the ability to fulfill their basic needs and pursue social, economic, and personal fulfillment and success.
It's a working definition, and is open to change and interpretation, but I had to start somewhere. So what does this mean for buildings? Well, it means that architects have the opportunity to foster social justice with every building they design, through location, transportation access, public spaces, materials, indoor amenities, and construction labor practices.
As I researched this article, I began to see that social justice and environmental performance often go hand in hand. Putting an office building in the middle of nowhere means that everyone has to commute to it, raising their carbon footprint. This commute is hardest for those who have the least money and those who rely on public transit--often effectively disqualifying them from jobs at that building.
Put the same building in an urban infill location, and suddenly you have access to transit and jobs closer to where many people live. Maybe you put retail on the ground floor, creating more jobs and adding to the amenities of the neighborhood.
Location is a big change, and often determined well before the design team comes to the project. But small changes can make a big difference to social justice. Keep the janitorial offices out of the basement and provide them with windows, and you have spatial equity within the building. Make the lobby a place for monthly public art openings, and you've got a cultural attraction. Allow for a public courtyard with benches and tables, and you mitigate the urban heat island effect and make the building more welcoming.
It's easy to think of social justice as applicable only in those projects designed for underserved communities: affordable housing, nonprofit organizations, and homeless shelters, for example. But every design decision in every building has an impact on the social fabric of a community--making that impact conscious and positive is what social justice is all about.
(Image: Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University)