In the summer of 2007, I became planning director of Newark, New Jersey. Among many of the meetings I attended during my first few weeks, one involved planning the ceremonies marking the commemoration of the 1967 riots. Event planning included, a march, guest speakers and the dedication of a plaque at the police precinct where the incident as initiated. Known as “civil unrest” to some and “civil disobedience” to others, the disturbances of the summer of 1967 in Newark were deeply rooted in rising racial tensions, economic inequities, and lopsided political representation – both by race and gender.
I remember pondering for several days afterwards why a community felt the need to acknowledge this socially and environmentally devastating event in such a public and stately manner. For example, I had not known Chicago, my hometown, to mark the anniversary of the 1968 riots in Grant Park, or Boston to acknowledge the place and time when fellow architect and African American, Ted Landsmark, was stabbed with a pointed pole carrying the American flag.
As the weeks and months progressed, I obviously began to dive deeper into the content of my mission as planning director, which was a help shape a vision for the city’s revitalization. A large part of this task involved revising the city’s comprehensive master plan. Analyzing the city’s current conditions, several indicators rose to become critical to my work:
A brief snapshot of Newark in 2007 includes a city of 281,000 people -- 51% are women; 25% are children under 18 and 31% of those children live in extreme poverty. Only 35% of Newark residents have a high school diploma and almost 50% of families are single female-headed households with children
Newark has an employment crisis that serves as a major barrier to household prosperity with a 15% unemployment rate and 40% of its eligible adults not participating in the City’s labor force. 75% of the workforce commutes outside the city for work yet 40% of residents do not own a car.
70% of Newark has less than 5% tree canopy; and obesity is reported in 34% of Newark residents. Over $600 million in retail spending is lost to surrounding cities because of a lack of quality shopping options, and over 30% of households spend nearly 50% of their family income on housing.
It should be easy to see through these demographics how the lives of half of the city’s households – headed by women - are shaped by design and urban policy interventions that have not contributed to healthy and sustainable lifestyles.
CHANGING ROLE OF ARCHITECTS AND WOMEN IN ARCHITECTURE
The image overhead is from a 1971 plan of Newark by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It shows a before and after condition of the central ward neighborhood where the 1967 civil unrest took place. I was immediately drawn to the young woman in the foreground in both images - pregnant in the image of blight on the left, and walking with her newborn in the image of redevelopment on the right.
These images illustrate what I'd like to add to the dialogue this afternoon as the dual meaning of women IN architecture. One meaning requires us to examine how women inhabit architecture - the impact of architecture, broadly defined to include planning, urban design, landscape and sustainability, on the lives of women.
In the space between when these architectural renderings and today, we have allowed four generations of American families to live in the same concentrated and contested spaces of social and economic isolation, not just in Newark, but in many cities across the country. Similarly, we have continued to create physical remedies to address inner city decline separate from meaningful strategies that also address the contemporary social and cultural dynamics that are now so finely intertwined with space and place. And in the urban core of American cities, women are the most affected.
Can (or should) women as designers and policy makers become more proactive in addressing the specific needs of this large constituency? Can our architecture produce new housing typologies that accommodate the needs of a working mother? Can our planning producing zoning codes that allow for the colocation of uses that reduce the number of car or public transit trips a single mom has to make in a week? Can our public realm be designed to facilitate stronger social capital and civic cohesion in neighborhoods such that children can play on their block and supervision is shared among community members?
My work with Newark’s master plan, Shifting Forward 2025, proposed a sustainable urban restoration model, where at the scale of the neighborhood, a closed loop system of inter-related social, economic, environmental and spatial targets and measures can be established.
The plan positions Newark to put behind the “cycle of disinvestment” that has plagued it for the last 50 years to order to advance to a “cycle of success”. IN short, our strategies included:
Increasing FAMILY WEALTH by creating opportunities or more in-town jobs.
Increasing FAMILY HEALTH by improving sub-standard housing, community services and amenities and access to recreation; and
Increasing FAMILY CHOICE by ensuring expanded options for better food, jobs, housing, education and safety.
A second interpretation of women in architecture involves our role in the creation of architecture. There are 105,132 architects in the US. 24% are women and I must go further to point out that only 279 are African American according to the University of Cincinnati’s 2010 directory of African American Architect. So, only a tenth of a percent of the female population are shaping the environments that nearly half of us inhabit.
Let me pause for just a little good news. Nearly half of the student body in
architecture schools today are women, changed from the mid eighties when I was one of eight female students in a class of 47.
So what is it about architecture that keeps women away? Is it salary; the long working hours; active discouragement; and/or public recognition versus inaccurate represents of our role in the workplace.
A colleague recently told me a female student came to him conflicted because another professor had just told her that she would not be able to have a demanding career and a family at the same time. The professor was female. Are these still the limits we are putting upon our daughters and ourselves?
I would submit that one of the solutions to opening the door of architecture to women begin by redefining the perception of architecture - what it includes, how it is practiced, how its taught and who it serves. I have a Bachelors of Architecture from the University of Notre Dame, became licensed in the state of Illinois, have held city planning director positions in two major cities, and now hold the distinguished position of Professor of Architecture at the City College of New York.
Now, I firmly decided I wanted to be an architect at the age of 14, and I am certain no one could have explained to me the range of options that lay before me or that I would end up with the career I have been fortunate to have.
But, now I can be that voice. My career path is an example of how women in architecture can have an extraordinary reach and influence in shaping the design our cities.