Environmental Racism: Enforced by America, Upheld by Design

In college, I was the only black woman in my graduating architecture class. Although I received many awards and honors during those years, it was still unsettling to be “the only one.” Before college, I researched the diversity issues in design professions, but no reading prepares you for the racism, ostracization, and historical inaccuracies in the curriculum and day-to-day experiences. For this reason, I always sought opportunities outside of the classroom to explore how design could be used to help communities and people that looked like me. Many of these pursuits challenged the notion that good design is reserved for the elite few that can afford it, and explored how design could be used to advance social and environmental justice.


Across the country, there are community outcries for clean air, clean water, and clean soil. On the west coast, residents of the South Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts are afraid to let their children play outside because of lead contamination risks from living on a former industrial site. In the south, Gordon Plaza residents in the ninth ward of New Orleans continue to demand relocation from the toxic landfill that they were sold homes on by the city. On the east coast, residents of the Mott Haven neighborhood in the South Bronx suffer some of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the United States because of air pollution. Typically, mainstream media depicts these stories as isolated incidents, but they are not.


Environmental health concerns disproportionately impact low-income residents, black people, and other communities of color. Historically, these communities have been the target of discriminatory environmental practices, which forces them to live and work on and near some of the most hazardous land areas. While some of these environmental practices are illegal (such as Redlining, which was a decades long federal legislation that racially segregated American cities) their intentions are upheld by the lack of access and diversity in design professions (among other factors).


In the US, only 0.4% of licensed architects are black women, and there are similar discrepancies in urban planning and landscape architecture. When we think of the different aspects of our built environment — such as cities, buildings, roads, and parks — the leaders involved in designing and deciding what happens in these spaces is (and has been) largely white. Essentially, there are a lot of decisions being made about our communities, but not with us.

This imbalance in leadership does not reflect the diversity in our communities and continues to have harmful impacts on those that don’t identify as the majority.

Recognition of these injustices led to the creation of my company WATER BLOCK, an urban design studio that addresses environmental and climate risks in neighborhoods through design, community engagement, and planning. WATER BLOCK was created out of necessity, and the unyielding belief that the decisions made about our built environment should be community driven. In practice, WATER BLOCK highlights the importance of varying perspectives in design work and provides a space for communities to build their own capacity to address challenges in their neighborhoods. WATER BLOCK Kids is the youth arm of our company and aims to educate the next generation of leaders about design and the environment.


There are many ways to take action, and we all play a part in deciding what lies ahead. So, show up in ways that matter: call city council members about issues in your neighborhood; attend meetings for nearby design and community projects; support organizations advocating for healthier communities and environmental justice; learn about design and environmental professions; start conversations with friends and family; create space for voices and narratives that are often excluded; vote in national and local elections! It’s up to us to create a future where we can thrive in  — a future that celebrates and reinforces that we deserve to be here.

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Atianna Cordova

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