Architecture is a Social Justice Issue

By William Leddy

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Everyone deserves great design.

Despite the robust national discussion around equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in recent years, a wide gulf of understanding remains between prevailing architectural values and the making of environments that truly welcome everyone. Bridging this gulf requires a broader familiarity with inclusive, equity-based design thinking such as design justice (design collaboration with marginalized communities) and universal design (design that welcomes people of all abilities). The overarching goal of this thinking must be to evolve our professional ethos to creatively embrace equity, diversity, and inclusion as fundamental elements of architectural practice and design culture. Architecture in today’s pluralistic society should include everyone, to the greatest extent possible, regardless of race, ethnicity, physical or cognitive ability, age, or gender identity. Everyone deserves great design.

Excerpted from Practice with Purpose: A Guide to Mission Driven Design by LEDDY MAYTUM STACY ARCHITECTS (Oro Editions, 2022), by permission of the author and publisher.

Practice with Purpose: A Guide to Mission Driven Design, by William Leddy, LEDDY MAYTUM STACY ARCHITECTS

Practice with Purpose is about designing buildings beyond their property lines to address some of society’s most urgent challenges: the climate emergency, racial and ethnic injustice, chronic homelessness, educational crises, and the preservation of the embodied carbon and culture of existing buildings.

Learn more and purchase now.

At the societal scale, supporting EDI begins by making the design professions more inclusive and relevant to people from underserved communities whose voices have long been excluded. Now more than ever—as the accelerating climate emergency disproportionately impacts low-income populations, people of color, people with disabilities, and the elderly—our society desperately needs the most vulnerable among us to participate in creating a just, resilient future for all. Schools and professional organizations across the nation are working to promote more diverse student and young professional populations, but entrenched biases are slow to change, and much more can be done.

At the practice scale, advancing EDI starts with choosing whom we work with and what we work on. How can every environment we design creatively support equity, diversity, and inclusion? During the design process, this effort continues by engaging diverse community voices with an abiding curiosity, empathy, and respect. We are called upon to understand more deeply the individuals and communities our buildings serve. How can design help to remove physical, social, and psychological barriers to inclusion for all? How can our environments celebrate the rich diversity of the human condition over time?

Building a more just and equitable future might seem like an overwhelming challenge beyond the reach of individual influence. But small actions can propel cumulative progress. The works shown in Practice with Purpose: A Guide to Mission-Driven Design, including the excerpted Unsprawl case study Sweetwater Spectrum Community in Sonoma, California, offer examples of EDI-driven design that employ many of the strategies listed below. They are offered as a starting place for architects and designers who hope to champion change in daily practice

Design Culture

Early design education: Young people need to be introduced to the relevance of architecture and design at an early age. Architects can support middle school and high school design education through mentorship programs, open office tours, and summer internships.

Diverse perspectives: A broader spectrum of design talent should be nurtured and advanced. Design professions should recruit and mentor more young people from underrepresented communities.

Project selection: Whenever possible, select projects intentionally. While civic buildings, community centers, and affordable housing developments are obvious candidates for directly engaging EDI, every project type can provide opportunities to incorporate equitable design practices.

Design Process

Site selection: When the opportunity presents itself to participate in site selection, architects can support underserved communities by advocating for the location of affordable multifamily housing and other community-serving projects within these neighborhoods and along public transit routes.

Inclusive design: Inclusive design begins with a robust dialogue between architects and the community of future occupants and neighbors, extending from predesign through construction and post-occupancy. Meaningful community engagement requires diverse voices, careful listening, and collaborative design discourse.

Simple tools: EDI design does not have to be a difficult endeavor. Simple tools include online surveys, community design workshops, thorough documentation of these sessions, and follow-up to build consensus around design directions.

Design for All

Universal design: The term “universal design” was coined in the 1990s to refer to a set of nine design strategies that welcome everyone regardless of their abilities. In the 21st century, universal access—and the dignity it convey—should be embraced as an essential element of design excellence.

Arrival: The public face of a building is its greeting to the world. How does it communicate inclusion?

Serenity: People living on the autism spectrum require serene environments with clearly defined transition spaces from public to private domains. But places of serenity should be seen as a basic need for all people living in the frantic world we all inhabit.

Design for Health

Health and resilience: Everyone has a right to a healthy, resilient indoor environment—particularly small children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and communities of color, who are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of public health emergencies. Well-documented design strategies include selecting healthy, nontoxic materials, using advanced air filtration, and designing spaces that easily adapt to future climate and health emergencies.

Thermal comfort: Basic thermal comfort has long been a concern for people with disabilities and other disadvantaged communities. With extreme weather events on the rise, our buildings need to ensure healthy levels of thermal comfort for everyone.

Biophilic design: As the global climate emergency accelerates, establishing beneficial connections to the natural world will increasingly become an equity issue. Free access to the healing properties of nature is a fundamental human right that architecture should fully support.

The success of architecture should be measured less by its photographs on opening day than by the experiences of its occupants every day thereafter, or, as Alvar Aalto says, “It is not what a building looks like the day it opens but what it is like to live in thirty years later that matters.”



William LeddyWilliam Leddy, FAIA, is a founding principal of San Francisco-based LEDDY MAYTUM STACY ARCHITECTS (LMSA), the 2017 recipient of the national American Institute of Architects Firm Award. For over three decades he has been a national leader in the design of environments that promote social justice and advance urgent climate action. LMSA has received over 175 regional, national, and international design awards and has been recognized by numerous organizations including the American Institute of Architects, French Institute of Architects,  Norwegian Association of Architects, U.S. Department of Energy, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and National Building Museum. The firm is one of only three in the nation to have received eleven or more national AIA Committee on the Environment Top Ten Green Project awards. Leddy has lectured widely and served as visiting professor at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and the California College of the Arts, as the Howard A. Friedman Visiting Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Pietro Belluschi Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Oregon. A past chair of the national AIA Committee on the Environment Advisory Group, he currently serves as the AIA California Vice President of Climate Action, working to accelerate the decarbonization of the built environment in California and beyond. His firm’s new book, Practice with Purpose: A Guide to Mission Driven Design, was published in late 2022.

Read William Leddy’s Unsprawl case study on Sweetwater Spectrum Community in Sonoma, California, excerpted from Practice with Purpose.

Header photo, community design meeting in Oakland, California, courtesy LMSA. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.