Green, Black and brown
Architects are often early adopters of technology and idea.
The industry has long championed green design, such that a building's energy performance is now as important as the way it looks. Architects are also inspired by social movements and look for ways to bake things like racial justice and accessibility rights into the built environment.
At a recent forum held by the Oregon Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, a panel of speakers including the Portland Clean Energy Fund, Shift/Build, the City of Portland, and ZGF Architects, gave guidance to 59 other architects via a Zoom meeting. The panel members provided clear advice on how they try to be inclusive in their work.
The theme was creating space for inclusive and sustainable communities. Speakers talked about what the City of Portland is doing to ensure sustainable communities are available for all.
The upshot was, communities of color can benefit from being listened to in the public engagement process, and equity in hiring can also benefit them.
Sam Baraso is the program manager at the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF), which tries to fund green startups. After Measure 26-201 passed in November 2018, PCEF will bring $44-61 million in new revenue for green jobs and healthy homes for all Portlanders.
In Baraso's words, the Portland Clean Energy Fund is a fund that invests in climate action that advances racial and social justice. "It's arguably this is the nation's first Climate Fund created and led by communities of color."
However, he added, "The reality is Portland's been patting itself on the back for a long time because we're an incredibly green city. And the reality around that green city is that it has not been green for many of the folks within our community, particularly low-income folks, as well as people of color."
Baraso said that while the money is for investing in buildings, 20% to 25% will go toward workforce and contractor development.
"It's about diversifying those that are working on these projects, as well as the contractors that are getting to lead these projects."
The PCEF helps lower the energy bills of housing projects that have a lot of deferred maintenance.
PCEF puts out webinars every week around the RFPs, and the first set of applications are due Nov. 16, with the first set of awards in February 2021.
Baraso expects PCEF to see projects such as affordable housing with solar, or energy-efficiency retrofits, workforce development and training for minorities, "and even some programming for the residents to help them understand what that energy conservation looks like."
Corridors of power
Nolan Lienhart is a Principal and Director of Planning & Urban Design for ZGF Architects. He talked about Portland's Broadway Corridor Framework Plan, a massive redevelopment around the Post Office and Union Station in the Pearl District.
As part of the 2035 Central City plan, the city anticipates about 20,000 new households and 40,000 to 42,000 new jobs in the central city. The 30 acre Broadway Corridor could absorb 10% of that.
Lienhart said that in a public-private partnership, income from the sale of the land could be spent on the project's vision, which is equitable public benefits, according to Prosper Portland.
Jobs from demolition and environmental remediation, to maintaining the presence of the existing retail, post office, delivery of open space, and streets can be staffed equitably by partnering with the right groups.
The master plan design has been approved. It includes open spaces and greenways for bikes and pedestrians, as well as an inviting Johnson Street.
"The steering committee generated the guiding principles which were then used for selection of a development advisor, which is Continuum out of Denver, Colorado," Lienhart said.
One of ZGF's principles for equitable design is elevating the voices of underrepresented groups. The firm has chosen to "provide public spaces to just be, not necessarily spaces that feel like you need a specific reason to be there or you have to buy something to be there." That includes roadside seating that is not all run by restaurants.
Pioneer Courthouse Square was an inspiration because it is both free and managed.
ZGF Architects also wants buildings that can accommodate businesses serving low-income customers. They asked people about Director Park, and they said they avoid it because they can't afford the food at Elephant's Deli.
The firm met people where they are at and held a pop-up event outside the North Portland library on Killingsworth Street, talking to whoever was passing.
They had 10 different focus groups with groups that tend to be underrepresented in the planning processes.
"We had entire focus groups in Spanish and Russian. It was really important to get people who might not otherwise feel included in the process."
Meetings about meetings
The AIA discussion made it clear that there is a lot of bureaucracy in architecture and planning. The job is as much about managing people, in focus groups and stakeholder meetings, as it is about designing good-looking buildings.
Vinh Mason is a senior Energy Policy Advisor at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and a member of the City of Portland's Build/Shift ("building community, shifting power") team.
Portland is one of 12 cities nationwide prioritizing racial equity by transforming the bureau into an anti-racist organization as a bureau. The twin goals were increasing racial equity and zero-carbon building. "This quarter, we flipped and decided to increase racial equity first."
In the past, Mason said paying people to ask people of color for their input on development projects, then ignoring it, tokenized them.
"What we really wanted to do is flip that to 'How do we involve and elevate voices of people of color and be more collaborative in the decision making?' That's where the real power is, in decision making," Mason said.
The 12 cities now have equity metrics.
"In trying to get to a zero carbon building sector, where do we balance racial equity?" he asked.
One issue was gentrification and displacement, where people of color usually make way for better-paid white people.
They did an economic study that showed that "a winter utility heating bill can be the number one reason that leads to displacement throughout the heating season."
They mapped East and North Portland for displacement and energy cost burden (the proportion of your income that is spent on your utility energy bills) and found a match.
"It's a conversation starter, but we needed more information — the lived experience," he said. For that, they did participatory action research, meeting the public at the June Key Delta Community Center (which was founded by a black sorority), which is considered a comfortable black and brown space.
"Employees of the City of Portland really had to hear a lot of criticism of the previous history of how we did community engagement. There had already been enough whiteness in the planning for climate action in the past."
(To get a sense of this work, see the Zero Energy Ready Oregon's virtual workshops, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Sustainable Building Industry online on Oct. 23 and Nov. 6.
People were very mistrustful of the City because, although they had been consulted in the past, their ideas were rarely put into practice.
Mason organized a mock city council meeting to gather ideas. He learned that often, when energy efficiency work is completed, landlords keep the savings and pass the costs along to the tenants by raising rents.
"We have a lot of data at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, but we don't know a lot about lived experience," said Mason.
A video of the panel discussion, moderated by Joseph Gallivan, can be seen online.
The third annual Sustainable Building Week runs for two weeks and ends on Oct. 23.
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